Adam Jonas Horowitz
Teacher and Documentary Filmmaker
Santa Fe, New Mexico
2017 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour Participant
The 2017 Peace and Reconciliation Study Tour was both an educational and emotional tour de force that has challenged my understanding, emotions, and perspectives in ways that I will be grappling with for the rest of my life. As a documentary filmmaker working on the subject of WWII Japanese War Crimes for several years, I already had an extensive academic background in the subject before embarking on this journey. However, I had never been to China before, and to actually visit many of these infamous sites and to meet these elderly war survivors provided a depth of experiential knowledge that is well beyond academic study, which is difficult to put into words.
One early, and particularly powerful example of this on the tour came when our bus first drove into the city of Nanjing, entering the city through one of the iconic and ancient three-arched stone and brick gateways into the city. We were in a traffic jam as we approached the central arch of the old brick and stone gate, and as we drove slowly through the opening I felt as if I was going back in time. I had seen various old black and white newsreels, and black and white photographs of the gates of Nanjing that were recorded by the Japanese army shortly after their capture of the city in late 1937, which showed lines of tanks and soldiers marching into the severely bomb damaged city. I immediately recognized the iconic gate, but it was now in color and part of an actual and personal living experience, and I struggled to unite in my mind’s eye, the simultaneous similarity, and incongruity of these vintage graphic images and my living perceptions.
Later that afternoon, we went to Nanking Normal University, also known as Ginling College, and I was again combining my academic history of the site, with the enormous emotion of actually being there and finding that the same buildings were still there, the beautiful structures I had seen in photographs taken in in 1937 and 1938, when Minnie Vautrin waged an impossible, heroic struggle to protect young Chinese girls from the murderous and rapacious Japanese soldiers. The beautiful and peaceful site still seemed to hold the ghosts of so many, and it was surreal to see students nonchalantly and peacefully riding their bikes through one of the main entrance gates.
The ghosts multiplied when we visited the “Memorial Hall to the Victims of the Nanking Massacre by Japanese Invaders.” This museum and memorial were moving, fascinating, and disturbing. Inside of the museum, amidst the enormous crowd of visitors, I was surprised and shocked to see how many small children had been brought there by their parents, and I wondered what these many small children would think, feel, and understand about these images, and remains of outrageous atrocity. I was shocked and dumbfounded when I saw the half-excavated giant pits in the ground with the exposed skeletons of hundreds of victims of massacre. I have never seen a massacre site and burial ground exposed and left in-situ in this manner, and indeed it was an experience I will never forget.
Meeting an actual survivor of the Nanjing Massacre there at the memorial brought home the fact that these were all recent events, beyond the written accounts and grainy, black and white photographs and newsreels. Similarly, it was incredibly meaningful to also meet actual survivors of Japanese bio-warfare atrocities, especially the long suffering victim of “rotten-leg syndrome,” which was so very disturbing and again reinforced the fact that all of these events were recent. And that there are still many victims and survivors waiting for apologies, and some form of justice from the Government of Japan.
I was especially moved and amazed to meet some of the war survivors, including slave laborers, in Beijing, along with the courageous attorney fighting a heroic, multi-decade battle for justice on their behalf. I was able to meet with Mr. Gao again that evening and the next day, and recorded his heartbreaking and heroic story of how he, and his mother, both lost their arms in a Japanese bombing, and his lifelong struggles as a result. I was inspired and amazed as well by his courage and tenacity to be the first Chinese war victim to sue the Japanese government back in 1992, and how he has never given up his quest for justice in the Japanese Courts.
Going to the site of Unit 731 in Harbin was a horrific experience that reminded me of my prior visits to places like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and even the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia. The horror of what took place there was palpable, and gave me a new and deep understanding of a place that I knew only from books and grainy photographs. Seeing the extent of the enormous, widespread ruins that the Japanese tried, but failed, to eradicate was irrefutable proof of Unit 731 leaders’ attempts to cover up and eliminate the evidence of their war crimes.
The documentary evidence of Japanese bio-warfare experiments and live vivisection on innocent men, women, and children was shocking, and left nothing to the imagination regarding their murderous premeditation. Also disturbing was the fact that many of the original documents displayed at the museum at Unit 731 had U.S. government markings as “Top Secret”, along with some added English translations from the U.S. Government’s own bio-warfare scientists and facilities at Fort Detrick, Maryland, who had obtained these documents directly, and secretly from Unit 731 leader Shiro Ishii and other Japanese wartime scientist/murderers. The American government had given Ishii and his cohorts immunity from prosecution in exchange for their horrific data, in one of the darkest, and most evil Faustian bargains in modern political history, and it was all made explicit by the hundreds of original secret documents on display at the museum.
The U.S. cover-up and protection of Unit 731 perpetrators also brought to mind the U.S. cover-up and protection of the highest level of Japanese war criminals including the Emperor Hirohito himself, who was the center piece and symbol of the U.S. post-war reconstruction and ‘rehabilitation’ of Japan, guided at the highest levels in Washington to gain political advantage over both China and the Soviet Union in the new, and burgeoning Cold War. The enormity of the evidence displayed at 731, and the outrageous complicity of the U.S. government to cover all this up was for me, as an American, difficult to stomach. I thought about a series of policy decisions by the U.S. toward China and Japan in the last 70 years that invariably bolstered Japanese military and economic power against China, at the expense of both accurate history and justice. One example is the previously mentioned secret agreement on Unit 731. Another example is the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty which was orchestrated by the U.S. and supposed to be the official treaty ending WWII with Japan, but China, the country that suffered the most from the war with Japan, was excluded from the peace negotiations.
Overall, the experience of participating in NJ-Alpha “Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour” provided background and answers to many questions I had about the war, and also inspired so many more new questions than it answered: factual and historical questions, and also philosophic and spiritual questions. In addressing some of these larger, and mostly unanswerable philosophic questions, I remember a quote from Sir William Golding, the Nobel Prize winning author of “Lord of the Flies,” and other books. Wrote Mr. Golding,
“I had discovered what one man could do to another. I am not talking of one man killing another with a gun, or dropping a bomb on him or blowing him up or torpedoing him. I am thinking of the vileness beyond all words that went on, year after year, in the totalitarian states…They were done, skillfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilization behind them, to beings of their own kind. I do not want to elaborate this… Anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head. ”
And so, where to go with all this? I have been wrestling with these issues for literally a lifetime. I had relatives who died in the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, and also some relatives who survived that war and shared stories of unimaginable horror with me since I was a child. My father was in the U.S. Air Force during WWII, as a navigator on a B-29 bomber in the Pacific theater long before I was born. I knew him only as a legal scholar, and advocate of justice, civil rights and the rule of law. Late in his life he finally told me just a few war stories, and said that he and his bomber crew flew many times over the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just after the war. I asked him what went through his mind, and he answered without hesitation, “Thank god for the atomic bomb.” I was surprised, and asked why. He said that, at the age of 22, he fully expected to be killed in the coming invasion of Japan, and the atom bomb had probably saved his life. And so I gained a different, more complex and highly personal perspective and understanding on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Back to my reflection on the 2017 Asia Study Tour, one of the biggest questions that I continue to reflect upon is how to approach, and how to actually achieve the “Peace and Reconciliation” that is rightfully demanded, by so many people on so many fronts. It seems that so much work in this regard must be done in Japan itself, where it is resisted, repelled, and denied, and also in the U.S. as well, to discontinue her complicity. This is difficult and dangerous work to be done, and with the rapidly dwindling number of elderly survivors left to seek justice, there is indeed little time.