When history is defined by language

On a Saturday morning, my son and I were scurrying up the hill to Memories at the Old Ford Factory.

We were rushing to make it for a history-through-drama workshop at the World War II exhibition gallery.

The former car assembly plant was where the British formally surrendered Malaya to the Japanese invading forces on Feb 15, 1942. And, as part of the recent Children's Season during the June school holidays, the gallery staff were running a role-play programme, with professional actors, for kids to get a taste of what wartime conditions were like. Much to my pleasant surprise, my seven-year-old boy had been enthusiastic about signing up.

As we made our way along a narrow path from the carpark to the heritage building, a tour bus stopped nearby and disgorged a stream of tourists - Japanese students on a trip to the historic site.

One of them, a polite young man, wordlessly stepped aside, head bowed, to let me and my son go ahead. I smiled my thanks at him, and felt touched that these young people had come so far to learn more about a shared period of history which resulted in much pain, suffering and tragedy.

I peeked at the subdued teens in their silent rank and file, wondering what they made of the Singaporean actor dressed as a scary Japanese soldier, who had appeared and was barking orders at the workshop kids: Set the clocks to Tokyo time! Bow 90 degrees when you see me!

Make banana money!

I wandered the gallery while waiting for my son. Reading the wall text in the exhibition made me feel like crying. The write-up on Sook Ching, or the "inspection" and massacre of Chinese males by the kempeitai (Imperial Japanese military police), brought back memories of my parents telling me about my grandparents' narrow escapes back then.

One Eurasian war survivor had given an account of a terrible thing she witnessed.

I paraphrase from memory: While walking down the street one day, she had seen a mother with a sick and crying baby. She made a mental note to go back after her errand and help take the baby to seek medical help. However, before she could do so, she saw a Japanese soldier take the baby, throw it in the air and run through it with his bayonet. For years after, she would wake up crying at night, unable to articulate, even to her husband, how that scene was haunting her. When she eventually became a paediatric nurse, she made sure she picked up every crying baby in the nursery promptly - to make up for the one she did not.

As I tried to blink back my tears, the Japanese students began filing into the gallery space. For a moment, the past impinged upon the present and I didn't quite know how to react to these calm, courteous faces peering at the exhibits.

Part of me, unfairly, wanted their composure to break and for them to express some kind of condolence. Although, scrutinising their young, innocent faces, I knew they had no part in the war.

Then it struck me. They were passing through quickly because they could not read the English wall text or understand the context of the things on display.

Sadness hit me in a second wave. These students had possibly come to see, to be exposed to a different point of view from the war revisionism and jingoism that still plague sectors of Japanese society - just think of Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto's recent remarks about how comfort women were "necessary" for the Japanese army "risking their lives by running through storms of bullets". And the institution was failing to address them directly.

I asked a member of the gallery's outreach staff if there were Japanese translations of the wall texts available for such visitors to peruse on their own. Perhaps some laminated cards containing summaries that they could borrow from the reception and return? Or printed transcripts?

The answer was no. Most Japanese visitors came with their own tour guides, she told me, who would do the explaining, so there was no need.

Seeing the unconvinced look on my face, she added that the translation issue was something that the gallery was aware of and "working on".

History is written by the victors, goes that quote oft-attributed to wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

But it was English journalist-novelist George Orwell who wrote in 1944: "History is written by the winners. In the last analysis, our only claim to victory is that, if we win the war, we shall tell fewer lies about it than our adversaries. The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits 'atrocities', but that it attacks the concept of objective truth;

it claims to control the past as well as the future."

Whether the Japanese tourists who visit the war memorials here accept alternative perspectives to the nationalistic, imperialistic Greater East Asia Co- Prosperity Sphere justification for war their forebears subscribed to is something we can never be sure of. Would Japan's younger generations wish for war ever again if the propensity of cultured men to turn into atrocity-committing beasts is impressed upon them; if they could hear with their own ears the voices of the victims? We cannot be sure.

Still, there are many truths, and it seemed a pity to perpetuate one version of events to English-reading visitors, while excluding the Japanese speakers and denying them the right to knowledge, understanding and, yes, rebuttal within limits.

One might argue, too, that there are no Chinese, Malay, Tamil, German, Russian, Korean, Spanish - the list goes on - versions of the wall text. Yet, to me, the history dealt with in Memories at Old Ford Factory belongs to all of these different groups in the world. While it is understandable that our heritage institutions have limited resources, it might be worthwhile to consider a wide variety of translations for the visitors who are just as emotionally invested as Singaporeans like me.

I filled up the visitor feedback form at the gallery, writing about my experience there and suggesting the speedy implementation of Japanese translations, for starters. Then I dropped it in the box.

Irony is when one bunch of school kids are drilled in one form of World War II history - the one with stereotypically cruel aggressors, unremitting hardship and valiant Allied and local resistance - while another bunch walks around oblivious.

Occupying the same space, both sets remain locked within their own cultures.

Their outlooks diverge and, if we are not careful, never the twain shall meet.

The sins of the father should not be blamed upon the sons and daughters.

Yet, by denying those sins in one country and losing them in translation in another, we prevent old wounds from healing and hurt our descendants.

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