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Remembering a Japanese 'hero' of the Spanish Civil War

by Antonio Fernandez *


Jack Shirai is a Japanese hero who is barely known in his home country He earns his "heroic" title as the only Japanese to volunteer to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Much of his early life however, remains shrouded in mystery.

Born into the semifeudal atmosphere that prevailed in early 1920s Japan, he was, from childhood, a victim of society. He could have been the product of a single mother, the result perhaps of a liaison between a wealthy man and a humble woman. Or possibly he was the son of very poor parents who were unable to feed him.

Whatever the circumstances, he was taken to the Tobetsu Trappist Monastery in Hakodate as a small child and raised there. The reason for this mystery is that the records of Shirai's birth no longer exist.

I therefore decided to visit Hakodate to see what I could find out about Shirai. In particular, I wanted lo meet members of tbe Spanish Culture Association, which for many years has been interested in his life and deeds.

During a visit to the monastery, I was shown around by Padre Bernard Koyama, a Japanese monk who has worked there for 70 years. He confirmed that no records were kept on the orphans who once lived there.

    Shirai's history really begins after he made his way lo the United States in his late teens or early 20s and eventually settled as a cook in a Japanese‑owned restaurant in New York, where he  met writer Ayako Ishigaki (1903‑ 1996) and her painter husband, Eitaro. During this period, the Great Depression was taking its toll on the poor and the unemployed. Shirai managed to take some food from the restaurant to Ishigaki and her husband, who were virtually starving. During this time Shirai told them a little about himself. One of Ishigaki's books provides us with a rare glimpse of Shirai and mentions where he was born and brought up.

    Shirai left his job as a cook, and like many other volunteers, made his way to Spain to fight the fascist forces led by Gen. Francisco Franco.

    Following an election in February 1936 that brought a leftist Popular Front government to power following a series of crises, the military rose up throughout Spain. Franco led a force from Spanish Morocco and he later assumed the leadership of the Nationalists, as the fascists were known. Hitler and Mussolini lent him a hand by mercilessly bombing Spanish cities from the air, a dress rehearsal for World War II.

    In today’s terminology, these were crimes against humanity. No city or small town was spared, including the famous Basque city of Guernica.  This town was flattened by German planes and Picasso memorialized this crime in his world-famous painting of the same name.

         To help the Republicam, volunteers fron around the world came to fight on the side of freedom. This was the birth of the famous International Brigades, made op of ordinary people, such as students, teachers, workers and doctors. People like Shirai. Survivors of the International Brigades are still alive in the United States and other countries.

Harry Fisher, an American, wrote recently about his experiences of the time he went to Spain from New York, and joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, together with other Americans such as Clarence Kailin from Wisconsin, whom I was able to meet last year in the state caoital, Madison. Shirai was a member of the Lincoln Brigade and like the others arrived in Spain early in 1937.

Shirai is mentioned in Fisher’s book “Comrades”. Because he was a cook in the United States, he used to cook for the Lincoln Brigade. His speciality was garbanzos (chick-peas), which he apparently made so delicious they were regarded as a delicacy.

Shirai’s best friends in Spain were Mel Offsink and Max Krauthamer. Fisher sat in on many of their bull sessions. His favourite stories were when they talked about their plans for the future. After the war, they agreed to open a restaurant together in New York, in which anyone who had fought in Spain in the International Brigades would never have to pay for a meal. Shirai took pleasure in describing the food they would serve and the delicacies he would make.

Following the large number of causalities the brigades suffered in the battle of Jarama, Shirai left his stove and threw himself physically into battle with his comrades. His friend Krauthamer died on July 6, 1937 when he was hit in the head by a bullet. Shirai died about five or six days later. Offsink was killed about a year later.

So manyidealists and freedom lovers died in Spain. They were anonymous heroes coming from many lands and from all walks of life. Among them was Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian who left his clinic in Montreal to volunteer.

Upon arriving in Spain, he realized that a huge number of people fighting at the front were bleeding to death as blood transfusions were not possible outside hospitals. He went to London and did specialist research on blood transfusions. When he returned to Spain with his new knowledge, he was able to save many lives.

There are few memorials to these men. Recently, Kailin succeeded in having a monument erected to honor those people from Madison who were in the International Brigades. (Many of them found themselves fighting fascism again in World War II, this time with the U.S. forces in Europe.) The granite memorial is placed in a park next the Jewish Temple in front of Madison Lake. I wonder if someone in Japan would make a similar gesture to honour the Japanese volunteer who stood up for liberty against fascism.

Recently, surviving volunteers who fought in the International Brigades have been invitated to return in Spain.

These men faced a modern military machine, armed only with a strong idealistic conviction that they were fighting evil.

Although this is a much overdue gesture, it nevertheless is a welcome one.