While I was up in Niigata, Lily arranged for me to meet one of her ex-students from when she was in Niigata 7 years ago, Kazuo san. Kazuo-san is a retired high school Japanese (kokugo) teacher who began learning English after he retired, his fluent command of the language gives me hope.... however as a Zen practitioner, I have little doubt his self discipline (and aura of gentleness and calm) far exceeds any self disclipine that I am likely to attain....
It's a rare treat to meet an English speaking kokugo teacher. Good kokugo teachers are often knowledgable not only about Japanese literature but also Japanese history. Kazuo san was very patient with my barrage of questions that followed no particularly methodical thought process - POW camps, Tokugawa era open ports, architecture of Niigata, changes in Japanese land ownership etc etc :) He is very energetic with a keen interest in photography and hiking; the sort of person you could do a series of interviews with and make a book.
He said in his home town, Joetsu, in the south of Niigata prefecture there was a WWII POW labour camp which held mostly Australian soldiers, but some British too, who were transported from Indonesia. I didn't think to ask what year they were transported - I imagine 1942 or 1943. Apparently the labour camp was one where agricultural chemicals were being produced. It surprised me as I had imagined, especially after reading Nobi a book written by Shohei Oka a surviving soldier of WWII which bleakly describes the misery and starvation endured by Japanese occupying troops in the Philippines, that ammunition and armaments production would have taken priority over food production.
Kazuo-san took us to an old house owned by the Itoh family, the primary landholders of Niigata and and one stage the largest landowning family in Japan (in part as a result of over-taxing local farmers and seizing their land). It was an impressive house with a serene garden. A new restaurant has been built there, which is in keeping with the atmosphere of the surroundings.
I have included some pictures of the place - I didn't take many because there was a tour group there at the same time as us. I have also included some photos that Reo took there - the world through the eyes of a two year old. ;)
Something I should also mention with Kazuo san, he was extremely knowledgeable, but if he didn't know something he had no hesitation in saying so and then giving an answer based on his educated guess. I really respect that. From my historians point of view, a person becomes so much more credible as a source of information if he or she doesn't make up answers when they don't know something. From a personal point of view, I really appreciate the sincerity and humility, and the love of learning that is contained in simply saying 'I'm not sure' and then giving an opinion.
I will be sure to seek him out next time I go to Niigata.
Lily most likely will put more interesting pictures on her blog once H1N1 abates in their household: