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In 1998, a Japanese man named Akira Kitade, who is now 71, visited his old boss, Tatsuo Osako, for whom he had worked for decades at the Japan National Tourist Organization. As the men talked at Osako’s home in Tokyo, Osako showed him seven photographs, arrayed across two rows on a page of gray paper in an album. All the people in the pictures, Osako told him, were passengers upon the Amakusa-maru, the rickety ship on which Osako had worked as an assistant purser in 1940 and 1941. The photographs all had scribbles – a short message, a partial name, an initial, even one full name – on the backs. The images represented heartfelt thank-yous, perhaps the only presents the passengers could extend. “It was surprisingly emotional,” Kitade said of his long-ago meeting in Osako’s living room, when we spoke by video chat in late January. “I was shockingly touched, moved. It was exciting, thinking of how Mr. Osako had kept these photos with care for such time, for 60 years. Those seven photos were so neatly preserved.”
The passengers’ three-day crossing of the Sea of Japan on the Amakusa-maru, from Vladivostok, Russia, to the Japanese port of Tsuruga, hardly qualified as a cruise; it was more like a rescue shuttle. From September 1940 to June 1941, the Amakusa-maru and other vessels ferried refugees from the Nazis to shelter in Japan. According to a nine-page memoir Osako wrote in 1995, he worked more than 20 such voyages. Kitade said Osako estimated that there were 400 passengers aboard each.
Some passengers appeared elegantly dressed and wealthy. Most looked “forlorn and lonely, like fleeing travelers,” Osako wrote, and he “felt keenly how sorrowful it was to be stateless and, in contrast, I also felt how fortunate I was to be born a Japanese….”