The Hidden Ingredient of Japan’s Post-War Miracle
by Yukika Sohma and Fujiko Hara
Born in 1912, founder of the Japan Association for Aid and Relief, and Japan’s first English/Japanese simultaneous interpreter, Yukika Sohma is now over 90. She still travels around the world as vice-chair of the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation and chair of the Japan-Korea Women's Friendship Association. She is the third daughter of Yukio Ozaki, a well-known liberal politician known as ‘kensei no kami’ or ‘the god of constitutional government’ in Japan.
Fujiko Hara has been an interpreter and teacher of interpreting for over twenty-five years. She is a member of AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters). Her work has included G7 Economic Summits, Interaction Council meetings of former heads of state and government, the World Economic Forum, and top-level conferences and negotiations worldwide in all major fields. She is a managing director of the Ozaki Yukio Memorial Foundation and the grand-daughter of Yukio Ozaki, who when Mayor of Tokyo presented the Japanese flowering cherry trees to Washington, DC.
SHINZO Abe, a grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, is the first prime minister of Japan to have been born after the Second World War. As there are fewer and fewer people who have lived through the war years and the challenging search for peace that has led to the world we know today, Yukika Sohma believes she has a responsibility to share her experience.
For Japan, finding a respectable place and playing a responsible role among the family of nations has been the most important item on the national agenda since the country’s doors were opened after two hundred years of seclusion. The first stage of the new government’s efforts was focused on developing a national industry and building the armed forces, emulating the post-industrial revolutionary marvels of the West, in order to be accepted as a ‘modern nation’ and defend the country from encroaching colonialism. After achieving these first objectives in an amazingly short span of time, the military soon invaded and defeated China (1894-5), Japan’s erstwhile mentor, and thrust her presence upon a sceptical world by vanquishing Imperial Russia (1904-5). From that time onwards the triumphant militarists held the people and the nascent political system hostage and through reckless adventurism brought unprecedented defeat. In less than one hundred years after fumbling to find its place in the global community, Japanese militarists had brought misery and destruction on its people and those in the neighbouring countries.
Japan had to start all over again. The rebuilding of the war-torn nation could only come by finding a path to reconciliation. And rebuilding diplomatic relations was all about mending personal ties. In fact, Japan’s successful economic rehabilitation began with a handful of citizens and politicians who were inspired to act as statesmen, apologising sincerely for their country’s past. This time it was Frank Buchman, an American, who extended his hand to help the Japanese make amends for the past. For his creative initiative the Japanese government in 1955 presented Frank Buchman with the Second Class Order of the Rising Sun. Of this same work the French statesman and former Prime Minister, the late Robert Schuman said to Buchman at the time of the Peace Treaty in San Francisco in September 1951, “You made peace with Japan before we did”.
The Second World War, the costliest war in history, ended officially on 2 September 1945. In June 1948, nine Japanese civilians left Japan to attend an MRA meeting held in Los Angeles at the invitation of Dr Buchman. They were the first civilians to leave the country by special permission of the occupation forces. Among them were Takasumi and Hideko Mitsui, and Yukika and her husband Yasutane Sohma. They accepted the invitation, realising that while the New Constitution adopted in 1946 gave the Japanese a democratic system, the spirit was missing that would enable it to function. The San Francisco Peace Treaty that would bring Japan back into the family of nations was still years away.
Once the group from Japan was in the United States some Americans apologised for the atomic and hydrogen bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yukika was gratified to hear this. It was comforting to feel that one was a victim and others perpetrators. That year the Sohmas went on to Europe after the Mitsuis returned to Japan. There Yukika had a shock. She was told the British delegation had refused to be present at a meeting where she and Yasu were present. Yukika asked why and was told of the experiences the British prisoners of war had in Japanese camps in Burma. Governments often hide embarrassing truths from their citizens. This time it was Yukika’s turn to face the truth and apologise. These were sobering but healing days.
Buchman generously invited seventy Japanese in 1949 and another seventy-five in 1950 to attend MRA meetings in the US and Europe, where he introduced them to members of his big world family.
Reconciliation—Diplomacy of the Humble Heart
It was the autumn of 1957, and Mr Nobusuke Kishi, who had been sworn in as Prime Minister earlier in the year, was scheduled to go on a seven nation tour of Southeast Asia as well as Australia and New Zealand. Most of these countries had yet to make peace with Japan. As a maritime nation with few natural resources there was a pressing need for Japan to open trading relations with other countries to earn foreign exchange.
Two women, Shidzue Kato and Yukika Sohma, who had accepted Buchman’s challenge to live by the principle of ‘what is right’ rather than ‘who is right’, felt strongly the need to atone for the wrongs committed by the Japanese military. Before trying to do business this stain on the country’s honour had to be acknowledged and apologised for. Shidzue Kato, a popular politician from the Japan Socialist Party who took up the issue in the House of Representatives inquired of Kishi, who was about to embark on his tour of the Asian countries, if he was prepared to do this, which drew a positive response from the premier.
The first port of call was the Philippines, where Mr Kishi’s apology for the Japanese atrocities was received with positive surprise by the national assembly. The late President Magsaysay, who had been killed in an air accident a few months before, had earlier invited the international delegation of MRA to visit his country. Yukika was part of the group and recalled how the delegation was warmly received, with a beautiful lei being offered to each visitor except the Japanese. She felt numbed by the bitterness and hatred in the cool stares of their hosts.
Mr Kishi’s diplomacy of reconciliation proved successful in Australia as well. The prime minister had been invited to address the two houses of Parliament, but the Australian veterans’ association was highly critical. Mr Kishi noted in his memoirs that he felt the cold and hostile atmosphere transform to one of acceptance and then to warm trust as his humble apology was interpreted. “As Prime Minister,” he wrote, “I intended to visit the United States. Before doing so, however, I felt I needed to visit Southeast Asia first so that I could negotiate on behalf of Japan speaking for Asia rather than as an isolated country…I made a point to apologise for Japan’s wartime wrongs and urge my hosts to work hand in hand with us for peace and prosperity.” Mr Kishi also visited Burma and apologised there, too, in his capacity as prime minister. These bold initiatives were not well known in Japan but the media gave prominence to them wherever Mr Kishi visited. Yukika recalls how in this way he earned unwavering trust among the Asians.
In 1965, the Asian Pacific Parliamentarians Union (APPU) was established on the initiative of Mr Kishi and Mr Saburo Chiba, also a member of the House of Representatives. Japan by then had recovered to the extent that its government was able to offer official development assistance (ODA) to Asian countries. Mr Chiba had felt that relationships with these were still not quite right and that something was amiss. Dr Buchman learned about this and suggested creating an organisation of parliamentarians who would meet regularly to discuss how they could complement intergovernmental relations. Its five founding member nations were Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan China and Japan. The organisation was renamed The Asia Pacific Parliamentarians Union in 1980 and draws its membership from twenty-three countries and regions. Yukika interpreted for the Union until 1975 when her daughter took over from her. Yukika recalls that there were many parliamentarians who were more concerned for their country’s future than their personal ambitions.