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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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In Her Husband's Arms

Apr. 20, 2015

On The Focus tonight, we're looking at a love story for the ages. Newlyweds divided by war, then death...and a widow devoted to her late husband for decades. The story begins about 70 years ago, during World War Two. A Japanese man went to fight in Burma, but never returned. His widow spent her life trying to find out what happened to him. Now nearly 90 years old, she decided to take one last journey to the place where her husband rests. NHK WORLD's Miki Ebara joined her.

Chiyoko Kawakita spent time with her husband in this remote village of Kyoto, but only for 2 weeks. More than 70 years have passed since she last saw him. She is getting excited to return to Myanmar, where her husband's body rests. She says it has become her second home, a place she would like to visit again and again.

Chiyoko was only 16 when she married Yorio in 1943. He was her cousin, and she thought he was a kind, handsome man. Two weeks after their marriage, Yorio was called to go to war. Chiyoko remembers his last words. She told him she would be a little more mature by the time he got back. He replied that she should just stay as she is.

The Imperial Japanese Army fought the Allied forces in its Burma-India campaign and suffered catastrophic losses. Troops were poorly equipped. They were not used to fighting in jungles or crossing huge rivers. In the end, more than 130,000 Japanese lives were lost in Myanmar alone.

News of her husband's death reached Chiyoko 2 years after the war ended. His remains never came home.

Chiyoko read her husband's will. He asked her to stay in his family and to take care of his parents, so that's what she did. She never remarried nor had any children. She always dreamed of going to Myanmar one day in search of Yorio's footsteps.

The opportunity came in 1976. Chiyoko got a chance to travel there for the first time. She's since visited more than 15 times, erected memorials and paid tribute to the dead soldiers. She is turning 89 this year, and is getting frailer. She decided to go back to the country for what she says could be her last time.

Chiyoko and other bereaved families first headed to Mandalay Hill in the central region. This was the site of a fierce battle between the Japanese and the British Army in 1945. She is determined to climb up to the hilltop to visit a memorial. One member of the group is a Shinto priest. He lost his father in Myanmar. They hold a traditional ceremony for their loved ones. Despite the long climb, Chiyoko looks happy and content. She says that once she sets foot in Myanmar, she feels as if she's in her husband's arms, and that makes her very happy.

It's the hottest season of the year. But Chiyoko doesn't mind walking on dirt roads. She feels like she is experiencing what Yorio went through.

Tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers died while retreating from the north of the country to the south alongside the Ayeyarwady River. Many died from tropical diseases and starvation.

Over the years, Chiyoko learned that Yorio contracted malaria while leading his team back to the south. A fellow soldier who survived later said Yorio spoke of Chiyoko as he was being carried on a stretcher. Yorio said, "I wonder if my wife has a baby now." He died at a field hospital in a town called Meza in September 1944.

On the last day of the trip, Chiyoko read a letter she wrote to him. She wrote "For my love, Yorio. I was truly blessed to have been able to marry you. The next time I see you, will I be able to remain by your side? For now, I will breathe in the air here in Burma, and I will return to Japan, with everyone watching over me. Goodbye for now."

Chiyoko and the others brought pieces of paper, each with names of the 300 soldiers from their region who died in Myanmar. Chiyoko wanted to tell each one of them that they will never be forgotten. She also prayed that no woman will ever have to experience what she went through.

Miki Ebara joins Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: Miki, that's quite a story. How did you find Chiyoko Kawakita?

Ebara: I was doing a report about the Burma-India campaign about 10 years ago and I interviewed many former soldiers. I spoke with Chiyoko a couple of times on the phone. She told me her story, and we said it would be great if we could go to Myanmar together. She called me out of blue last January, and asked if I would mind joining on her last trip. I agreed. She was quite outspoken during the trip about how she felt about her husband--something I think is quite rare for the Japanese in her generation. I think she wanted to tell the world about the unwavering love she kept in her heart all these years.

Beppu: How difficult would it have been for her to organize this kind of trip to Myanmar?

Ebara: Well, as you know, Myanmar spent decades under a military dictatorship. Japanese and other foreigners needed visas to visit. That took time. It was also tough to access remote areas. Still, in the 1970s and 80s-- when former soldiers were in their 50s and 60s-- there were many group tours from Japan.

The Japanese government erected the main memorial for all victims in Myanmar in 1981. There have been 16 repatriations of dead soldiers. The government says the remains of about 90,000 of the 137,000 who died have returned. But some of the heaviest casualties occurred in areas that are under the control of ethnic minority groups. Many of these groups are armed and some still fight against the government.

Chiyoko's husband is believed to have died in one of those places, in the north. She couldn't get permission from Myanmar's government to go there this time. The situation has also hindered repatriation efforts.

Still, Myanmar is slowly transitioning into a democracy. It's becoming much easier for people to travel to the country. But many of those who remember the war have died, and even their children are growing too old to visit.

Shibuya: What struck me was seeing the locals support Chiyoko and looking after the memorials, although they likely have bitter and painful memories of the war.

Ebara: It's true. Former Japanese soldiers have told me that even during the war, the people of Myanmar -- then known as Burma -- were very kind to them. When the soldiers were on the run, locals gave them food and water and even took care of the injured. Many former soldiers never forgot that. Following the war, they became businessmen and returned to Myanmar to help train young people there, or contribute to development projects.

Over the years, Chiyoko has made friends with locals, who look forward to her return. But her generation fears that those who remember the war will disappear. In fact, during this trip, she asked locals like this monk to take care of the memorials because she could no longer visit. Chiyoko kept telling me that we should try to learn from the past so that we can build better relations. That's probably the message she wants to leave for younger generations on both sides.