Volume 9 Number 4
When the Hating Has to Stop
01 August 1996
'The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, Cape £15.99; paperback Vintage £6.99
This award-winning book is not only remarkable for the horrendous account of the sufferings that the author and his friends endured in building the Burma-Siam Railway during World War II, but also for the honesty with which he tells of the hard-won reconci liation between himself and one of his Japanese tormenters. It is an epic story of the brave struggle of a man and his wife against overpowering memories and of their liberation from hate.
Posted as a signals officer to Singapore in 1941, Eric Lomax was taken prisoner with hundreds of others when it fell. The Japanese discovered a secret radio that Lomax and his colleagues had assembled and a map of the railway drawn by Lomax because of a bo yhood fascination with trains. They decided the men must be spies and, in systematic beatings during which two of his colleagues died, the Japanese broke Lomax's arms and smashed his ribs.
As so often happens the psychological wounds did not heal. For 50 years the experience tortured him, poisoning his relationship with his father and leading to the breakdown, after nearly 30 years, of his first marriage. He longed for revenge.
In 1985, Lomax received a letter from a former Army chaplain who had worked in Burma with the War Graves Commission. He had recently been sought out by Nagase Takashi, who had been the interpreter at Lomax's interrogation. The padre said that N agase had just built a Buddhist temple close to the railway, and was working for reconciliation. Lomax's reaction was 'cold scepticism. I could not believe in the idea of Japanese repentance.'
Lomax was fortunate to receive help from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and has high praise for the Director, Helen Bamber, who received him personally. He and his wife attended the centre every four weeks during 1988 and 89. Lomax feels that there are still thousands of former POWs suffering from 'psychic damage arising from wartime trauma'.
In 1989, Lomax saw an article in the Japan Times about Nagase. It described how he had devoted much of his life to 'making up for the Japanese Army's treatment of prisoners of war'. It said that he had decided to devote the rest of his life to the memory of those who died constructing the railroad. This time, Lomax's reaction was far more positive, although he still felt great anger towards Nagase Shortly afterwards, Lomax obtained a copy in English of a small book by Nagase which described the discovery of the radio and the interrogation which followed. It went on to tell of his work with the War Graves Commission. Later he had revisited the graves with his wife. ' The sense of guilt had lain on my mind for a long time,' he wrote. 'The moment I visited the graves, I felt the sense of guilt vanish. Reading the book, Lomax's second wife, Patti, felt indignant. She wrote to Nagase, 'My husband has lived all these years with the after-effects of the cruel ex perience he suffered, and I hope that contact between you could be a healing experience for both of you. How can you feel "forgiven", Mr Nagase, if this particular former Far Eastern prisoner of war has not yet forgiven you?
In reply Patti received 'an extraordinarily beautiful letter'. When he read it, Lomax records, ' anger drained away. In its place came a welling of compassion for both Nagase and for me, and in that moment I lost whatever hard armour I had wrapped around me, and began to think the unthi nkable, that I could meet Nagase face to face, in simple goodwill. Forgiveness became more than an abstract idea; it was now a real possibility.
A year later Eric and Patti Lomax met Nagase at the River Kwai Bridge. Nagase, looking agitated, began with a formal bow. Lomax stepped forward and took his hand, saying in Japanese, 'Good morning, Mr Nagase. How are you?
Nagase looked up at Lomax in tears, saying over and over again, 'I am very, very sorry.' Lomax took him by the arm, saying, 'That's very kind of you to say so.'
Later the Lomaxes and Nagases spent time together in Japan. Eric Lomax felt that there was a further step that he must take - to forgive Nagase from his heart. They met alone in a hotel room. Lomax read out a short letter he had prepared. They had both suffered much, he said. While he could not forget what had happened in 1943, he assured Nagase of his 'total forgiveness' . Nagase was overcome with emotion.
'Some time the hating has to stop,' says Lomax