The Government should apologise for a wartime "massacre" of Japanese prisoners by New Zealand soldiers 70 years ago, a prominent academic says.
Forty-eight prisoners of war were killed when guards opened fire at the Featherston Military Camp on February 25, 1943, and a further 31 were injured.
The official view at the time, still widely held today, is that the prisoners were intent on rioting after refusing to work, and the guards were justified in gunning them down.
That view has been stoked by lingering anti-Japanese sentiment. Cherry trees planted as a memorial at the site were ripped up by angry locals in 2001.
But Massey University lecturer Jim Veitch said the killings were a "premeditated attack" undertaken by trigger-happy guards intent on punishing the Japanese.
"There are two different stories out there about what happened," he said. "One story is that the Japanese prisoners caused this and brought it on themselves, to put it crudely.
"[That story has] been used to camouflage the reality, that it was a premeditated attack on the Japanese, and probably the worst you can find. It was a setup to teach the Japanese a lesson or two."
The bodies of the prisoners were cremated to "destroy the evidence", and their remains later disappeared.
A military court of inquiry "predictably" cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing, he said. "They tried to clean it up and it was all done in secrecy."
Dr Veitch is a senior fellow at Massey's Centre for Defence and Security Studies, and has long lectured on political conflict, terrorism and counter-terrorism.
He will publish an essay to mark Monday's 70th anniversary of the killings, and has asked the Government for an official apology for what has been labelled "the Featherston Massacre".
He has also written to the South Wairarapa District Council suggesting that the apology take place at the memorial.
"There are some who think that the Japanese were scumbags and shouldn't have any recognition at all," he said.
"But it's got nothing to do with the Japanese behaviour during the war, it's got to do with our guys violating the Geneva Convention."
Yesterday South Wairarapa Mayor Adrienne Staples said the council deliberately kept the annual memorial low-key, as some locals were still angry at Japan's wartime treatment of prisoners.
The creation of the memorial had caused "a great deal of unrest" within the community. But recently she had noticed a "quiet improvement" in attitudes to the event.
"We believe that, rather than making a big fuss, we should allow that change to occur slowly on its own."
THE OFFICIAL VERSION
During World War II, about 800 mainly Japanese naval prisoners were held at the Featherston Military Camp, where each day they were made to work.
On February 25, 1943, some 240 prisoners refused to work, instead staging a sit-in.
Japanese leader Toshio Adachi was denied a conference with the camp's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Donald Donaldson.
A standoff resulted. When guards tried to seize Adachi, the prisoners began throwing stones.
A warning shot was fired, and Adachi was shot and wounded.
Prisoners rushed the guards, who opened fire. Thirty seconds later, 31 Japanese were dead, with 17 later dying of their wounds. A further 31 were injured.
One Kiwi died from a ricochet.
A military court of inquiry decided the shooting could not have been avoided.
In 1995 Nakamato Toshio, head of Masterton's Juken Nissho timber mill, financed a peace garden at the site of the now-demolished camp.
The memorial was almost scuttled when former soldiers who had been imprisoned by the Japanese fought to stop the garden being planted.
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully was also lukewarm on the idea of an apology.
He said the proposal was ''well intentioned and not without merit'', but ''there has been no request from Japan to go down this path. Doing so could take us into debate over a range of other controversial wartime incidents, to no great benefit to the relationship."
Takashi Ato, from the Japanese embassy in Wellington, said the incident took place in ''very trying circumstances'' during wartime, but the two countries now enjoyed very friendly relations.
All those marking the memorial wanted to make it a ''future-oriented'' event, rather than re-examining the past. The deputy head of mission would attend Monday's memorial.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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