Teacher Participants' Testimony


Angela Brown, Anti-Racism & Diversity Consultant of Vancouver School Board


The Canada ALPHA 2008 China/Korea Peace and Reconciliation Study Tour was an invaluable experiential learning opportunity.  The tour included a myriad of educational and cultural experiences, interweaving lectures from scholars, historians, lawyers and founders of non-profit organizations, meetings with victims and survivors of the Asian Holocaust and visits to informative historical and cultural sites. 


Listening to the heart wrenching testimonials from the Nanking Massacre victims, the Military Sex Slaves and the Chemical Warfare victims was a complete assault on the senses.  I have the utmost respect for their courage and strength and for sharing their heartfelt lived experiences.  In spite of all the atrocities against them, the victims and survivors shared a consistent message of hope and unity.  Their positive energy, strong sense of self and desire for healing were palpable.  They have taught me that even in the darkest of moments, one’s spirit cannot be broken.  Their stories were emotionally, mentally and spiritually moving, creating a deep sense of empathy.  These sentiments would not have been clearly understood had I not had the opportunity to be in their powerful presence.  Once one is touched by someone’s lived experience, it is difficult to turn and look the other way.  This sense of empathy will inevitably lead one to take action to support those in need.  The victims and survivors have demonstrated that there is a glimmer of hope during dismal times and that fighting for social justice and human rights is a global issue in which all members of society have a responsibility to participate.  I strongly believe that every participant has been emotionally moved and will take some form of action as educators as a result of this invaluable experience. 


One issue that I continuously revisited during the tour was the challenge to teach about this chapter of history to Chinese and Korean students without instilling hatred or animosity towards Japanese people in general.  There is a natural tendency to feel unease, discomfort, fear or animosity when learning about such atrocities.  This chapter must be taught in the context of war, making comparisons to other wartime atrocities.  And the acts of the Japanese soldiers must be separated from the Japanese people and culture in general.  It is also crucial to educate students about the role, or lack thereof, of the Japanese government on this issue and the politics surrounding their refusal to grant an apology and redress for the victims. 


Having said all that, it is also completely understandable that victims and survivors would feel some hatred towards a group that has treated them in such unspeakable ways.  A few quotes that I read at the Nanking Massacre Museum, which address this issue, profoundly affected me:


What we must remember is history, not hatred

—Li Xiuying


Forgivable but unforgettable

—John Rabe


History is a mirror and lessons learned from history must not be forgotten

(Last display)


Our last day of the tour involved a final reflection session and participation in a demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy with the Military Sex Slave grandmas and local student groups, fighting for redress and an apology from the Japanese government. What an extremely fitting form of closure after two weeks of lectures and strategic dialogue . . . Talk minus Action equals ZERO!!  It’s incredible that these courageous grandmas participate in this demonstration EVERY Wednesday!! We have so much respect and admiration for their continuous strength to fight for justice and reconciliation and for their optimism and hope . . . what incredible beacons of light!


Finally, another positive aspect of the tour was meeting educators from all over Canada (and Australia) who are in various roles and teach a variety of subject areas.  Although there is an effort to standardize education in Canada, it will inevitably vary from province to province.  It was insightful to learn about the consistencies and inconsistencies of the education system, the role of the Ministries of Education, the School Boards and the differing aspects of the various school communities.  Connecting to these teachers has created a number of learning opportunities and potential future collaboration to support Canada ALPHA.


KUDOS to Canada ALPHA for your inspiration and ongoing commitment to this crucial work!  THANK YOU for this incredible opportunity; it was an honour and privilege to be a participant.



Jesse Brown, Strathcona Elementary School


The ALPHA Study Tour 2008 was an incredibly powerful learning and life experience!  It is something that I will continue to learn from for the rest of my life as it has impacted many of my views on life, the world and humanity.  This study tour provided me with invaluable opportunities to meet with such amazing, strong and passionate individuals such as the survivors, the historians and the activists.  The learning of this chapter of history on such a deep level has provided me with many tools to draw upon when teaching about it to others.  As a result of the ALPHA study tour, I have gained a much deeper understanding of this chapter of history, which will in turn allow me to pass on these learnings with a greater level of knowledge and passion to my students.


In particular, the most powerful learning experiences that occurred for me on this study tour were:


          The extensive amount of knowledge I gained on the subject as a result of the thorough pre-tour meetings.  The depth and intensity of the meetings helped me gain a deeper and more meaningful experience while on the tour.  It also allowed me to reflect from these experiences on a deeper level.


