RIVER KWAI Effort aims to denote bridge
A former interpreter saw the torture of POWs.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
TOKYO -- A former Imperial Japanese Army interpreter who was involved in the construction of the infamous Thai-Burma Railway during World War II is campaigning to get the bridge on the River Kwai in Thailand designated a World Heritage Site.
Takashi Nagase, 87, has spent the past 60 years working in memorial activities and seeking redemption.
Known as the "Death Railway," the Thai-Burma Railway was built between July 1942 and October 1943 by Australian, British and Dutch prisoners of war along with an estimated 300,000 workers from Asian countries. The construction of the 415-kilometer-long railway is believed to have claimed more than 73,000 lives, including 1,000 Japanese.
The bridge over the river was blown up by Allied forces and rebuilt after the war -- a moment in history depicted in the 1957 Oscar-winning film "The Bridge on the River Kwai" -- and 130 kilometers of the railway is still in use.
Nagase now runs an English-language cram school in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. He worked as an interpreter for POWs who were forced to work on the railway between Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) from 1943 after the English graduate was assigned to a military police squad in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
The construction of the railway took place under horrific conditions and was hampered by bedrock and thick jungle. Heat, starvation and poor sanitation led to epidemics of malaria and dysentery and the number of deaths led to the saying, "One death for each sleeper."
Nagase was present as an interpreter at the torture of many POWs. For three weeks following the end of the war, he joined the Allied search for POW graves and helped excavate 13,000 bodies.
Sense of guilt
Although he was not directly responsible for the torture he witnessed, Nagase says he was unable to erase a sense of guilt for being involved in the railway. He gradually came to think he had survived to tell the truth.
Nagase has since written about his wartime experiences in books and given lectures about his own deeds. Using earnings from his cram school and royalties from his books, he built a peace temple near the bridge and also founded an education fund for children in the area. He has visited Thailand more than 120 times for memorial trips and has met former POWs and Asian forced laborers.
The designation of the bridge as a World Heritage Site has been a plan dear to Nagase's heart for several years.
In August, he spoke of it at a memorial ceremony at the cemetery for British Commonwealth war dead in Yokohama and received the support of the embassies of relevant countries.
Nevertheless, the railway is still a controversial issue. In 1987, plans to rebuild an unused stretch of the railway with funding from Japan were slammed by the former Allied countries, who compared it to "turning Auschwitz into an amusement park," and it subsequently was shelved.
In November, members of a citizens' organization called Malay Peninsula Peace Cycle (MPPC) will cycle along the railway, a journey in memory of the Imperial Japanese Army's bicycle regiment. Nagase has decided to accompany the tour, and will use the opportunity to share his proposal for the World Heritage designation with Thai government officials he has known for decades.
"There's significance in telling this story for posterity, and it's a brave deed for a Japanese," said Ikuo Hirayama, the president of Tokyo National University of Art and Music, who was instrumental in the designation of the A-bomb dome in Hiroshima as a World Heritage Site.