FANGZHENG COUNTY, China--Amid all the rancor in China over Japan's war responsibility, local historian Guo Xiangsheng comes across as a lone voice in the wilderness.
He is campaigning to preserve the memory of thousands of Japanese settlers who died in China after the Imperial Japanese Army abandoned them in the chaotic close of World War II.
The seeds of his quest lie in Japan's military occupation of northeastern China. Many Japanese were sent there as farmers to raise productivity after Tokyo established its Manchukuo puppet state in 1932.
Later, the settlers were dragooned to defend its northern borders against the Soviet Red Army, which overran the region in August 1945.
The settlers were left to fend for themselves after the Japanese army fled.
It is estimated that 5,000 Japanese settlers perished in Fangzheng county alone in the immediate aftermath of Japan's surrender.
From the Chinese perspective, the Japanese settlers were "invaders," says the 62-year-old Guo. On the other hand, they were left behind by the army that was supposed to protect them.
For this reason, Guo wants Chinese to view the Japanese settlers in Heilongjiang province, which includes Fangzheng county, as victims of the war rather than as aggressors.
Guo, a former elementary school teacher, became keenly interested in this aspect of the conflict as a member of local government commission researching wartime history. He was intrigued by the fact that so many Japanese settlers died or were forced to abandon their children in China.
In 1983, he began interviewing Japanese who were abandoned and raised by Chinese families after the war or, as adults, decided to stay on. To date, he has collected stories from 60 or so such Japanese and written several books about them.
It was through this activity Guo concluded that what occurred in Fangzheng county embodied the essence of war: ordinary citizens too easily become victims.
Fangzheng county is about 200 kilometers east of bustling Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, and faces the Songhua River.
When Soviet troops began their assault on Manchukuo in August 1945, Japanese settlers living in areas east of Fangzheng county fled for their lives. For many, the journey covered several hundred kilometers on foot.
The settlers, fearful of retribution, also sought the sanctuary of Harbin and elsewhere.
There are a number of sites that Guo is determined to preserve as testimony to the suffering of the fleeing Japanese. As of now, there is nothing to mark them out as places where terror, despair and death were common currency.
The sites he has in mind are well-known to local residents; for example, the banks of the Daluomi River, called "Siwangduhe," or Entrance to death, in Chinese.
Then, there are the ruins of Yihantong Port from which ships carrying desperate settlers departed. Traces still exist of a settlers' community in Jixing village, where fleeing Japanese huddled in the freezing cold 67 years ago, fearful, yet clinging to survival.
Yet, there are no indications there of the tragedy that unfolded.
In the Siwangduhe, fleeing Japanese tore up kimono to create a lifeline that would keep them safe as they negotiated the treacherous currents of the Daluomi River. Many were washed away and drowned.
"Dozens of people, including children, lost all their strength and were swept away. It was so tragic," recalled a farmer, now 88, who watched with a sense of helplessness. "Japanese soldiers were also nearby, but they didn't do anything (to help)."
Yihantong Port is now fenced off and overrun with weeds. A house where fleeing Japanese settlers gathered is now occupied by a couple who are farmers.
Countless Japanese settlers died of hunger and disease.
It is estimated that 4,000 Japanese were left behind. Many were adopted. Others married Chinese or settled in China.
In June, Guo and his colleagues asked the Heilongjiang provincial government to preserve the places related to the Japanese settlers as historical sites.
The plea was met with a stern refusal.
"The central government's permission is necessary," said an official, noting that "the timing is bad."
This was apparently due to a cenotaph for Japanese settlers that was erected by Fangzheng county in July 2011.
It was dismantled some 10 days afterward as people wanted to know why a monument was put up to commemorate "invaders." The area around the removed cenotaph was also placed off-limits.
A ban on visits to a graveyard in the off-limits area was lifted this past spring.
But when an organization from Nagano Prefecture, from where many people went to northeastern China as settlers, tried to visit a town near Fangzheng county in July this year, the local government blocked it.
"It's a pity that the cenotaph for Japanese farmers, who were victims of the war, was misunderstood," Guo said.
He is now busy trying to hatch ways to promote the preservation of sites associated with the wartime Japanese settlers.
"Preserving the history of this area will help promote the sound development of Japan-China relations," he said.
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