Changi: articles

Gotaro Tsunashima

Man with a mission ... Japanese actor Gotaro Tsunashima, who is to visit the site of the POW camp, on the set of the new ABC series Changi. Photo: Peter Rae.

Pilgrimage to confront Japanese ghosts at Changi

Gotaro Tsunashima is about to embark on a personal pilgrimage - one he never imagined he would undertake, to a place he had scarcely heard of.

Before he left Japan in January, Tsunashima, a 27-year-old Tokyo-based actor, had heard of Changi, but was unaware of what had happened there - events that left a permanent scar, not only on those Australians who were incarcerated there, but on the Australian consciousness.

Changi, the notorious World War II prisoner-of-war camp, is now a name that also resonates with Tsunashima.

He has been cast in his first major role, that of a Japanese officer, Lieutenant Aso, second-in-command at the camp, in the new ABC television series Changi.

With shooting of the series drawing to an end, Buddhist Tsunashima will travel to Changi in Singapore next week to pray for the dead Australian prisoners - as well as the Japanese guards who committed ritual suicide at the war's end.

Tsunashima will not ask for forgiveness, but will offer his respects for the "lost souls", according to Japanese tradition.

He will return to Australia next month to finish the final scenes of the six-part series, written by John Doyle, aka Roy Slaven.

Changi, a fictionalised account of life in the camp that has been inspired by real events, attempts to understand not only the Australian POW experience, but that of the Japanese whose task it was to guard them.

It has been an illuminating experience for Tsunashima, who says he knew little about Japan's role in World War II and even less about the Japanese mistreatment of Allied prisoners, whom they considered to be cowards for having surrendered.

Following his experiences in Australia, Tsunashima thinks the Japanese should reflect more about their role in the war, but also that the West should try to understand the complex reasons why the Japanese behaved in the way they did.

Changi depicts the brutality of the Japanese officers towards their Australian captives, with Tsunashina's character one of the instigators. Though Tsunashima, who spoke through an interpreter, accepts the veracity of the violence he has been asked to enact in the series, he has also come to understand the complexities of the Japanese psyche at the time.

He believes that the "loss of the individual", as a militaristic Japan combined to fight the war at the time, was a significant factor in creating that psyche.

"The Japanese at the time had no choice," Tsunashima said. "They were people caught in hysteria. It was war. Everyone was caught in an untenable situation. Changi is a place where a lot of people died. It's a hackneyed thing to say, perhaps, but as a Japanese I must go to Singapore to offer my respects."

By Anthony Dennis
April 20, 2001
The Sydney Morning Herald