When the Allied army led by Britain beat the advancing Japanese back to the Chindwin Valley in then Burma (now Myanmar), the death count in the ranks of the Japanese imperial army stood at nearly 60,000 — a bulk of the soldiers having perished of starvation, sickness and hunger because of the “slash and burn” war strategy of the Allied army to block the sustenance lines of Japanese troops. The year was 1944 — and the war grounds were Imphal and Kohima in northeastern India — two strategic capital towns of Manipur and Nagaland respectively along the border with Burma where the Japanese had made inroads in their zeal to liberate Asia from the shackles of British rule during the peak of World War II.
Seventy years later, in 2014, many younger Japanese are debating the wisdom of the attack that resulted in blood baths and virtually wiped out the imperial army, destroying innocent civilian lives, livelihoods and property in India. It was a historical blunder— every war is a slur on the face of striving humanity, said young Japanese director Junichi Kajioka, whose movie, “Imphal 1944”, a short documentary-feature on the battle of Imphal from March to July 1944 pays tribute to a Japanese war veteran, Masao Hirakubo (OBE), the founder of the reconciliatory Burma Campaign Society, on the 70th anniversary of the battle of the Imphal.
The 30-minute documentary was screened at The Japan Foundation in New Delhi after premiering in Manipur on June 28, at the closing of the commemoration of the Battle of Imphal 1944. The documentary shot by Kajioka on a tight budget in London is a fictional account of Masao’s tenure in Imphal, where his platoon kills a British soldier. Masao, christened Hirata – and played by Junichi — comes to England sixty years after the war to return a “souvenir handkerchief” that he picked up from the dead British soldier to his mate, who managed to escape. The “handkerchief” was a parting gift to the dead British soldier, John, from his girlfriend.
The British veteran David, who leads a reclusive life with his wife in London, drives the old “Jap” at the doorstep away on the first day, but Hirata is determined to reconcile and seeks forgiveness for the act of hatred on the fateful day in 1944. A week of persistent efforts and several rejections by the British veteran pays off with a letter that Hirata writes to David — and surreptitiously pushes it into the British veteran’s letterbox.
The missive is an appeal for “reconciliation”— on the strength of the reality that both have survived the war. “The fact that we have survived is enough,” Hirata says. David agrees to meet Hirata.
He leads Hirata to a war memorial in London where the “corporal memories” of John, the young soldier who was killed by the Japanese army in Imphal, lie buried with scores of World War martyrs. Hirata places the handkerchief on the tomb stone of the dead soldier in a symbol of reconciliation. The act marks the beginning of a friendship campaign, The Burma Campaign Society, between the Japanese and British war veterans who served in Imphal and Kohima in 1944 to ease “the historic standoff between the two nations over the carnage in Imphal and Kohima.
“We must do something for those who fought the war and survived,” Hirata tells David at the cemetery, in a cue from Masao’s “plea” to his former British rivals.
The reconciliation initiative, which took off with the birth of the Burma Campaign Society Fellowship Group in 1991, has since brought into its fold thousands of World War II veterans from the two nations — who have travelled to and fro between Britain and Japan to understand the disparate cultures of the nations and assess popular mood to compassionate welcome and forgiveness. The group was initially led by Major-General Ian Lyall Grant as the chairman and Masao Hirakubo as the councillor. Such was Hirakubo’s remorse that he changed his religion from Shinto to Roman Catholicism. The reconciliation exchange visits by survivors were supported by the All-Burma Veterans’ Association of Japan and the Fellowship Group in Britain.
“The beginning of ‘Imphal: 1944’ owes to a larger movie project, ‘My Japanese Niece’ which was stuck for two years. I was supposed to tour with the movie this year in March to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Imphal war in 1944, but it did not happen. It was then I decided to make ‘Imphal: 1944’ so that I could be in Manipur for the anniversary celebrations. I attended the official commemoration in June and persuaded the organizers to screen it on the last day of the ceremony,” Hirakubo told this writer in an informal chat during the screening.
It was shot on DVD format with a handful of actors – but with dramatic war sequences. “I did not have money to shoot in Imphal or in Japan. Now, I am speaking to the government of Manipur and local organizations in Imphal for a bigger project on the same subject. I am scripting a full-length feature film about the Imphal war based on the accounts of the survivors in Japan, Manipur and Nagaland. It will feature everything that happened during the war— hunger, struggle for survival, famine, disease, death, suffering and the reconciliation efforts decades later,” Junichi Kajioka said.
The director said he had watched “Masao’s biographical documentary (biopic) before making the movie”. “I did not want to explore the complex historical perspectives,” Kajioka pointed out. The movie, however, glosses over history and the war-torn social milieu of the 1940s in Asia.
The war was significant for India for several reasons — it resulted in one of the worst food shortages in Burma, northeastern and eastern India because food was diverted from civilian supply lines to feed the Allied garrisons. Nearly three million civilian people died of hunger in the famine of 1943-1944.
The Japanese troops, who tried to capture the Allied ammunition and food supply dumps in northeastern India faced starvation because the “the armies of the British and the American fighters” slashed, burned and emptied the “dumps” and freed the mule packs before fleeing posts to corner the advancing Japanese army with hunger, disease and difficult monsoon passage on the hoof. The Allied forces had superior air power to counter the artillery-laden Japanese army, who struggled to break through the road links and saddles (low peaks along the highway connecting Kohima- Dimapur and Imphal) to move their heavy tanks and big guns.
Another reason was the involvement of the Indian National Army led by nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, whose guerrilla squadrons helped the Japanese secure ground in Burma and Imphal. It was a period of intense armed struggle against the British rule by radical Indian nationalist leaders as well- who joined the cause of India’s Independence to the grand dream of the Japanese army to free Asia from western powers.
Kajioka said “he had to convey the message of reconciliation” on the 70th year of the Imphal war to “raise awareness among the younger generation about the scale of loss that both the sides suffered in the war and the futility of the Anglo-Japanese war in Imphal, Kohima and Burma”.
History is fraught with risks of mis-interpretation, pointed out a war survivor from Nagaland, a septuagenarian grandmother, who refused be named, after viewing the movie. “I was five years old when the Japanese troops arrived in Kohima. We were evacuated to Shillong on April 2, 1944 – but my sister, who was ailing had to stay back. The Japanese turned our home into a local headquarters, but the British bombed it later. It was razed to the ground” she recalled. “But we Nagas never harboured any resentment towards the Japanese though they were enemies. I am saddened by memories of Moreh (a trade outpost along the Manipur-Myanmar border). How many Japanese soldiers committed suicide — the streets were full of blood. That is the spirit we admired about the Japanese, the sheer bravery to follow a battle plan that was not destined to succeed,” she said.
“In hindsight, I can say that the Japanese were kinder to the local people in Kohima than their British enemy. The scale of atrocity would have been graver had the army been drawn from the ranks of the Japanese citizens. It was the Imperial army and the officers and soldiers were aristocrats,” the survivor observed, trying to recollect 1944 in Kohima.
“Such movies should look into the complex political nuances of history,” she said.
History records that the battle for Imphal and Kohima began with a re-organisation of the Japanese command in Burma (present-day Myanmar). The Japanese were fighting at several fronts. A new headquarters, Burma Area Army, was created under the command of Lieutenant-General Masakazu Kawabe. One of the smaller formations, responsible for the central area of the front facing Imphal and Assam was put under the command of Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi, who advocated an invasion of India — Imphal and Kohima — to cut off allied communication lines.