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World - Asia/Pacific

A Japanese veteran attempts to make peace with haunting memories

Shiro Azuma
Shiro Azuma  

In this story:

August 16, 1998
Web posted at: 5:16 p.m. EDT (2116 GMT)
From Tokyo Bureau Chief Marina Kamimura

TANGO, Japan (CNN) -- A painful memory is haunting Shiro Azuma, but sharing it has brought more pain.

He appears to be a typical pensioner living with his wife in the countryside of western Japan. But beneath his peaceful exterior is a terrible story of wartime atrocities that have caused him to be ostracized and sued for libel.

The 86-year-old Azuma was once a young soldier in Japan's Imperial Army. He served for four years with the Japanese forces that invaded China leading up to and during World War II.

He was in China in 1938 and is determined to share his role in the brutality and mass killings he witnessed in Nanjing, which was then China's capital.

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About 300,000 Chinese civilians were killed in what's called the Nanjing Massacre. No one knows for sure how many were killed.

An intense prejudice

Azuma's actions were horrifying.

"When I tried to cut off the first one, either the farmer moved or I misaimed. I ended up slicing off just part of his skull. Blood spurted upwards. I swung again ... and this time I killed him," he said.

Azuma beheaded four men that day. He still wonders whether or not they were innocent farmers as they claimed to be.

soldier
Azuma, right, served four years with Japanese forces in China  

But at the time, he says his fellow soldiers convinced him otherwise. The Imperial Army was consumed with a prejudice so intense that killing became easy, he said.

"We were taught that we were a superior race since we lived only for the sake of a human god -- our emperor. But the Chinese were not. So we held nothing but contempt for them," Azuma said.

He says he feels remorse now, but he doesn't feel he should be punished for what he did then.

The former soldier blames a system which he says produced a military that believed human life had no value.

"There were many rapes, and the women were always killed. When they were being raped, the women were human. But once the rape was finished, they became pig's flesh," he said.

Soldiers rarely share war memories

But stories like Azuma's are rarely heard in Japan, partly out of reverence for the country's imperial family.

But the silence also is due to fear of retaliation by an often violent group of national extremists. When he first began to tell his story by publishing diaries painstakingly written when he was on the front lines, Azuma was ostracized.

He was sued and lost a libel case launched by another veteran for an incident mentioned in his book. Threats against him have continued.

But Azuma vows to keep fighting in the courts for the right to talk about what happened so many years ago.

Azuma says his inspiration to share his story comes from a Chinese soldier who spared his life at the end of the war despite having narrowly escaped death under the Japanese.

Azuma also is adamant that Japan re-examine its wartime behavior.

It may come as little consolation for those who died at his hands. But for this scarred veteran, it's a way to make peace with the past.

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