Photo/IllutrationYukio Hayakawa stands beside the grave of Syed Omar at Enkoji temple in Kyoto in June. (Sonoko Miyazaki)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KYOTO--The life of a Malay student who studied in Japan during World War II and died of radiation sickness due to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima might have been forgotten were it not for an initiative by residents of this historic city.

Residents are setting up a group on Aug. 20 to commemorate Syed Omar, who died in Kyoto on his way back to his home country, and work to keep memories of his life alive.

“I hope it will provide a good opportunity for local residents to think about how unreasonable war is,” said Keikan Otsubo, 72, chief priest of Enkoji temple in Kyoto, where his remains lie.

As a government-sponsored foreign student invited to wartime Japan to nurture pro-Japan political leaders in occupied regions, Omar, then 19, studied at what is now Hiroshima University.

He was at the student dormitory 1.5 kilometers from ground zero when the atomic bomb detonated on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945.

Although he decided to head to Tokyo by train and return to his home country following the end of the war, Omar's health suddenly worsened. He cut his trip short in Kyoto and passed away at a hospital here on Sept. 3 of that year.

His remains were buried in the city and transferred to Enkoji in 1961.

His gravestone bears his name “Syed Omar Bin Mohamed Alsagoff” as well as a poem of writer Saneatsu Mushanokoji (1885-1976), which states, “Mr. Omar, you came all the way to Japan’s Hiroshima from Malaya to study, but what welcomed you was an atomic bomb.”

In 1974, a group was set up to tend to Omar's grave and hold a memorial service around each anniversary of his death. The group dissolved in 2008, and Enkoji has since taken on the task of organizing commemorative events.

Otsubo found himself wondering how to maintain the memorial services in years to come and sought the advice of 70-year-old Yukio Hayakawa, a retired teacher at the city-run Shugakuin Elementary School, situated 1 km north of the temple.

Its students have been visiting Hiroshima on school trips since the 1990s to listen to firsthand accounts by locals of their wartime experiences. A book featuring what the students had learned was published in 1994 under the title “Omar San o Tazuneru Tabi” (A travel to visit Mr. Omar).

Hayakawa contacted former students as well as their guardians, local residents, a peace activity group and others.

They suggested setting up a group to commemorate Omar, saying it would provide “an opportunity for local residents to learn about a significant slice of history.” Hayakawa will serve as head of the new group.

Meiko Kurihara, 93, who lived in Hiroshima near the dormitory of Omar and other students and camped outdoors with them after the atomic bombing, believes Omar must have been pained at not being able to see his homeland again.

“But he would appreciate that people in Kyoto will never forget him,” she said.

In the closing months of World War II, Japan invited 205 children of influential figures as students from countries under its rule so as to raise them as local political leaders.

According to Hiroshima University, nine students studied at its predecessor facility at the time of the atomic bombing, and two of them were killed.

The survivors included Hasan Rahaya, who became a lawmaker in Indonesia, and Pengiran Yusuf, who went on to become the first chief minister of Brunei.

The former students actively spoke of their experiences as atomic bomb survivors in their own countries. By 2016, they had all died.