None of My Business
Appeared in Business in Vancouver – Issue 1158, January 3-9, 2012
Ken and Charlie would have been gratified.
Or would they?
This month, 70 years after the fall of Hong Kong and the beginning of the cruel ordeal of its defenders including Canadian soldiers like Ken Cambon and Charlie Considine, the Japanese government apologized.
Or did it?
Cambon, a 17-year-old rifleman, became a Vancouver doctor and UBC surgery professor, author of a-prisoner-of-war memoir ironically titled Guest of Hirohito. Charlie Considine was a Vancouver Sun and Province proofreader – insensitively called by at least one colleague “the monkey-eater.” The brutally treated POWs caught and ate monkeys to augment their rotten food, literally rotten: Some gladly ate maggoty rice for its added protein. In the unequal battle 290 Canadians were killed; almost as many, 267, died in the camps.
When we met in 1963 Charlie, hunched and older than his years, unashamedly said he (still) feared the Japanese. When Japan apologized Dec. 8 for that regime’s viciousness – one of the cruellest white-hating Japanese actually came from Kamloops – Ken and Charlie were long dead.
Ah, the apology. Canada hailed it. John Weston, a West Vancouver MP (his father captured at Singapore, his uncle legendary Victoria Cross winner “Smokey” Smith), and Eve Adams, up-and-coming Ontario MP and parliamentary secretary to Minister of Veterans Affairs Steven Blaney, spread the good word in Vancouver. At the West Van Legion they were met with a certain Saturday-night cheeriness and a light-hearted skeptical question by veteran Judy Young: “Will they offer any compensation?” No, Adams replied. Young smiled, unsurprised. (A footnote: University student Andrew McManus, grandson of branch vice-president and veteran Donald Sinclair, wrote a paper arguing that the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, a link built by POWs, is historical rubbish. What’s the world coming to when you can’t trust Hollywood-hatched history?)
But, somewhat mysteriously, details of the apology were thin on the ground. In fact it wasn’t issued from the top. It was made by the Japanese parliament’s vice-president for foreign affairs, Toshiyuki Kato, to a room of 14 people, including three frail POWs, among them Horace Gerrard, of Esquimalt. Kato didn’t speak from a written text and the ministry’s official record for that day makes no reference to any apology.
Politics-follows-the-money theorists might harbour the hard-eyed suspicion that the apology is linked to trade, notably in a year when Japan’s economy was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, followed by GM toppling Toyota as the world’s No. 1 carmaker. (Declaration of interest: This writer’s wife’s 2000 Toyota Echo, 320,000 clicks on the clock, is far tougher – better – than any car in my 60 years of automotive acquaintance.)
In 1995 Japan was Canada’s second-biggest trade partner. No more. Still, in 2010 Canada exported $9.06 billion of goods to Japan – B.C.’s $4.19 billion by far the largest of any province – and imported $13.44 billion, of which $2.51 billion went to B.C., giving the province a favourable balance of trade.
A Grinch take in a merry season? In contrast, Derrill Henderson is euphoric. As national secretary of the Hong Kong Veterans Association and founder of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association (for POW families), he patiently sought an apology for 13 years, engaging with a receptive Japanese embassy. And, he stressed, Kato’s title disguises his importance: He’s foreign ministry point man for North America. Kato spoke without text. Henderson didn’t seek a high-level political apology: “We wanted and would not accept anything but a face-to-face apology.” He copied a few of Kato’s words: “Deep remorse … a heartfelt apology.”
Present were just four Japanese and 10 Canadians, including three POWs and their caretakers. “I guess I’m a romantic,” Henderson says, “but I honestly felt there was a bunch of soldiers in that room.”
© Trevor Lautens, 2012