The Effort to Understand, the Effort to be Understood


One summer, exactly ten years ago, I visited the iron bridge over the River Kwai in the northern Thai province of Kanchanaburi, the bridge that is popularly known as the “bridge over the battlefield”. The bridge over the River Kwai is a bridge on the Thai-Burma railway, which was built by Allied prisoners-of-war and local people who were forced by the Japanese army to work on its construction during the Second World War; the construction work gave rise to a great many victims and the bridge itself became famous as the result of a movie. Now it is a famous spot visited by travelers from across the globe and it is always bustling with Japanese tourists and souvenir stalls. However, I wonder if you know that there is a cemetery right next to the bridge, in which many of the victims are buried.

Although I was visiting as a tourist, I knew about the origin of the cemetery from movies and novels. I felt ashamed to just pass right by it, so in an unobtrusive corner of the graveyard I laid a small bunch of flowers and bowed in silence. Just then, I heard someone behind me ask, “Are you Japanese?” When I turned around, surprised, a lady advanced in years was nodding at me with a kindly smile. The people around who seemed to be members of the same family were also all regarding me with warm gazes. I wondered whether they were bereaved relatives. Feeling that I could not express anything at all, I bowed to them and left that place – even now, I cannot forget that moment.

That summer, I accompanied a delegation of representatives of the Chinese Communist Party visiting Japan and during the trip, we visited Hiroshima. The aim was to see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the surrounding area. With the intention of just showing them around a World Heritage site, we went to the Peace Memorial Park, but an unexpected sight met my eyes. They laid a big bouquet of flowers at the memorial for the victims of the atomic bomb and they all bowed deeply. I was surprised. They may well have known that it was a World Heritage site, but wasn’t Hiroshima just a tourist spot for foreigners? I just watched dumbfounded as, without being forced by anyone or watched by anyone, they offered a silent prayer under the hot midsummer sunshine.

Right then, in the gazes of the elderly people who had gathered there to console the souls of the dead, I felt the same kindness that I had once experienced in Thailand. In addition, when a Chinese youngster said to me, “Japanese people also experienced terrible suffering here, didn’t they?”, I felt a little ashamed that I had only been thinking about showing them around a World Heritage site.

This year, there has again been a flurry of mass media attention focused on such matters as shrine visits, responsibility for the war and Asian diplomacy, with various arguments and opinions being put forward. Everyone has their own opinion and I believe that it is important to discuss things, but I do not intend to propose this here. All I wish to say is that I am keenly aware of the necessity of understanding each other.

Today – the day on which I took up my pen with the intention of writing my article for September – is August 15th. At the end of a day on which the Prime Minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine has dominated the news, I am writing while watching the NHK discussion program “The Future of Japan”. Last year, I had the opportunity to appear on this program, and I gave my opinion on the subject of Yasukuni Shrine and history textbooks. As the final question, the presenter asked me to sum up future relations with Asia in a few words. Without intending to think profoundly, I answered, “the effort to understand and the effort to be understood”. I still feel that these are good words, if I do say so myself.

[Translated by ERINA]