Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

Coloring History Our War

In recalling World War II, American curators say,
'We must not dishonor our veterans.' Funny thing. That's
just what Japanese curators say.


from The New York Times Magazine
(pages 30-31)

A FEW MONTHS AGO, IT SEEMED THAT JAPAN AND AMERICA had finally figured out how to finesse the politics of this summer's anniversaries. For years, officials in Washington and Tokyo had puzzled over how to mark the atom bombing of Hiroshima and end of World War II without stirring the wrath of veterans in Nebraska or nationalists in Nagoya. After endless meetings, Japanese and American diplomats agreed on a strategy: No big V-J Day events, just an acknowledgment of the sacrifices on both sides. Then the focus should turn to the "global partnership" that diplomats like to talk about as a counterpoint to the constant bickering between the world's two largest economies.

Like mose agreements between Japan and America these days, the details were left a little hazy. And, like most accords, this one is failing.

The United States turned out a postage stamp showing a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, then withdrew it. Next, the two countries stumbled into their most vituperative economic dispute in decades. As Washington threatened an embargo on Japanese luxury cars, many in Tokyo recalled America's economic isolation of Japan in the 1930's--which every Japanese schoolchild is still taught made Pearl Harbor inevitable. Meanwhile, Tokyo's effort to get Parliament to issue a vaguely worded apology for the terror Japan spread throughout Asia during the war turned into a fiasco. Right-wingers used the debate to repeat their claims that Japan had fought a "war of liberation" to free Asians from the yoke of Western rule.

After six years in Japan, I found none of this surprising: Japan's gyrations to avoid real discussion of its responsibility for the deaths of 20 million people is the stuff of innumerable stories for foreign correspondents. But I was unprepared for the treatment of history in my own country, at the Smithsonian Institution's just-opened exhibit of the Enola Gay, the bomber whose work was shown on the stamp. The lengthy and public arguments with American veterans groups over the exhibit's tone and content ended with a classically Japanese solution. Like similar displays in Japan's own war museums, the Smithsonian exhibit seems oddly suspended in a historical vacuum, long on hardware and short on explanations.

The Enola Gay is flying solo on the Mall in Washingeon, without any serious examination of whether the bomb was needed to force Japan to surrender, a question that is debated more seriously today, and with more compelling evidence, than at any time in postwar history. There is only a glimpse of the devastation and human suffering that the bomb left in its wake.

Any other approach, American veterans groups insist, would create a "moral equivalence" between Japan's expansionary horrors and America's efforts to stop them. The Smithsonian, declaring that it was impossible to honor those Americans who sacrificed so much while simultaneously conducting a dispassionate examination of the war's end, abandoned the chance to cast new light on a dark corner of history.

This is the real moral equivalence: We are matching the Japanese in historical amnesia, claiming, as they do, that the issues remain too divisive to explore, even 50 years later. The explanation is no more convincing coming from American museum curators than it is coming from Japanese politicians.

To be fair, the Smithsonian's first instinct was to examine the historical record. When organizers went to Japan several years ago to enlist Japanese help, they offered assurances that the exhibit would not celebrate Japan's devastation. They asked to borrow the eerie artifacts from the city's famed A-bomb museum: the stone steps of a bank building forever imprinted with the shadow of the poor soul who was sitting there at the moment of detonation, the watches that stopped as the atomic flash froze the moment of horror. And--this is where the trouble began--they asked the same questions Japanese themselves raise every year as the Aug. 6 anniversary approached: Was the bomb truly dropped to save American lives that would have been lost in a bloody invasion? Or was the decision, as the Japanese insist, tinged with racism, or was it simply a desire to send a signal to the Soviet Union or--as many Japanese believe--to justify the billions spent building the bomb?

That exhibit, of course, never got off the computer screen. Veterans argued, with some merit, that the Smithsonian's scripts swallowed Tokyo's revisionist mythology, portraying Japan more as the victim than the aggressor. Repeated efforts to fix the tone only worsened the offenses. As pressures mounted, museum officials panicked. The exhibit was revised, then revised again. Congress held hearings. Martin Harwit, the museum's director, was forced to resign. Hiroshima officials, watching the winds shift so dramatically, said they would mount their own traveling counterexhibit in the United States, led by Hiroshima's Mayor.

