I never expected to return alive from the Burma front. But in July of 1946 I did, and ever since then I have been filled with thoughts and memories of that country and a powerful desire to return. During the forty plus years since, my great desire to revisit Burma had grown even stronger. But a decade ago, around the time Burma relaxed its restrictions on foreign visitors, I began to have heart trouble. In the spring of 1987 my doctor gave me his permission to travel overseas, and while the spring in Burma is scorching hot I could not wait for the cool season to come, having delayed my return for so many years.
I was overcome with the realization that many of my wartime friends had already visited Burma several times to pray for the souls of those who had died in the fighting, while I had not returned even once. The souls of friends who had died in Burma seemed to call to me. In response to the heartrending claims of those visions, I had written a book, Not Meant to Die, in 1985. Thus, it became increasingly impossible for me to simply sit still and do nothing. Furthermore, I wished very much to pay my deep respects to the Burmese people, who had treated the Japanese with such warmth and kindness during the war.
As luck would have it, my son-in-law Hashi, a photographer living in New York City, was concerned enough about my health to accompany me on my memorial journey. I was gratified that although he was extremely busy, he worried deeply about my traveling alone. With his help I was able to set foot on Burmese soil once again, on April 27th, just before the onset of the rainy season.
From Bangkok we took the hour-long flight on Burma Airways to Mingaladon Airport, near the capital of Rangoon. As we got off the plane we were given shan bags as a welcome - a shoulder bag woven of thick multicolored wool fibers, that most people in Burma carry every day. I came to see it as a symbol of Burma - a cultural passport. I put my shan bag over my shoulder and was filled with excitement and a sense of peace, certain at last that I had actually returned to the beloved Burma that had filled my thoughts for so long.
The first thing we did in Rangoon was to go to the market and stop at a flower shop to buy chrysantheums to place upon the graves of the Japanese buried in Kyandaw, a district in the capital. That morning, we went to Kyandaw and paid our respects at the Japanese Communal Memorial Monument in the cemetery, and remembered the 185,000 Japanese war dead in our prayer. At that time a young woman who had come along with us made an offering to the souls of the dead of a long, colorful paper streamer in the shape of a carp, and the hearts of all present were touched by a sublime peace.
After viewing the gold brilliance of the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most famous in Rangoon, I visited another, older resting place for the Japanese, the Tamwe Japanese Cemetery, which I had known of from my war years. The graves there belong to Japanese female workers and other civilians who had gone to Burma before the war, and dates from as far back as the late nineteenth century. Shortly after the war, a monument was erected in Tamwe to the souls of the civilian Japanese who had died in the war. Although it declares these Japanese to be heroic victims of the Second World War, I was saddened to see that the cemetery was overgrown and seemed to have few visitors.
Rangoon amazed us with its beautifully designed modern buildings, exemplified by the City Hall and the Independence Memorial Tower. Yet what made me happiest of all were the eyes of Burmese middle-aged women. I found them welcoming us everywhere, the same clear, gentle eyes that had greeted Japanese troops at the outbreak of the war.
The next day we flew to Pagan to fulfill my greatest wish, which was to visit Mount Popa in central Burma, the area where Japanese troops had dug in after their retreat and made their last stand against the Allies. We arrived at Pagan at sunset. The scene at twilight, with the sun reflecting off ruins and pagodas and the silently flowing Irrawaddy river, was so tranquil that I almost felt as if the splendor of the Pagan Empire had come to life again - a dynasty which had ended eight centuries ago when it was conquered by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. Off in the east stood Mount Popa, 1518 meters high.Essay continued in the book. February 1989 by Susumu Akutagawa, Translated by Chris Drake