Toby Norways travelled to Japan to research his father Bill’s friendship with Kameo Yamanaka, and found an ode in English next to Yamanaka’s grave
Toby Norways with members of the Yamanaka family and a poem Bill Norways sent to his former captor in the 1980s. Photograph: Toby Norways
By:Justin McCurry/UK Guardian
Bill Norways’ poem is inscribed on a slab of dark granite next to a gravestone in eastern Japan, thousands of miles from where he wrote it. It begins: “Our world decreed; that we should meet; as enemies; without a common tongue …”
When Norways, a former British prisoner of war, composed those words in a letter to Kameo Yamanaka, his former Japanese prison guard, he could have had little inkling that they would bring two families together in remembrance 70 years after the end of the second world war.
As Japan marked its wartime surrender at the weekend with a ceremony in Tokyo attended by the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and Emperor Akihito, the bond that formed between Norways and Yamanaka stands as a lasting testament to the power of reconciliation.
Norways, an East Ender with a gift for drawing and painting, was a corporal in the Cambridgeshire Regiment when he was captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore in February 1942. It was there that he met Yamanaka, whose acts of kindness sustained his faith in humanity amid the wickedness of camp life.
The young Japanese soldier – a devout Buddhist with a unbreakable belief in pacifism – shared his rations with starving prisoners and used his meager army allowance to buy food for certain PoWs, including Norways.
He also took an interest in Norways’ artwork. With paper and pencils in very short supply, he would risk punishment by occasionally smuggling in pencils to ensure that Norways could continue drawing.
“Despite the obstacles and differences between the two men, it is clear that they shared a similarly compassionate view of the world,” Bill’s 48-year-old son, Toby Norways, told the Guardian earlier this month during a trip to Japan to meet Yamanaka’s family.
Bill Norways’ dozens of exquisitely detailed drawings depict the deprivation he and his fellow prisoners endured under the Japanese: an unfinished watercolour of PoWs outside the canteen at Kranji camp in Singapore, and a sketch showing the faint outlines of emaciated prisoners in the dysentery ward.
Bill Norways spent more than a year in Singapore before being sent to help build the Thailand-Burma “death railway”. Most of the hundreds of British PoWs who built the line had been sent back to Singapore by February 1944. British military records show that Norways, who suffered bouts of dysentery, was too sick to leave his camp in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. But by April 1944 he was well enough to return to Singapore, where he remained until Japan’s defeat in August the following year.
Before he left Singapore, Norways secured Yamanaka’s address in Japan, though neither was sure that their friendship would last beyond the war. Nevertheless, after returning to England, Norways sent a speculative letter to the address scribbled in his notebook. A while later he received a reply in beautifully handwritten Japanese accompanied by an English translation.
The two men continued to exchange letters for more than 30 years until Norways’ death in 1986. Yamanaka, who was convinced he would be the first to die, would outlive his friend by a decade.
“Their letters always maintained that friendship is possible, irrespective of political and social ideologies,” said Toby Norways, a scriptwriting lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire who is turning his father’s experiences into a PhD thesis and a novel.
Seven decades after captor and captive struck up their unlikely friendship, Toby decided to delve into the past life of the father he never really knew. Bill rarely mentioned the war to his family, and saw little of his son after divorcing his mother and moving to Cornwall when Toby was eight.
Thanks to Yoshiko Tamura and Taeko Sasamoto of the PoW Research Network Japan – who were awarded MBEs in 2006 for their contribution to UK-Japan relations – Norways discovered that the Yamanaka family still lived at the same address in Ibaraki prefecture north of Tokyo that Bill had written in his notebook.
Earlier this month, Toby came face to face with the daughter, granddaughter and other relatives of his father’s former guard. “It was quite emotional, and a bit surreal,” said Norways, as he clicked through photographs of him and the Yamanaka family.
“It was a shame that I never really talked deeply with my father. I would have loved to talk with him about his wartime experiences, though I never really had the opportunity. Besides, PoWs rarely discussed their war stories with spouses or relatives.”
Before returning to England, Toby faced a potentially more difficult meeting, with an old friend of Yamanaka’s. As an office assistant in the Kranji camp, Taku Kawarai never really got to know Bill Norways, and said he had never witnessed the brutality towards PoWs for which Japanese camps were notorious. Most of what he knew of the British prisoner had come from Yamanaka, whom Kawarai had met in Vietnam in 1941, while they were completing basic training.
The Japanese soldiers, who hailed from the same prefecture, travelled from Vietnam to Bangkok by road, before continuing on foot to Singapore, where they stayed until the end of the war. They remained close friends until Yamanaka’s death in the mid-90s.
“He burst into tears and held my hand when he saw me,” Toby Norways said of Kawarai, who will turn 102 next month. As they prepared to say goodbye, Kawarai again clasped his hand and said: “I have no words. Thank you. I have never felt so happy. Please take care of yourself.” As Norways left the room, Kawarai remained seated on the tatami-mat floor, weeping.
“Meeting Mr Kawarai, and seeing his tears, brought home how powerful feelings of regret can be – even after so many years,” Norways said. “It’s hard to believe that this apparently charming old man could have been part of such a brutal opposing army. But I don’t blame him for the crimes committed by so many of his comrades.”
Of all the correspondence that changed hands between Bill Norways and Yamanaka, it is the poem that he dedicated to his former guard that resonates most with these two families on opposite sides of the world. In his reply, Yamanaka wrote: “Thank you for your poem. I would like to engrave it upon granite, which we can place near my family tomb. This monument will be my family’s treasure, and we will always remember you.”
As Yamanaka sensed he was nearing the end of his life, he moved the tablet from his garden to the place where his ashes would be placed, alongside his ancestors. There he rests, yards from Bill Norways’ tribute to a friendship formed in war. It ends: “But, prompted by; an even greater power; our hearts conversed; and softly spoke of peace; Dear God; who brothers made of us; touch all men’s souls; so mankind may be thus!”