Earlier this month, a team from the Japan Association for Recovery and Repatriation of War Casualties travelled to Manipur. They were searching for the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the Second World War. Seventy years after they died, three soldiers were cremated at Red Hill, or Maibam Lokpa Ching, where a Japanese War memorial was built in 1994 to commemorate 50 years of the battle with British troops in these hills.

For decades, Japan has collected and recollected fragments of its devastating war history. “Bone collecting” missions were sent to various parts of the Asia-Pacific and on the 70th anniversary of the war, the Japanese government revealed plans to repatriate the remains of over one million soldiers.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the North East, which saw fierce skirmishes between Axis and Allied forces during the war. Earlier this year, it was announced that Japan would set up a war memorial museum in Manipur. It has also organised cultural exchange programmes with students from Manipur and Nagaland, and promised to build a hospital and hire nurses from Manipur. Apart from geopolitical calculations, there seems to be an attempt by Japan to make peace with the past in the old theatres of conflict.

What of Manipur? The Japan Association was felicitated by the Second World War Imphal Campaign Foundation, which has also set up a museum displaying relics found in the state. The members of the foundation started researching the war in 2007 and only got themselves registered as a trust with the government in 2013, said Yumnam Rajeshore Singh, its president. They have travelled the countryside, digging for relics and for stories. Memories of the war run deep in Manipur. “Every family is somehow connected with the war,” said Singh.

Excavating these memories means coming to terms with trauma and loss that the war inflicted on its residents. It also means digging on both sides of the war, that of the British victory and of Japanese defeat. Manipur, with its diverse communities and political movements, would not be slotted on any one side.

Long marches

The first intimations of war came in 1942, as Burma (now Myanmar) fell to the Japanese and Manipur became a buffer state between the Axis forces and British India. Thousands of refugees fleeing from Burma flowed into Imphal. Most British residents and a few affluent Indians had already left Burma by ship or air. The rest of Burma’s large Indian population was left to fend for itself. And so began the Long March from Burma, in which over 100,000 refugees are believed to have poured into Imphal on their way to towns farther west. A large refugee camp was set up at the Koirengi Airfield, in what would become Imphal Main.

While the London Blitz and its evacuations have been documented in detail, there are few written accounts of the Long March, least of all by its survivors. A few months later, another civilian exodus would take place, this time radiating out of Imphal.

Allied troops retreating from Burma passed through Imphal. In May 1942, bombs fell on the city, forcing its residents to flee. They left for villages and jungles in the innards of the state, often digging bunkers to live in. The families who fled could not come back for another two years, said Singh. When they returned, it was to find their houses damaged or occupied by British soldiers.

Others were making their way back towards Manipur. Singh recounted his own family history. In the early 1940s, his grandfather worked for the Digboi Oil Refinery in Assam, which supplied to the Royal Air Force. When the war broke out, he decided to go home. Like those who made the Long March from Burma, he walked through dense jungle for two weeks along with two children, one six months old and the other two years old. “When they came to Manipur, they found the war was actually happening there,” said Singh.

Apart from displacement, Manipur had to face near famine conditions after the war as no farming had been possible for two years. According to British records, said Singh, 200 civilians were killed in the war. Thousands more died in a cholera epidemic that broke out immediately afterwards.

A patchwork of alliances

As the Allied troops prepared to beat back the Japanese, Imphal was turned into a major forward supply base, with new roads, jeep tracks and air strips, and thousands of soldiers gathering there. For the residents of Manipur, however, allegiances did not fall into place easily.

According to Singh, each community supported a different side. The maharaja of Manipur had supported the British in the First World War. Many from the Manipuri royalty went to colleges in London and the British also supported the king administratively. When the Second World War broke out, the king sided with the British but many of his subjects did not. Support for one side or the other was determined by two factors. First, the involvement of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, which had forged ties with the Japanese and was marching towards Imphal. Second, the incipient nationalisms that were gaining ground in Manipur, which meant that each distinct community had its own reasons for supporting one side or the other.

Many Manipuris joined Bose’s army, Singh said.

Meitei nationalism, which was burgeoning in the Imphal Valley, wanted to see a democracy where they were free of the Manipuri king, he said. Others believed in Gandhi and wanted to join the Indian Union.

Up in the hills, there were different equations at play. The Thangkul Nagas, who lived in the Manipur Hills, supported the British because Bob Khathing, a Naga leader, was also a British Indian officer. Many Kukis, the hill tribe locked in war with the Nagas over competing claims to land, joined the Indian National Army and supported the Japanese.

The wrong side of the war?

Outside Manipur, the Battles of Imphal and Kohima invoke sharply contrasting responses. In 2013, Britain declared them the greatest battles of the Second World War. Tales about a small band of British soldiers valiantly fighting off Japanese troops from a tennis court in Kohima in Nagaland were told once again. There are war cemeteries in both Imphal and Kohima, filled with the graves of British troops and those who died fighting with the allies.

War histories, like John Randle’s reminiscences of the Burma campaign, which the Imphal battle was part of, tell tales of courage against the odds. There are some salty descriptions of the operations leading up to the battle at Red Hill, which was arguably the bloodiest skirmish of the Imphal campaign. “The pungent aroma of a dead Jap a few feet away added to the charm of the occasion,” he remarks.

The Japanese 33rd division, advancing from the South, had tried to dislodge a British camp at Bishnupur. Having failed to do so, the Japanese followed the western hill ranges to join other battalions in Red Hill and blockade British supplies flowing in through the highway adjacent to it. The troops then had to ward off a sustained attack by the Allied forces.

Randle also records a reluctant admiration for the Japanese. He writes: “It was not fashionable in those days to heap praises on our enemy and it has not really been fashionable since. Nevertheless, to my mind the exploits of that Japanese battalion in holding out for so long under repeated attacks was one the finest feats of arms that I ever saw.”

For the Japanese, Operation U-Go, steered by Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi, who was straining to invade the rest of India, was a historic blunder. It is popularly known as the biggest defeat Japan faced in the war. Singh said several generals had to be declared insane just to save face for the Japanese, and Mutaguchi is considered the great villain of the campaign. The remains of about 20,000 Japanese soldiers still lie scattered in the hills of Manipur and Nagaland, Singh estimates.

Tales about the cruelty of Japanese troops in various parts of the world have complicated that country’s attempt to piece together the past. Yet local accounts in Manipur often return a different version of the story. “There are sweet memories with the Japanese in the interior villages,” said Singh. “We later came to know that soldiers were briefed before the campaign not to harass people. Once we interviewed people in Bishnupur. They said they were told to carry rice but were then paid for it.”

In the popularly accepted version of history, Japan found itself on the wrong side of the war, indicted by its ties to fascist forces as well as its own militaristic ambitions. Yet Manipur, which hosted Bose’s armies as well as its own burgeoning nationalisms, does not always subscribe to this version. For as Singh said, “That is not our history.”