Peace Boat Features Tours Of Cruel Reality

April 27, 1997|By Phyllis Bennis

It could have been any cruise ship, anywhere at sea. A group of young and middle-age people, all comfortably well off, ensconced in rattan chairs in the ship's lounge, engrossed in what was happening on stage. But they weren't listening to a hot jazz trio or watching a stand-up comedian. Instead, this group of Japanese travelers was watching a stark slide presentation on Auschwitz, narrated by a group of fellow passengers who had detoured from Rome for a few days to visit the Nazi death camp in Poland.

After the slides, a young man in his 20s said: "I didn't really know before what really happened. I read some books, but then I took this tour and it seemed more real."

An elderly man said: "In Japan, no one knew who the Jews were. Even though the word said, 'These are Jews.' If they were German Jews, they would come from Germany, they would speak German; we thought they were German. I didn't even know Auschwitz was in Poland, not in Germany. It's hard to imagine what happened there, even if you read a book."

This is the Peace Boat, a 15-year-old project that travels the world to enlighten its passengers about the harsh realities of life for poor and disempowered peoples. The Peace Boat also has another purpose: to educate young Japanese about their country's role in World War II, so they will understand the dangers of fascism.

Many Peace Boat passengers spend their days on shore visiting peace or environmental organizations, immigrants' rights or women's groups and other activists. Sometimes they "home stay" in places such as the Gaza Strip, spending a night with families in Palestinian refugee camps.

The passengers are briefed by guest lecturers, activists and experts on issues such as development, environmental problems of the Third World, and United Nations reform. Palestinians and Israelis, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats all sail on the Peace Boat to provide personal reflections on their native nations.

In its earlier days, the Peace Boat's itinerary and program emphasized Asia. The first cruise visited Korea, the Philippines and other places occupied by the Japanese military during World War II. By 1985, the route included Vietnam, where day trips brought Peace Boaters in contact with survivors of the Japanese occupation and the U.S. bombing campaigns of the Vietnam War.

Many Japanese peace organizations traditionally mobilize around the U.S. atomic bomb attacks that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the Peace Boat's focus on the crimes committed by Japan's World War II military distinguishes its work from that of its counterparts. Its programs have included a campaign to pressure Tokyo to apologize and pay for reparations to the Korean, Chinese and other "comfort women" forced to serve as sexual slaves to Japan's occupying forces. On several occasions, former "comfort women" traveled as guests to participate in Peace Boat discussions.

While some passengers board for shorter stays, the majority travel for the entire three-month, around-the-world cruise. The Peace Boat fare is less expensive than normal luxury cruise liners, but passengers still pay their own way.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute of Policy Studies.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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