Japan Lan - the Second World War for Manipur
- Part 1 -

James Khangenbam *

 Japanese soldiers begging for food : RKCS Art Gallery
Japanese soldiers begging for food : RKCS Art Gallery
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery

Legendary filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma, in the introduction of his autobiography Manipur Cinema, Eigi Paodam,wrote- " it was before lunch on a Sunday morning of May 10, 1942 Japan dropped a bomb from the sky which marked the advent of the Second World War in Manipur". He also wrote that after the war many changes were witnessed in terms of the appearance of an individual and their style of dress.

Similarly,"GC Tongbra, an eminent playwright of Manipur, took shelter at Nambol as his locality in Imphal experienced heavy bombings during Second World War", wrote Tayenjam Bijoykumar in his article entitled, 'Life Sketch of GC Tongbra compiled by Bijoykumar Tayenjam". Late GC Tongbra revolutionized the theatre movement in Manipur just after the Second World War. The end of the war had brought enthusiasm and a new wave of plays. Manipuri plays were rejuvenated, according to the article.

The Battle of Imphal---as the people of Manipur often call "Japan Lan (war)"---took place from 15 March to 18 July, 1944. Fought between Britain and Japan, the Battle of Imphal has often been regarded as one of the fiercest battle of the Second World War. The Imperial Japanese Army suffered huge casualties.

It has been estimated that the majority of the 90,000 soldiers died or were severely injured and most of these losses was caused by a serious logistic failure in terms of food supply and decision-making from their end, leaving many suffering by starvation besides illness. On the other hand, the Allied Forces' side suffered almost entirely in the battle, leaving around 12,000 soldiers dead.

The Japanese army marched through Myanmar and invaded Manipur and Nagaland. They entered Manipur from three sides to fight against the Allies who were already holding a strong position under the then Colonial British India. There are other stories that the then Indian National Army, led by Subhash Chandra Bose in collaboration with his team of Japanese soldiers, also joined the war with their own agenda of liberating India to fight against the British army.

Other than documented stories of soldiers and their movement from the war diaries written by war veterans, we have also been hearing stories about the war in the form of the oral tradition of storytelling from our grandparents, such as how they had to flee Imphal for survival, how they offered help to soldiers, and so on. Though there have been not many civilian casualties compared to other battlefields in Asia, Imphal suffered quite a few air raid attacks in May 1942 and April 1943, among which the Khurai area experienced the most fatal attack leaving many people dead at a ceremonial meal at a community hall, according to Khuraijam Nimaichand, a Sahitya Bhusan Awardee.

Indeed, people of Manipur have also equally gone through a lot of sufferings due to the war, as indicated by Professor Naorem Lokendra, Dean of Social Science, Manipur University.

Post World War 2 - Reconciliation Initiatives and my study visit to Japan

Post Second World War, there has been lots of reconciliation initiatives taking place among the warring nations including India. Manipur-based volunteer organizations have led similar initiatives. Among them, the 2nd World War Imphal Campaign Foundation and the Manipur Tourism Forum have played significant roles in inviting delegates from different countries to commemorate the war at the memorial sites in Manipur.

They have also been actively engaging with other important initiatives, such as excavating war remains voluntarily so as to tell the stories of the past incidents to the next generations in collaboration with war veterans, victim families or the ministries from the respective countries.

This July, as a video archivist, I was lucky enough to take part in one of these reconciliation initiatives where a group of people from Manipur, who have been associated with an on-going peace museum project in Maibam Lotpa Ching to have a look at how the Second World War related museums are telling stories.

This study tour program was funded and organized by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF), a Tokyo-based philanthropic organization. The Nippon Foundation, the parent organization of the SPF, has actually funded the construction of the peace museum in Maibam Lotpa Ching, following a request from the 2nd World War Imphal Campaign Foundation and the Manipur Tourism Forum through the Embassy of Japan, New Delhi.

The building inauguration is likely to take place sometime in the next year. The Manipur government is also part of the initiative by leasing out a grand outdoor space where the construction is being taking place. The study tour of peace museum initiatives in Japan was meant to bring about more knowledge and understanding so that the same could be reflected in the upcoming museum.

Travelling to Japan - the land of reflection and "the start of our moral awakening"

Before I move onto share my experience from the peace museum initiative visit, I would like to share a news story I came across from a television news channel related to Japan and war. When Barrack Obama, the former President of United States of America, visited Hiroshima in 2016, an atomic bombing survivor who was about to meet Obama was questioned a day ahead by a journalist enquiring if he would ask for forgiveness from the American President. The gentleman answered, "No, I would not ask for his forgiveness. Mankind has made a lot of mistakes and I have forgiven him".

It was a huge reconciliation and a bold step by Japan to invite the President of America to a memorial commemoration in Hiroshima. When Obama landed in Japan and delivered a speech in Hiroshima, he concluded with, "The World was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening."