          The personal meetings with the survivors were incredibly powerful.  After hearing about and reading their stories second hand, to finally meet them brought goose bumps to my skin.  Just feeling their presence as they entered the room, with the knowledge I had of their stories, was unforgettable.  Their voices which told their own stories of tragedy will be etched in my mind forever.


          Learning first hand from the knowledgeable and passionate historians only added to the depth of my learnings.


          Meeting with teachers and students in the countries involved.  A discussion with a group of primary students at the Nanking Massacre Museum showed such promise for peace, with a reminder that history can repeat itself if it is NOT acknowledged or remembered.  Also, to meet with the Korean Teacher who is teaching this subject to students at her school in Seoul was very meaningful.  To share learning ideas, thoughts and information with fellow teachers allowed me to gain a better understanding of the practicality of teaching this to my students.


          Sensing the anger and unforgivingness amongst the survivors.  How can the survivors be expected to forgive the perpetrators when there has not even been an apology for it yet?  Witnessing the growing nationalistic views on the situation was scary but so REAL.  The importance of dealing with this issue in balancing the strong and growing nationalism in the victimized countries is stressed when thinking about future peace in the region.  How can forgiveness occur without apology?  Without forgiveness, the natural tendency is towards bitterness or mere tolerance.


Virginia Lam, Prince of Wales Secondary


The study tour was an incredible and powerful experience of a lifetime.  We met people with like minds: fellow educators, researchers, curators and compassionate people of all walks of life.  As a Canadian-Chinese, I had some understanding of my own family's struggle in Asia during WWII, but in two short weeks on this tour, I have such a deeper understanding of real suffering that Asian people endured during this period of history.  Alpha’s highly organized comprehensive study tour has given me the perspective and further conviction to pursue my own study and to support the teaching of Asian history, as the teacher-librarian, within the public schools.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of Alpha's 2008 study tour.


Henry Simon Lee, Burnaby Central Secondary School

The ALPHA Canada Study Tour to China and Korea 2008 in my opinion was an amazing experience both the professional and personal sense. The tour gave history educators a chance to visit the many historical locations in the period of WWII in Asia, in particular to Japanese Military aggressions in China and Korea. I found that travelling to the historical sites, such as the former “comfort stations” or the site of the Unit 731, and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum allowed for me to develop new lesson ideas and tools to bring back into my classroom. The part I valued the most was the opportunity to meet the survivors of the Nanjing Massacre, the Military Sexual Slaves and Slave Labourers. I found their stories of survival to be most inspirational as even during the darkest of times, the human will to survive is testament to how important it is that we do not forget such tragedies in history. The tour also brought many educators from a variety of backgrounds to share and collaborate on teaching ideas and tools, which I found most useful.  I would recommend this study tour for any history educator who wants to broaden their understanding of the WWII history in the Asian theatre. I would like to thank Canada ALPHA for providing this excellent professional development opportunity for teachers; I hope that many more teachers will participate in the future.

Dale Martelli, Vancouver Technical Secondary School

The experience had a multi-faceted impact; but the one central motif I keep returning to is morality.  Using the words of the Polish poet Milosz, it is the morality of the stomach not the morality of the mind. In my view, to study history, especially 20th century history, is to try to understand people and events in light of the moral choices they make; especially those choices when everything around you is burning down.  And in order to understand these moral decisions (or lack of), you must try to grapple with the nature of moral choice itself in extremity.  And in this, as Milosz, poetically argues, one must attend to the detail and to the detail of the detail.

In Nanjing, I listened as Xiuhong Zhang told her story her rape when she was 12 years old.  It was the detail of her choice as the Japanese soldier pointed his bayonet at her grandfather, threatening his life, which moved me beyond any words. I fear that when I try to put this experience in words, in Buber’s terms, it is rendered meaningless; but I must try.  I relived this testimony recently in the movie “Nanking” and to the core of my being, I was staggered; stunned by the situation that would require a child to make this sort of moral choice. What was not in the translation in Nanjing but what she spoke of in the film was what she said to her grandfather as he cleaned the blood from her legs; better I die than both of us.  I don’t believe she made this decision out of same Sartrean existential inner debate; it was a natural ethical impulse from her heart and soul; from her “stomach”.

Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness in France in 1943 after his 10 months as a POW and while he cycled around France, toying with his notions of resistance. This is Sartre’s book that presents us with the abstract choice an individual makes when confronted by the absurdity of existence.  But when choice is not available to us, then how are we to be moral? Can the central questions of morality be left to abstractions and logic? Is the truth and value of ethical acts to be determined by some calculus or by analytical theorems? I, like Milosz, believe that when Xiuhong made her choice, it was none of the above that determined her course and her courage. Miłosz observed that those who became dissidents were not necessarily those with the strongest minds, but rather those with the weakest stomachs; the mind can rationalize anything, he said, but the stomach can take only so much.

Rabe and Vautrin made their ethical decisions not from their minds but from from their stomachs; as, I believe, all the westerners who chose to stay behind and try to help by setting up the International Safety Zone. Courage seems to come from not from some abstract calculation but from the replusion one feels to do anything other.  I think we sometimes to look for over complicated answers when trying to understand individuals like Rabe, Vautrin, and Xiuhong.  Perhaps it quite simple; human revulsion to evil, human evil, leads people to the highest of ethical acts: that of saving people.

And in this now lies the absolute juxtaposition: the pure moral good of Rabe in contraposition to the pure moral evil of the Japanese soldier in Nanjing in 1937. This is not to say that sometime before or sometime after, this Japanese soldier who raped Xiuhong may not have had some sort of moral sensibilities but in this time, in this place, he was stripped of all moral sensibilities. Similarly, this is not to say that Rabe was inherently a pure moral person before or after this deed; in this we are all sinners sometime in life. But it is in this deed that Rabe demonstrates moral goodness in its highest form.  And the pure moral evil demonstrated by the Japanese soldier was the absence of morality; the absence of an internal, essential revulsion to harming another person.  This is what Milosz saw and wrote of as Warsaw was utterly destroyed in the the summer and autumn of 1944; by November 1944 there was not a building standing or a soul left. The SS soldier who would machine gun down Polish families was the same as the Japanese devil who raped Xiuhong: evil in the absence of natural morality. 

I am using Milosz to attempt to explain how this experience has shaped my self primarily in terms of a teacher. It is a matter about recording the details, the deeds, and the dates to preserve the concrete and the truth. It is in the detail of Xuihong’s testimony that can bring a student closer to understanding history and in particular in understanding what happened in Asia during the Japanese Military occupation.  Orwell was afraid that history could be so conveniently corrupted by authority; witnesses were…and are…needed to record faithfully the details of history…without any ideological, religious, political…even methodogical lens. Just get the details, deeds, and dates down and then understanding will come.  I don’t mean to sound hypocritical when I say that history is not about memorizing dates and names but it is the most real when someone can see history through the testimony of someone like Xiuhong, through the poetry of a Milosz, through the accounts of an Orwell…   

How are we to keep faith in human morality and reason?  As Milosz writes, nihilism results from an ethical passion, from a disappointed love of the world and of humanity; we can chose to be either a victim to our conditions, “governed solely by the laws of the social order in which [we are] placed” or we can rise above these conditions in the understanding that morality comes not from our mind but from our guts.  And if we are to imbue the teaching of history with an authentic sense of engagement, we need the details of these conditions. It is in this that the Japanese government of the day and its ministry of education seems to lack understanding of; as a society, not to have true, objective, and faithful record of the deeds, details, and dates…the good, the bad, and the ugly…will cripple its social ethos; its kokutai…

You who wronged a simple man
Bursting into laughter at the crime,
And kept a pack of fools around you
To mix good and evil, to blur the line,
Though everyone bowed down before you,
Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,
Striking gold medals in your honor,
Glad to have survived another day,
Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.
And you'd have done better with a winter dawn,
A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.
Csezlaw Milosz
Washington, D.C., 1950


Susan Pearson, Magee Secondary School


I consider myself so fortunate to have been selected to participate in the ALPHA Canada 2008 Study Tour to China and Korea.  The study tour was a life-changing event.  The ALPHA volunteers and organizers worked incredibly hard to give us all an experience we could never acquire on our own, in terms of access to museums, professors, lawyers, curators, and victims nor one we will ever forget!  The experience was intellectually stimulating, physically demanding, and emotionally grueling.  Hearing the victims stories was incredibly powerful and the connections made will enable us to pass on their stories to our students with so much more passion and understanding.  Unforgettable!



Lisa Richardson, Carson Graham Secondary School


Meeting with eminent scholars, survivors of military sexual slavery and forced labour, touring sites still haunted by ghosts that yet do not rest, and having the chance to observe, discuss, and contemplate solutions for war crimes that occurred almost 70 years ago,  is not for everyone  But for me this study tour to China and Korea was the trip of a lifetime. 


