Friday, November 11, 2016

War Reparations Interview

War reparations is something that hardly receives much attention anymore. It used to be the issue that could make or break a candidate for delegate in Guam. It was something that people pushed for, and always seemed likely to get in some form, but never materialized. War reparations in the Chamorro context, is about compensation for the atrocities, suffering and destruction that Chamorros experienced during World War II at the hands of occupying Japanese forces. Chamorros did receive some compensation for what had happened in the immediate postwar era, but a commission later determined that they were not given enough information or access to those channels of redress and that further compensation should be awarded.

This issue is waning in political importance due to the fact that the war generation is dying out. The number of people who would be eligible for compensation decreases with each year. The impetus is slowly being quashed as time ravages our elders and making the issue appear to be tragically moot. As I have written about on this blog many times, my feelings on this topic are mixed, and have not become any easier to process since my two war survivors, my grandparents have passed away. The image above is from a press conference held earlier this year to announce the creation of a non-profit advocacy group for Chamorro war survivors, which may at some point sue the US federal government over the lack of war reparations.

Here is an interview I did with the Marianas Variety a few years ago about this topic.


A postwar friendship between Guam and Japan did not develop quickly. When the friendship was forged, it came at the behest of a variety of forces, most notably a desire amongst Japanese to erase their atrocities of the past, and Guam’s need to expand its economy past colonial constraints.

Although the war in Guam officially ends on August 10, 1944, the war doesn’t really end in either Guam or Japan. Japan itself would continue to be occupied by the US military until 1952 and until 1948, Japanese stragglers were still being hunted throughout Guam. From 1944 – 1948, the Guam Combat Patrol, which was comprised of Chamorro police officers, killed 117 Japanese stragglers and captured five.  Two members of the combat patrol were killed and two others were wounded in their rounding up of Japanese holdouts. The Treaty of San Francisco returned sovereignty to Japan in 1952, and as part of that treaty, the US accepted responsibility for all futures claims against Japan for their conduct during the war. This is a point, that is often forgotten both by people locally and especially in the United States.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s communication between Japan and Guam was limited for a variety of factors. Japan was undergoing a process of “forgetting” their previous imperial efforts, that had led to them conquering huge swaths of Asia and the Pacific. As a result, the history of occupying Guam and Japan’s former colonies in Micronesia were obscured in the national memory. On Guam’s end, until 1962 the island was under a security clearance requirement, which meant that those entering and leaving the island had to have the permission of the US Navy to travel. This meant that the island, despite being on the edge of Asia, was largely cut off from its neighbors.

Once the security clearance was lifted in 1962, the Government of Guam attempted to start a tourism industry and despite war wounds and animosity that persisted amongst your average Chamorro, at the elite level, Japan was the perfect market. The liberalization of the Japanese travel industry in 1964 led to a drop in the price of flights out of Japan, making the dream of men such as former Governor Manuel Guerrero possible. The US had developed a very close economic and strategic relationship with their old enemy, and this made it easier for Japanese to potentially visit Guam. Also, Japan was a close nearby tourist market, which was growing rapidly in economic terms, and had a culture that was increasingly driven to sample Americana. At the village level however, things remained much more ambivalent. Many survivors of the war, were uncertain how to greet the Japanese when they began to trickle in as tourists. Early Japanese tourists traveling in the Southern villages in the 1960s and 1970s were often targets for vandalism, most commonly rocks thrown at their buses or cars.

In symbolic terms, a 1965 visit by Japanese searching for the bones of their soldiers who had died in Guam in World War II, helped to make peace between Chamorros and Japanese. The late Father Oscar Calvo met with them and eventually worked towards the erecting of the South Pacific Memorial Park in Yigo, at the site of the last command post by the Japanese during the occupation. By the 1970s, attitudes had changed significantly. For instance, throughout the 1950s and even the early 1960s, there was always whispers and suspicions of Japanese stragglers still hiding out on Guam. In 1960 Bunzo Minagawa and Masahi Ito were discovered within a few days of each other. Their presence received some local and international attention. But this paled in comparison to the reception that Shoichi Yokoi received when he was discovered in 1972. He became an instant local celebrity and icon and was also treated so when he returned to Japan. The treatment of Yokoi shows the changing attitudes in Guam and in Japan. For Guam, there was already a great desire amongst the elite to develop Japan as Guam’s primary tourist market, and Yokoi being discovered, his garnering temporary international fame for the island was like a boon from heaven.