War and its horrifying tragedy have taught mankind enormous lessons. However, are we learning it the right way, is the learning a continuous process, perhaps a museum remains as a mirror reflecting the flaw mankind has committed in its past actions? Museum curators, contributors and researchers associated with museums have kept polishing their insightful updates like a living entity. It is the effort of these dedicated people that we are able to see our past more clearly to reflect on our present.

I would like to narrate some of my personal travel experiences as I travel to the land of reflection and "the start of our moral awakening".

1. The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, Tokyo.

The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage is independently run museum and has brought us closer to the stories of the war victims and survivors. We were told that visiting school children also volunteer to act in plays based on the midnight tragedy and how survivors escaped from their burning houses or localities to a safer place.

The museum wore a tragic story of the bombings starting from midnight of March 10, 1945 and continuing for several days in the 33 wards of Tokyo during the Second World War, resulting in an estimated 100,000 civilian dead and 1 million homeless in the capital city. Voluntary donations from various individuals including many survivors of the bombing have made it possible for such a museum to become the voice for the civilian tragedy.

Upon a query, the curator of the museum gave an insight that the American soldiers must have probably done a ground research before the bombing took place as the bomb was mainly designed to cause fire in wooden houses during the night when most of the people were asleep.

It also minutely displays related information and photos of the air raids taking place in various part of the world studying which type of bombs were used during wartime by different countries including Japan. The museum has a ground floor and a first floor including a multimedia room. Lots of photographs about the tragic incident and personal belongings of the victims, like burnt coins, dolls, dresses, etc. donated by victims' family, help to make the incident more personal to visitors.

2. Women's Active Museum on War and Peace, Tokyo

Magazines, books, journals and documentary films play a major role in WAM which is also an independently run museum without any government support. Testimonies by women survivors and Japanese soldiers on the systemic sexual violence during the war bring back the horrors of the war befalling women. As many as 150 photos and names of women survivors from across the continent are displayed at the entrance of the museum. Some photos are decorated with a red rose indicating that the person has passed away.

We were also informed that it took a lot of courage for the women to speak out and their efforts has brought about a unified stand by creating Women's International War Crime Tribunal which was a dream for Yayori Matsui (1934 - 2002), a prominent journalist and women's activist, brainchild to the museum.

A leaflet on WAM mentions that the goal of the museum is to apply gender justice to all issues of wartime sexual violence, starting with the so-called "comfort women". It is a very active museum with continued research on the locations of comfort stations and holding seminars from time to time, inviting survivors, former soldiers and experts for a better understanding of the museum. We also saw four to five staff members that were busy working on something or the other during our visit.

Their library is tiny but excellently maintained, and the staffs were so kind to assist us to photocopy pages from the books. I happened to read one or two articles from a selected magazine they have kept at a reading space. It was so insightful as it delves into individual stories of victims. It seems to me that the museum sticks to their goal- to be a place for women working together for a peaceful world.

3. Yushu Kan War Memorial Museum, Tokyo

Yushu Kan War Memorial Museum is maintained by Yasukuni Shrine and dedicated to the souls of soldiers who died fighting for the Japanese Emperor. At the shrine, more than 2,466,000 "divinities" are enshrined, and the museum honors those enshrined "divinities" of Yasukuni Shrine by displaying their historically important wills and relics according to the official website. We came across a chapter on the Imphal Campaign too.

Huge air crafts, submarines, warships and tanks used by the Japanese Imperial Army are in display along with bones of the fallen Japanese soldiers collected from various part of the continent. Among the displays, I was struck by bride dolls contributed to the museum by parents of the deceased soldiers wishing that their bachelor son would be getting married even after he passed away.

A palanquin which is much like the one in lailam thokpa during lai haoaroba rituals of Manipur is also kept in the museum and we were told that the palanquin became heavy during rituals indicating that the souls of the deceased in war came together into the palanquin. The mythical belief in Asian countries seems to be similar to some extent, like in Manipur we believe that God's spirit also rides on the palanquin in a ritual march when palanquin bearers started moving directionless.

The Director of the museum while taking us around informed us that Asia was already facing a lot of aggression from the Western countries until Japan decided to fight them back. The museum also displays images of soldiers wearing smiles as they pose before a fighter aircraft. We have been told that the photo was taken just before the young boys in their teens were about to fly knowing that they would not fly back alive in the next 24 hours which is widely known as 'Kamikaze' attack.

Such sacrifice by the soldiers and their gripping stories are some of the key messages displayed in the museum. Going by the story of the museum, the Director insisted that the involvement of Japan in the Second World War was justified which appears to be completely a different story from the rest of museums we visited in Japan delivering strong anti - war messages.

(To be continued) ...

* James Khangenbam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at jameslaphoi(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on December 17, 2018.

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