For a number of years now I have been invited to attend the commemoration of the “Featherston Incident” to offer prayers and the concluding Blessing. It has always been a low key and moving occasion and but this year the 70th anniversary had an added dimension.
You probably know that during World War 11 there was a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp just north of Featherston. Seventy years ago on 25th February forty eight Japanese prisoners were shot dead by the prison guards. They were staging a “sit in”.
Eight hundred Japanese prisoners, mostly from Guadalcanal, were in that camp. All the able men of the town were away at war, the guards at the camp were mostly soldiers from the World War 1 or those who hadn’t past muster to go to war. There was a national fear of the Japanese. They were hatred because of stories of their ruthless treatment of enemy soldiers and civilians.
For them, to be captured and imprisoned brought incredible shame. They would rather break out of prison and die in the process than be held prisoner. It’s not difficult to imagine the charged atmosphere in that camp and how that shooting came about.
Following the shooting the Japanese prisoners asked if they could have a Chaplain. In a letter written to Hessell Throughton (who became the Chaplain) the writer, who had visited the prisoners, reported that he was rather surprised at a request, “for spiritual advice in connection with the Christian faith”. Evidently the prisoners had been influenced by the care those who had been injured in the shooting received in our hospitals.
Hessell Throughton had been a missionary in Japan and spoke fluent Japanese. He had been approached earlier to become an interpreter at the camp but had not wanted to take up that position.He now felt he couldn’t refuse. Coming to the camp as a Chaplain gave him access to the prisoners in a very different way but he must have always wondered if the outcome that February day would have been different had he already been at the camp. He and his wife and young family came and lived in Johnson Street in Featherston among a people, it would be fair to say, mostly hated and feared the Japanese. It can’t have been easy for the Chaplain and his family.
Hessell Throughton’s three children, were at the 70th commemoration. Hessell’s son Richard gave the address. His father’s role as Chaplain was to relate to a traumatized and now violated community who were ashamed of ever having been captured and now felt misunderstood. They were angry and vulnerable. His role was to listen and genuinely care in order to create understanding and reconciliation. He must have been a patient and very
courageous man. It was noted that he showed in his own living and taught what a radical difference Jesus Christ can make.
A number of Japanese in that camp did embrace Christianity. One of them Shinya wrote a book of his time in the Featherston camp. He takes the reader on a journey with him through the experience of being captured, of the emotional crisis this produced, and on the per-sonal transformation of his world view and understanding of life as he gradually came to Christian faith. It provides invaluable cultural in-sights, as well as important learning on our treatment of each other. It was for him simple things that made such a difference: Christmas cards signed by the women of the Wellington churches, Christmas cake cooked for them by the Chaplain’s wife.
I found this commemoration very moving and challenging.
Could I have done the work of that Chaplain? Afterall this is what we are called to do: not to think of ourselves as any better than anyone else and treat each other with respect and compassion. I found myself questioning my own attitude to the Japanese. I wasn’t born during the war but soon afterward. My dad served in Guadalca-nal and those stories are part of my family history, part of my young formative years. Did I too need to seek to change my own attitude?
I shared the story with the Thursday discussion group at Featherston. Someone there said he knew the man who fired the first shoot, he was a boy just out of school. But mostly when I shared the story of the commemoration the conversations found its way back to the atrocities committed by the Japanese against us…as if somehow it makes the shooting of forty eight Japanese prisoners justified or at least “not so bad”.
The truth is in this none of us are without fault. It’s good for us to hear these stories and to think on them. To be honest about our own fears and hurts. It helps us move to a better understanding of each other. But to forgive isn’t something that can be forced on us either. To
forgive takes a lot more than the words. It requires us to be trans-formed and that simply can’t happen in our own strength. We need to rely on the spirit of God for that.
God of every generation that has been and is yet to be.
As we reflect on what has been. Help us in our time to live our lives in such a way as to break down well preserved walls of division, to build bridges where they have fallen into disrepair among peoples and to be bold in speaking out against injustice.
St Francis wrote this prayer:
Make us instruments of your peace
Where there is hatred let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness joy.
Abundant Easter Blessings