About 20 years ago, I met a man on a train in Japan. He was going through the carriage with a trolley selling hot green tea. The trolley was a ramshackle affair with his tea-making paraphernalia lashed to a wheeled metal frame with tape and string. He was an independent tea-seller, a free agent who had nothing to do with the train company. This was possible twenty years ago. I hope it still is. The man was small in stature and quite sprightly. He had the look of someone who had navigated his way through a difficult life, a survivor. He smiled a lot as if to say, ‘I come in peace’.
As it turned out, he was a survivor. Near the end of WWII, Japan was on its knees and was sending ever-younger soldiers to war. The tea seller had been fifteen, a child, when he’d been conscripted. The war ended soon afterwards. He was captured by the Russians and sent to a labour camp in Siberia.
Fortunately, his captors took pity on him because he was so young. He looked even younger, he said, because he was small and malnourished. He survived five years in that camp.
Surely, a person had to be tough to survive such conditions, I said. No, he corrected. The people who survived were the ones who could work as a team. You had to think of others. The key to surviving such hardship was to share.
When the man arrived back in Japan after all those years of war and then forced labour, he was met off the boat by government officials and given a cup of sake and a rice ball.