Travelling with a group of educated and caring professionals with a huge variety of life experience, talents, and personalities was fun, meaningful and I hope will lead to some lasting friendships.


This definitely wasn’t a shopping trip but we did see sights, cities and scenery that have enriched my imagination and added vast amounts of detail to my picture book images of China and Korea.


I gained an appreciation for some of the cultural and modern history of the Chinese and Korean people that could not have been gleaned from anything other than being there.


I have many questions about international politics and the polity of Japan – with particular interest in understanding Japan’s hands-off stance to apology and redress for military sexual slaves and forced labour survivors during the Japanese occupation of 1931 -1945.


The food was awesome!


I would like to take this opportunity to thank B.C. Alpha and Toronto Alpha for this incredible opportunity, for the phenomenal organization of this trip, for the intensity and quality of speakers and venues, and your profound caring and effort to bring about a peaceful resolution for the remaining survivors of this tragic period of history. 



Jacqueline Siller, Prince of Wales Secondary School


I feel privileged to have been chosen to go on this study tour.  No other trip I have taken recently has touched me in so many different ways.  I went on the trip to learn more Asian history to teach my students in my Social Studies classes.  I did learn about Chinese, Japanese and Korean history but learned so much more.  I learned from the Alpha organizers that if you have a passion and a desire, you can make difference.  I met some new people who I think will be my friends for a long time.  I got some insight into some of my students’ lives that have immigrated to Canada from China and Korea.  I also put myself into the student role and found a little more sympathy when my students come to class tired from studying all night.  This trip was challenging, informative and a lot of fun.  I would highly recommend this trip to colleagues.



Derek Smith, Mount Boucherie Secondary School


The 2008 ALPHA Peace & Reconciliation Study Tour was an excellent experience.  It will inform my teaching and I have no doubt that with some shared stories and resources, I will influence the way my colleagues teach.  I would strongly recommend this tour to anyone serious about teaching history.  It isn’t a tour to be taken lightly; the pace is fast, the days long, and the subject matter is detailed and emotionally charged.  If you are up to it, it will not disappoint.  ALPHA is thorough and well organized, and as a result, offers educators an excellent study tour.



Ho Tam, University of Victoria


The ALPHA study tour to China and Korea has opened my eyes and provided me with first-handed contact with the survivors, activists and historians. It is tremendously valuable to my teaching, research and future work on the issues relating to the atrocity and genocide within the humanity. I believe that this experience will enhance all of us who are interested in further pursuing the understanding of history and peace reconciliation.



Jane Turner, BC Teachers’ Federation


Before I went to China and Korea in July, 2008 with ALPHA, I had taught this chapter of history for many years at the senior high school level and coupled with the excellent preparatory readings and tutorials organized by BC ALPHA, I felt well versed in the history.  However, reading books and discussing historical events academically will never bring home the enormity, depth and truth of this shameful time.  The details revealed by the survivors we spoke to, through their stories and the questions we were able to ask brought this chapter of history to life in ways that text or video cannot.  Hearing about the forced labourer who carved the words, "I miss my mother", into the walls of mine where he slaved brought home the vulnerability and despair of children who were stolen. Similarly, my heart broke when the military sexual slave shared with us that she had not even begun to menstruate when she was taken from the fields where she had been playing and sent to a "comfort station".  The victim of chemical warfare deepened our understanding of his nightmarish life after being poisoned by canisters filled with chemicals when his wife described his agony every time she had to tear the bandages off his seeping sores in order to place new ones on his wounds. When the sister of a military sexual slave smoothed her hair before she began to speak to us, we were rewarded with a glimpse into the loving relationship they had forged, despite her shame and ostracism from the rest of her community. Until we can hear the stories first hand of those who endured such horrors, our understanding will never be complete.  I want to thank ALPHA for giving me such a privileged learning opportunity.



Greg van Vugt, Fraser Heights Secondary School, Surrey


Summer vacation for teachers is usually a relaxing time of the year, a chance to catch up of sleep, reading, family, exercise and the Sun.  But for a few of us this summer we delayed that important part of our summer.  I am sitting here in the Philippines reflecting on the past month as July comes to a close.  As I do so, a lizard is walking up the wall next to the computer.  I only hope that he can catch that damn mosquito that got me last night. 

