Just off national highway 311 in the mountains inland from Kumano city in the south of Mie Prefecture stands a small memorial to 16 British soldiers who died working in the local Kishu copper mine during World War II.
The men were among 300 prisoners of war captured in Singapore, who were brought to the area after first being forced to labor for the Japanese military on the Thai-Burma Railway and also in China. They called themselves the "Iruka Boys" after the area where their POW camp (a converted school) was located.
The lives of the POW's was better than the harsh treatment they had suffered in Thailand. They worked alongside Japanese miners and were well treated by the local people.
However, 16 of them were not to return home. The people of Iruka constructed a simple grave for the men complete with a copper cross.
Their story became known to Japanese Christian woman Keiko Holmes, who was married to a British man and originally came from the area.
She worked to establish the first Pilgrimage of Reconciliation to Japan in 1992 when former Iruka Boys returned on a visit to Japan. Since then over 500 FEPOW's (Far East Prisoners of War) have returned to Japan to be free of the "bondage of sorrow and bitterness" caused by their wartime experiences.
In 2002 a memorial service attended by the British Ambassador and 24 of the Iruka Boys was held. An English oak was planted beside a Japanese cherry tree, but unfortunately visiting this week, the English oak has not adapted to the local conditions and seems to have withered and died, somewhat symbolic of the 16 soldiers who perished here back in the 1940's.
Further along the road walking in the direction of the spectacular Senmaida rice terraces is the interesting Kiwa Kozan Museum, dedicated to the centuries of mining in the area. The museum has a section dedicated to the Iruka Boys with personal objects such as hand-made notebooks made from cigarette packets, pipes and war-time postcards donated by the men.
The remarkable story of Keiko Holmes OBE and her work for reconciliation through Agape World can be found in the website below:
Buses from Kumano-shi run out to the Seiryu-so Onsen near the beautiful Kitayama River. The journey takes about 50 minutes. The bus stop is on the other side of the road from Kumano Station across from the Tourist Information Center. The first bus is at 11.25am. From Seiryu-so walk towards the bridge and turn right, through a short tunnel, before you reach the sign to Little Britain on your right.
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