On Burma is the result of a trip taken by Yasuomi Hashimura and his step father Susumu Akutagawa, to Burma, as Myanmar was then called, in 1987. Akutagawa, a soldier during World War II, who had fought in Burma in 1942, was compelled to travel back to the country to offer a requiem prayer to his fallen comrades. Akutagawa was aging and beginning to experience heart trouble around the time he realized he needed to return to Burma.
“The souls of friends who had died in Burma seemed to call to me.” he told his stepson. Hashimura accompanied Akutagawa on the pilgrimage. Traveling together, they managed to locate the exact place where he had been in combat, and there Akutagawa began to pray as he dug his hands deep into the earth. “When he was digging in the ground, he was crying out loud and I was taking pictures of him crying,” Hashimura says. “I felt like I was seeing him in action (in the war). And below the ground I saw so many soldiers. I could hear them...It was like all of his late friends were welcoming him back.”
As with Native Americans, Hashimura has once again has created a unique time capsule of a people and place rarely seen by western audiences. Shot in black and white, depicting often harsh living conditions and with all the signifiers of poverty one would come to expect, On Burma captures a sense of joy and gentleness among its subjects. We see villagers, pupils, monks and farmers all bright and curious at the sight of a camera lens. Perhaps enamored by the technology, perhaps happy that their image will be viewed outside of Burma, thus transporting them, in some small way outside of their current surroundings and its troubled history.
These works read as a sort of photo essay, a narrative of moments casually pulled from the days spent by Hashimura as he accompanied Akutagawa on his spiritual journey. That atmosphere, that build up, is felt in these works. Hashimura, once again, playing with time in an unusual and unique manner. “Yet what made me happiest of all,” Atugawa mused, “were the eyes of the Burmese middle-aged women... welcoming... the same clear, gentle eyes that had greeted the Japanese troops at the outbreak of the war.” It is this warmth that shines through in Hashimura’s shots.
I never expected 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.
The next morning Hashi chartered a car, a driver and a tour guide. We set out from our hotel and headed toward Mount Popa in search of the old Japanese troop positions. Along the way we saw women in their colorful native costumes out shopping, mothers and their children tending sheep, oxcarts filled to overflowing with farm produce, and other peaceful aspects of Burmese life. Later, we entered a wide, desert-like area where we were struck by the sight of a young man with four or five jars tied to his waist climbing a tall sugar palm on a bamboo ladder. The Burmese gather the palm's sweet juice from a cut in the tree and boil it down to make red sugar, which is usually formed into balls. Seeing this, I could not help recalling my own bout with the palm°s juice during the war. On my way to battle I had hidden a jar of it under a tree. When I returned the next day after a night battle I retrieved and drank it, only afterward realizing that it had fermented into a rather powerful alcohol.
As we continued, the area resembled exactly that which we had attacked sporadically from our positions on Mount Popa. The realization that I was near the Japanese positions overcame me.
The sky, which had been overcast all day with low-hanging clouds, gradually grew brighter in a breeze, and then, suddenly, the peak of Mount Popa was visible before us. I had to catch my breath. The mountain I saw was far more extensive and serene than the landscape I had carried with me in memory. In the thick of battle I had simply never seen the full extent of the mountain. As Hashi and I stood gazing at it, Mount Popa disappeared once more into the clouds.
We drove toward the mountain unable to think of anything else. As our guide led us to the famous Popa Buddhist temple, I searched through the scenery for something familiar. But I could find nothing that suggested the former Japanese troop positions, which I so longed to see. After we saw the temple, we decided to head back towards a nearby village. As luck would have it, in that village we met a Burmese woman who had heard a little about the Japanese troops from her brother. Following her directions, we set out for the village of Thaton, where some Japanese troops had supposedly stayed.
Like the area I was searching for, the land around Thaton was hilly and rocky. The Thaton village head received us in the local meeting place, a bamboo lodge with an earthen floor and benches around the walls. Then he led us to a large tree that stood alone in sandy soil at the edge of the village amid briars and wild grass.
Standing there, by the tree, was a small white monument. The area around it had been kept clean. Upon closer inspection we were surprised to see that it was a memorial for dead Japanese soldiers. But why had a memorial stone been placed here on this grassy plain? Examining the marble tablet on the monument's front, I found chiseled on it two large Japanese characters: "Chin-kon" - "For the Repose of Souls." And below that was written, "The 543rd Infantry Battalion."
I realized that the 543rd was the unit that had been next to my own. Feeling as though I were in contact with the souls of both the war dead and survivors, I decided to bury the Buddhist prayer beads I had brought with me. I thought it would be an easy task to dig a small hole, but I didn't make much progress with the small piece of stone grasped in my hand. Suddenly my heart swelled upward, tears streamed down my face, and my hands refused to move. The thought of all that these souls had borne before their deaths in battle - these souls that had wanted to live - caused me to weep uncontrollably. Later I was greatly moved to learn that the villagers of Thaton had gone to the trouble of gaining permission from the local authorities and had erected the monument themselves.
On the flight back to Rangoon I saw from the plane that the soil of the fields on the Shan Plateau was red. The plane flew southward across central Burma following the Sittang river. I could not take my eyes off the meandering river, and my anger rose as I remembered how many lives had been needlessly lost in a battle during a river crossing in the rain. Yet I remained silent, praying for the peace of the souls of the dead.
Hashi's offer to come along was unexpected, and his presence allowed me to complete my journey successfully. That July, during the rainy season, he visited Burma once more. It now fills me with deep emotion to learn that the photographs Hashi took on these occasions have been gathered together in a book.
On our trip Hashi tried to look straight at Burmese life just as it was. His photographs allow one to see the Burmese living close to nature and in harmony with each other just as they were doing more than forty years ago. The Burmese people, with their clear, unclouded eyes and their warm, delicate emotions, truly come alive in the photographs on these pages. Hashi, thank you.
Finally, I would like to express from the depths of my heart my wish for Burma's nascent democracy and its people's new prosperity.
Translated by Chris Drake