            We were a group of 30 teachers from Ontario, Alberta and B.C. who for the most part didn’t know each other very well before we gathered in Shanghai on July 4th.  By the end we were closer than we’d anticipated.  We were able to cry together, hug each other, and move forward with renewed passion for the subject we’d come to study.  Thanks to Canada ALPHA we were able to do it all with minimal financial outlay.  If I were to recommend this study tour to other people I’d say that it is not for the beach set.  It is a lot of hard, long days where your physical and mental states are challenged.  By the time we return to our respective homes we know that we will want to make people aware of this sad period of history.  I know for myself it has let me understand the superficial aspects of World War II in Asia, as I knew the war in Europe - dates, places, names, battles, destruction, all important to begin to understand the effects of war.  But as a peace advocate who is also a teacher I found talking with and listening to the stories of the survivors of some of the most horrific parts of the war in Asia, I found myself, at first so sad and angry, but then found myself renewed in the work towards a peaceful world.  

            For many years I have worked towards a more peaceful world in my classroom, in my social justice work, and amongst my friends and family.  But this is the first time I truly came face to face with this kind of emotional and psychological devastation.  A friend once said that so many of our problems today in Canadian society could be directly linked to the psychological damage that the war (mostly in Europe) had wrought.  Many of our parents or grandparents experienced the war in Europe.  Their emotional injuries may have had consequences in our own daily lives.  The grandparent who drinks to forget or the emotional violence that results from the troubles of that time can all affect us today.

            Now I have been able to meet with people in Asia who are direct victims of the horrid acts of violence such as rape, beheading, maiming, murder.  I met with people who still live with the physical scars of bayonet injuries, chemical weapons, forced abductions.  Most people can live with these kinds of physical injuries.  The scars will heal.  But the emotional and psychological scars may never heal for the people we met.  Hearing the stories of people like Madam Zhang who lives near Nanjing, China where a massacre of 300,000 people took place in 1937.  She told us that she had her private parts torn apart by the Japanese military at 11 years old.  She was only able to have one child, and the birth took three days, and almost killed her.  Now 71 years later we can see by the anger in her voice and the redness in her face that she has not been able to forgive those soldiers.  “I hate them.  I hate their guts.  They did such bad things to my sister.  How can I forgive them?,”   said Madam Wang who also lives near Nanjing, China. 

            These stories have been repeated in China, the Koreas, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, amongst other places.  As a history teacher it is important to experience history first hand to be able to bring that to our students.  By participating in the Canada ALPHA peace and reconciliation tour this past summer I have been able to relive parts of World War II in Asia.  This type of a tour is a must for any serious historian of the war in Asia. 

            I was lucky enough to continue the tour on my own to the Philippines, where I met with more women who had been abducted as sexual slaves by the Japanese military during World War II in Asia.  Here I was able to speak directly to some of the women.  This was not possible in China or Korea due to our lack of a common language.   In the Philippines we were able to communicate more easily.  Here too, they are working towards healing themselves through repeated requests of the Japanese government to acknowledge its past wrongdoings and to teach their children the truth of what happened.  Maybe Japanese youth might not be so eager to engage in militaristic behaviours if they knew the true history of World War II n Asia.  Germany has done a good job to educating their youth about the atrocities under the Nazi regime.  Why can’t Japan? 

            While we were in Korea our group was mistakenly called as an anti-Japanese group from Canada by one Korean person.  I found this both surprising and disheartening.  I was aware of the general dislike of Koreans towards Japan due to their colonial past at the hands of Japan.  But I thought that the Koreans were able to move forward from there.  As for us, I guess we should make our mission even more explicit and clear.  The title of the tour is a “Peace and Reconciliation” tour.  Its purpose is to heal the wounds of history, to bring peace to those who were wronged, and to make sure this doesn’t happen again.  Not to fan the flames of distrust between the nations.  By us pushing the Japanese government to acknowledge their misdeeds, we help the victims to heal.  Germany has done a lot towards this healing, especially within the Jewish community just by acknowledging the nations past deeds.  Japan continues to mislead its own people by not adding or glossing over this part of their past in its national history textbooks.  For me personally I find it difficult because I have lived in Japan, speak some Japanese and of course have many Japanese friends.  They are a kind, peaceful population in general.  Why does its government continue to deny its past and therefore deny its victims a chance to heal their wounds? 

            Where to from here?  I will have a much better understanding of the students in my classes and their personal and family histories.  As a professional I will be able to integrate this period of history in Asia into the curriculum with more understanding and background knowledge.  I will be able to encourage the ministry of education to put more of this part of history into our curriculum.  I will integrate it more into my history classes, as well as other classes such as Tourism11/12 , or Social Justice 12.  I will be a resource person for my fellow teachers on staff.  And I will continue to work so that this sordid period of history will not be repeated again.