(Repost from: The Mainichi. July 29, 2021)
By: Yoji Hanaoka
SAITAMA — Nine university students residing in east Japan got together to organize a six-day exhibit, of which the title literally means, “History and me: How memories of the Holocaust relate to each of us” to be held in this city — a display that would not have been borne if it weren’t for the individual adversities faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event was held from Aug. 10 to 15, coinciding with the 76th anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan. Omiya Library will be the venue, located in Omiya Ward of the capital city of Saitama Prefecture. The display, all in Japanese, includes some 40 explanatory panels, history textbooks, and a handmade calendar introducing historical events. It focuses on how specific individuals of the past and present perceived the Holocaust.
The project was initiated on Aug. 9, 2020, almost exactly a year before the upcoming launch of the event. Kiri Okugawa, now 19, then a first-year student at Tokyo Gakugei University, took part in an online book reading session as one of the panelists. The book was about how the Germans in the post-war era had faced up to their past. A discussion centered on a “culture of remembrance” was held among four university students and the author, Hiroto Oka, a historian and educator living in Germany.
Inspired, Okugawa buried herself in books about the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance movement at neighboring Omiya Library. The resistance, sparked in 1942, was led by university students. It ended in 1943 when core members were arrested and executed for treason.
If I was in that place at that time, and had concluded that it was right to confront the regime, would I have been able to keep to my decision?
Okugawa had thought she was familiar with war, peace, and history issues. She had lived in Hiroshima as a child and remembers being disturbed on a field trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to see life-sized figures of unhuman-like humans roaming just after the atomic bomb was dropped on them. As a result of such encounters, one of her dreams upon entering college was to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher and take up peace education.
But while seated in the library, she could feel a mist forming in her mind. She wondered, “What is justice and what is injustice, and for who is it to decide? The resistance was illegal at that time, but people of today would justify their actions. If I was in that place at that time, and had concluded that it was right to confront the regime, would I have been able to keep to my decision?”
Her desire to debate such questions was swelling, but she was yet to make good friends at school. Okugawa had enrolled in her university at the start of the school year in April, but all classes had been held online because of the pandemic. She had hardly any chance to come in direct contact with classmates, save a medical check-up.
Two of the other student panelists from the reading event came to her mind, both who seemed to have more experience and knowledge concerning these issues. She had met them only once, online, but that was enough for her to send messages asking for assistance.
Okugawa showed me her smartphone, with the message she had sent on Sept. 27, 2020 to Kanon Nishiyama, 22, now a fourth-year student at Saitama University. It went, “I’ve been studying about the Holocaust and I want more people to know about it. Next summer, for a week, I hope to organize a special exhibit, a ‘peace museum,’ about the massacre. I’ve no concrete plans, but can you help me?”
Nishiyama, in turn, showed me her response. “That is a wonderful idea. I’m in.”
She had her reasons to be attracted. In 2020, from February to March, when COVID-19 infections were spreading throughout Europe, she happened to be traveling in East Europe. The Holocaust was one of her main concerns, so it was natural for her to visit places like a museum in Lithuania dedicated to World War II-era diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who had issued thousands of visas for Jewish people fleeing to Japan.
It was in Ukraine where Nishiyama was taking part in a tour of Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, when she coughed lightly a few times. This resulted in whispers of “corona” from her fellow tourists consisting mainly of non-Asians. She sensed a trace of racism, which shocked her because she had the impression that Europeans, with their history, would be more sensitive to such prejudice.
The epidemic forced her to cut short her voyage and return to Japan in late March. She was in for a second blow. Her home country was at a phase in which the government was considering to ban entry from European countries. Her classmates and family members hinted they didn’t want her to visit them.
The young woman reflects, “I had visited Auschwitz during my second year of college, and I could say that I was interested in the Holocaust, but that was it. It was my trip to East Europe that gave me firsthand experience with discrimination.”
Nishiyama had plans to take leave for the 2020 school year to do an internship in India, visit Pakistan and the U.K. but had to cancel them all because of COVID-19. She was at a loss and remembers, “I didn’t know what to do.” What she did was to surf the internet and find a nonprofit organization, the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, and started to take part in its activities. It was this organization that later hosted the book reading event where she associated with Okugawa.
Another fourth-year student, who has since graduated and started work, also accepted Okugawa’s invitation. In November, the trio held three explanatory meetings online targeted to find more manpower. They came up with six more students eager to join. Thus, an executive committee consisting of nine students from nine schools who had originally never met personally was organized.
The six new members saw a variety of talent in the likes of Yoko Nishimura, 25, now in her second year of graduate school at Waseda University, who is studying to be a curator. She claims, “I was getting sick of online classes and reading books. They’re all inputs of information, but I needed a place to output.”
Taro Iino, 23, now in his first year of a master’s course at Gakushuin University is a specialist on the German language and literature. Mina Inoue, 20, now a third-year student at Chuo University had been studying about discrimination in Japan.
Since last December, the group has been holding meetings online every Thursday evening and exchanging written documents daily. The online coordination made it possible for Haruhi Aoki, 22, now a fourth-year medical student at Shinshu University to take part. The school is located in the city of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, 150 kilometers west of Omiya. As a medical trainee, she has restrictions on who she can have meals with and places she can visit. That means she won’t make it to the exhibit when it opens, but sees things positively, “I might not have thought of taking part if it hadn’t been for the reliance on online meetings.”
Online conferences were not easy. They first had to get to know each other and when they did, they came to understand that they all were from different backgrounds and had different ideas and political thoughts.
Hours of talk were needed to agree on seemingly small details of words to be displayed. There was a disagreement, for instance, whether or not to include the Minamata disease — a methylmercury poisoning epidemic in the 1950s and 60s — as an example of oppression in modern times. Another was about an explanatory panel in which the group asks each visitor to decide on how they would react if they were placed in a certain position during the Nazi-era. In this case, the discord was about whether or not to prepare choices of answers.
The eldest of the group, Nishimura, summarizes, “Each of us could say what we wanted to because we weren’t old friends.” Koki Sakuraba, 22, a third-year student at Toyo University, agrees and jokes to have become “punch-drunk” from words he received in June. He says, “When someone else’s suggestion clashed with mine, I became willing to concede as long as it would make it a better exhibit.”
Almost a year has passed since Okugawa started to envisage a temporary peace museum. I asked her if the mist in her mind had cleared up. She was quick with the answer, “No, it hasn’t. But through the Thursday meetings I have realized that ‘justice’ differs among people. Now I know that what is important is for me to keep on thinking of what justice is, how to decide right and wrong, and if I can keep to my decisions. Now I can verbalize what the ‘mist’ was, something I couldn’t do back then.”
Hence, the exhibit will be the expression of young people struggling to overcome the difficulties of living through this historic pandemic.