I recently watched a movie called The Railway Man (2013) on a Dutch commercial TV station. I recognized the actors, so I thought it might be interesting and continued to watch, but was sort of put off by the violence and torture the main character suffered as a POW in a Japanese camp. As the movie progressed, however, I became increasingly captivated by the story. The main character, Eric Lomax, survived unbelievably difficult circumstances, but was traumatized in the process. This made it very difficult for him to return to society once the war was over.
Later in life, Eric Lomax had his mind set on revenge on the people who made him suffer so much. Through an array of coincidences, Eric Lomax finds the Japanese man who served as a translator when he was being tortured in the camps. This man had haunted his nightmares for many years. To make a long story short: Lomax travels to Asia and confronts the Japanese translator with his anger in some very intense scenes. Instead of killing him, however, Lomax ends up forgiving his torturer. I was actually moved to tears as I watched the scenes unfold.
After the movie, I bought the prizewinning autobiography of Eric Lomax, because I wanted to know more about this remarkable story, and most notably: how did this British WWII soldier manage to forgive his oppressors?
It becomes clear from the book that the torture Lomax had been put through, was a result of fear. Lomax and several camp mates managed to secretly build a radio and get accurate information from the British BBC about the war. Upon discovery of the radio, the Japanese camp guards were convinced Lomax was a spy and were afraid they’d be outnumbered by the POW’s if it came to an outbreak.
Another interesting fact that emerged from the book, was that the Japanese translator suffered greatly from having witnessed Lomax’s torture. He also experienced nightmares. After the war, he spoke out openly against militarism, and did everything in his power to assuage his feelings of guilt.
The book describes how Lomax travelled to Asia and met the Japanese translator, Takashi Nagase. The fact that Nagase felt deep remorse for his actions during the war was instrumental for Lomax being able to forgive. But the story of Nagase and Lomax is not common. As Lomax says in an interview from 1995: “The traditional POW attitude, as far as one can summarize it, is: ‘Don’t forget, don’t forgive.'”
The book makes clear that the process of forgiving the Japanese translator, was something that took Lomax years to perform, but ultimately, it benefitted both men. Both were very moved by the experience and Lomax writes that his nightmares subsequently became less frequent. Interestingly, Lomax and Nagase actually got on quite well together when they met 50 years later in 1993.
I thought there might be a lesson in there for all of us. At the very least, the courage of these men is quite inspiring.