Kinue Tokudome

Coming Full Circle: Jewish POWs of Japan

Yokohama War Cemetery in Japan maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Yokohama War Cemetery in Japan maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (Photo Credit: Kinue Tokudome)

Only accessible by a short and winding path, the Yokohama War Cemetery is enshrouded by a thick row of trees that obscure it from the surrounding streets. As I walked to where the trees cleared, I was filled with awe at the beautiful and meticulously maintained rows and rows of grave markers. Located in the suburbs of Yokohama, Japan, this is the final resting place for some 1,700 Allied POWs of the Japanese during WWII.

Inscribed on each marker is the name, military unit, rank, serial number, date of death, age at the time of death, and a short message from the family, all in English.

Buried in this cemetery are soldiers from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India, who were captured by the Japanese military in Southeast Asia during the early months of the Pacific War and were brought to Japan to be used as forced laborers. Of some 35,000 Allied POWs brought to Japan, almost 3,500 died due to the cruel treatment they were subjected to.

Remains of American and Dutch POWs were brought back home after the war. And for those of the Commonwealth POWs, this cemetery became their final resting place.

In addition to the grave makers, there is a shrine that houses an urn containing the ashes of 335 POWs from the Commonwealth countries, the US, and the Netherlands.

The cemetery has been maintained by the “Commonwealth War Graves Commission” since the 1950s.

My First Visit: “You Are Not Forgotten”

I first came to this cemetery in 2000, when my late friend, Dr. Lester Tenney, a former American POW of the Japanese, paid tribute to his fallen comrades. He was invited by a Japanese volunteer group holding a memorial service at this cemetery every August. On that day, he said:

Dear Lord, we are gathered here today to pay tribute to the soldiers, sailors, and marines who served their countries honorably and died a needless death, at the peak of their lives. And the greatest honor we can pay to our fallen comrades, is our being here today, acknowledging the Hell they went through during the short-lived Japanese victory of WWII.

Today, like many days during the past 57 years, we remember the suffering each of you went through before joining your maker…

You have made the final sacrifice while showing your deep sense of responsibility and dedication to protect, defend and promote the highest values of your country.

We are united in the spirit of friendship with the consciousness that today, all men are created equal, and we pray that peace will reign forever in every country of the world. And we fervently pray that hate, hate of any kind and for any reason, will vanish from every country on earth and that all people will be able to live in peace.

I have learned something today, as we stand here, surrounded by so many concerned people, we are all one family, all interested and caring, all prepared and ready to deal with events of great importance to every person around the world. We can accomplish that which we pursue because we care, we are willing to reach out, and we are unified in our beliefs and our prayers.

You have walked with God down this lonely path, you are the men who have pleased God; therefore, you are not forgotten, you are with us in our hearts and our memories.

Dr. Tenney at the Yokohama War Cemetery in 2000 (Photo credit: Kinue Tokudome)

In his memoir, My Hitch in Hell, Dr. Tenney wrote about how Jewish POWs were treated.

We had discovered long ago that the Japanese were very anti-Semitic… In our camp of about fifteen hundred men, only ten were Jewish; that is, only ten who would admit to being Jewish. On more than one occasion, while working in the mine, a Japanese civilian worker would ask a prisoner, “Is number 313 Jewish? Is number 264 Jewish?” A positive answer always resulted in a server beating for the Jewish prisoner.

Yet, Dr. Tenney and nine other Jewish POWs celebrated Chanukah in December of 1944 with non-Jewish POWs standing guard so the Japanese camp guards would not disturb them.

Dr. Tenney was a non-observant Jew but celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at 88.

He and I worked together until his passing in 2017 at the age of 96 to keep the history of American POWs of the Japanese alive and to reclaim the dignity taken away from them.

With former American POW of the Japanese Dr. Lester Tenney
(Photo credit: Kinue Tokudome)

Revisiting the Cemetery with a Rabbi: Finding the Star of David

In 2015, I returned to this cemetery with my longtime friends Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and his advisor, Dr. Ted Gover.

As we walked along grave markers, Rabbi Cooper noticed a Star of David on one of them. He recited “El Malei Rachamim” (G-d full of Mercy), a Jewish prayer for a deceased person.

Grave marker for a Jewish POW of the Japanese at the Yokohama War Cemetery, Japan
(Photo credit: Kinue Tokudome)

As we strolled around the cemetery, it began to rain. Suddenly, we saw our taxi driver, whom we had asked to wait for us at the parking lot, running towards us. He handed us an umbrella saying, “Please use this so you won’t get wet.”

After having seen so many grave markers for POWs who died so young, far away from home, the significance of our experiencing this act of kindness in this place was not lost on us.

Still, Rabbi Cooper later shared with me how he felt: “The dignity and quiet of the cemetery only highlighted the deep sense of loss.”

My Recent Visit: Coming Full Circle

When Dr. Tenney passed away, I felt it was the end of an era regarding my support activities for former POWs. So, I moved on. Since then, I have been writing about positive stories relating to Israel for the past six years in hopes of changing the negative image of Israel held by Japanese people due to biased reporting by the Japanese media.

I wrote about people like Dr. Ofer Merin, who led the IDF medical team that came to Japan after the devastating tsunami hit northern Japan in 2011, and Mr. Danny Hakim, the founder of “Budo for Peace,” who promotes the philosophy of Japanese traditional martial arts he had learned in Japan when he was young. During the COVID pandemic, I translated the memoir of Rabbi Kalman Samuels, the Founder of “Shalva” in Jerusalem.

Little did I know that my previous work on POWs would converge with my new focus on Israel in an unexpected way.

During my recent trip to Israel, I met Dr. Hadassa Jakobovits Pardes, whose grandparents, uncle, and mother were captured by the Japanese military during WWII. Ironically, they were saved by the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara when they fled Europe in 1940. From Japan, the family went to the Dutch East Indies, which was to be invaded by the Japanese military in the spring of 1942. Hadassa’s grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Nussbaum, became a POW, and the rest of the family was interned. (More on her family’s WWII experience)

My work in the past 23 years had come full circle.

So, this month, I decided to revisit the cemetery. This time, I met with Ms. Taeko Sasamoto, president of “POW Research Network Japan,” a group of dedicated researchers who have been recording the history of WWII POW camps throughout Japan for many years.

Ms. Sasamoto lives near this cemetery and has spent over 25 years chronicling every aspect of the Allied POWs brought to Japan.

She is now in the final stage of editing The Encyclopedia of POW Camps and Civilian Internment Camps. This 800-page book will be the first publication of this kind in Japan. She hopes it will encourage the next generation of Japanese historians to make this virtually unknown chapter of WWII history a mainstream topic for their scholarly works.

With Ms. Taeko Sasamoto at the Yokohama War Cemetery, Japan
 (Photo credit: Kinue Tokudome)

Meeting with Ms. Sasamoto reinforced my belief in the impact that a single person can make. We parted, promising each other to redouble our efforts for our life’s work.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

About the Author
Japanese writer living in California. Author of the Holocaust interview book, "Courage to Remember," a children's book on Raoul Wallenberg (co-authored with Rabbi Abraham Cooper), Japanese translation of Raul Hilberg's "The Politics of Memory," and Rabbi Kalman Samuels' "Dreams Never Dreamed." Many Japanese articles on American POWs of the Japanese during WWII, interesting people in Israel, and Japan-Israel relations.
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