Yokoi’s place in Guam History is primarily related to this oddity status and the way that Guam was briefly put on the map when Yokoi when he was found by two Chamorro farmers. What is often forgotten however is the role that Yokoi played in helping to develop Guam’s postwar tourism industry. Yokoi’s role was not intentional and not necessarily even direct. But his being discovered in Guam and his affinity to the island that persisted long after he returned to Japan, helped to change the image that the Japanese had of Guam.

When Yokoi was captured he expected to be killed or imprisoned. Instead he was treated as a celebrity, both locally and in Japan. Dozens of journalists made a pilgrimage to Guam to learn more about this living, surviving Japanese relic of World War II. Guam was a casualty of squabbling empires during the war and in the immediate postwar years it became a victim of Japanese amnesia. The ghosts of Japanese empire remained in Guam. Close to 20,000 soldiers died in Guam, heaping humiliation on the shame of their defeat by the Americans. Guam had once signified victory, but during the war and after it started to signify the soul-draining horror of defeat. Guam become invisible due to this willful amnesia.

In his later years Yokoi most likely felt more at home in Guam than in Japan. He loved the island in the same way one cannot let go of the sites of their trauma because of the way they have become too dear and too intimate in terms of how have formed their identity. Yokoi returned to Guam on several occasions, including his honeymoon. When he traveled to Guam reporters followed him and toured the island with him. He allowed the Japanese to see Guam in a new way. When he was first found in January 1972, it was winter in Japan and so reporters arriving in Guam wore winter clothes. While waiting for news, they toured around the island, marveling at its natural beauty, creating a new way for the Japanese to see Guam. Now as a tropical paradise with where an exciting bit of human trivia had been hiding for 28 years, not a site of their old atrocities.

The relationship has continued to evolve from there. Guam marketed itself, rather successful as a cheap American style, Polynesian tourist destination and within a few decades had more than a million Japanese visiting yearly. The forgiveness between Japanese and Chamorros was facilitated by the economic aspects. I wonder, if Japan had not been the most practical postwar tourist market to develop, if Chamorros would have gotten over their anger and fear towards its people so quickly. I have heard some posit, that the Chamorro culture, whether in ancient indigenous forms, or in its current Catholic forms led to Chamorros forgiving the Japanese so quickly for their atrocities. For most people on island today, Japanese tourists are as common as coconuts or military planes flying overhead. They have become part of our normal landscape and so we don’t really question why they are here and what happened to normalize things between our elders and them. But despite the veneer of friendship, there is still a quiet, but persist desire amongst some segments of the Chamorro community to have their suffering at the hands of the Japanese be recognized and that they receive an apology. In the early 1990s, the activist group Nasion Chamoru held protests in Tumon against Japanese tourists, where they held up signs writing in Japanese, reminding them about their atrocities their ancestors committed and how Chamorros have never been compensated for that or received an apology. Japan has offered formal apologies for a number of its atrocities during the war, such as a general offering of “remorse” in 1995 to the people hurt during the war, admitting that their treatment of South Koreans was “truly regrettable” and that the Japanese government is deeply remorseful about it in 1965, and a 2009 apology through an ambassador for those who suffered during the Bataan Death March. In 2010, Guam received an informal apology from Japanese consul Yoshiyuki Kimura at an event titled “Real People, Real Stories” organized by Senator Frank Blas Jr.

On the matter of reparations, even if they are provided, they will always be tainted by the amount of time that it took to secure them. Whether the blame lies with leaders in Guam or in Washington D.C., it does not change the fact that the majority of those who suffered in the war, they and their families will receive nothing. If it is every secured, it would be the hollowest of victories, something for honoring graves, rather than lives. In the war, we were victims caught between the clashes or empires, fighting over our lands, but never truly caring about our people. Should war reparations ever arrive, it would only reinforce that idea, albeit in a contemporary context. One final though: many Chamorro survivors of World War II downplayed the need for monetary compensation (as it felt wrong to try to put a price tag on their suffering), most hoped instead for a real and sincere apology, something that could help them make sense of the crazy path their lives had taken, where friends become enemies only to become friends again. It is unfortunate, that so many of them were deprived even simple kindness.

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