A Smithsonian official put the museum's quandary succinctly: "The veterans want the exhibit to stop when the doors to the bomb bay opened. And that's where the Japanese want it to begin."

This is history by consensus, which is troubling enough. But the rationale for the final product is even more disturbing, because it echoes Japan's own justifications for its refusal to teach a new generation of Japanese the lessons of their country's disastrous past.

The originator of the "we must not dishonor the veterans" argument is Japan's Ministry of Education. Time and again, its officials have invoked this logic to explain why textbooks gloss over Japan's brutal, 35-year colonization of Korea or the Rape of Nanking. When a former Education Minister, Mayumi Moriyama, was asked why the country has battled in court for 30 years to keep a seemingly forthright textbook out of schoolchildren's hands, her description of the author was telling. "His interpretation is not a popular one," she said, as if that were the test of accuracy. "He is very isolated now. Few people are supporting him."

The Smithsonian's arguments also reminded me of those made by officials in the Shinjuku ward in Tokyo after some construction workers discovered a collection of human bones. The workers had stumbled on the site of the headquarters of the infamous Unit 731, which had conducted vivisection experiments on Chinese prisoners of war. The bones offered a rare window on the unit's activities-- exactly what the city was desperate to avoid. "There are many veterans who still live in this area," a ward official said to me, explaining the city's sudden lack of curiosity. "How will they feel if this is how we remember the war?"

Wars are ugly affairs, and it is no surprise that countries want to think that they fought with justice on their side. But does it honor American veterans to recall the decision to drop the bomb with the same absence of introspection that taints Japan's museum exhibits? Shown in historical isolation, the Enola Gay looks a bit like the kamikaze plane on display at the famed Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The tiny craft is surrounded by the uniforms and letters left by hundreds of young kamikaze pilots, but there is no discussion of why they flew off to their deaths, no rationale offered other than loyalty to the Emperor.

It is museums like that one--and there are many all overJapan--that help explain the queasy feeling you get when you talk to Japanese university students about World War II, or the Persian Gulf war, or another conflict. All war is bad, they are likely to tell you. But scratch beneath the platitudes, and you will quickly discover that the studied avoidance of discussion about the Government's decisions in the 1930's and 1940's has left a whole generation of Japanese incapable of having a debate about when it makes sense for a nation to use its military power. To defend its shores? To preserve its oil supplies? To assure the spread of democratic values? Only the rare student will engage in the discussion.

So perhaps the best argument for asking the obvious parallel question about the bomb at the Smithsonian is that raising the issue in Washington is the only way to force the same question in Tokyo. "Gaiatsu," or foreign pressure, is often used to open up the Japanese market for citrus fruits or car parts, but it is even more effective at opening the market for unvarnished history. When the American media seized on the long illness, and death in 1989, of Emperor Hirohito to explore the question of whether he was a willing participant or a helpless bystander in the war effort, it freed Japanese television producers and newspaper editors to do the same.

The savviest Japanese historians manipulate this national trait to their advantage. The Government is still reeling from the exquisite work of Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a little-known history professor who cut through brazen official denials that the Japanese Imperial Army had kidnapped Korean women and forced them to provide sexual services to the front-line troops. He dug up documents in the military's own archives proving that the Army had ordered the stocking of the "comfort stations," as they were called, and released them just before Japan's Prime Minister traveled to South Korea in January 1993. There was a prediceable outcry in Seoul and, eveneually, a reluctant admission of the truth in Tokyo.

By the time I left Japan last summer, I saw a glimmer of hope that despite the Government's best efforts, Yoshimi and a band of rebels like him were beginning to score broader victories. Last year, just as the Smithsonian debate was beginning, a new Mayor of Hiroshima, Takashi Hiraoka, opened a second museum, one that documented the city's role as a major military center and did not pretend that the war started on Aug. 6, 1945. "Some of us believe that when we think about the bomb, we should think about the war, too," he told me as we watched middle-aged Japanese drop in and look at the pictures in wonderment. "I had no idea," one woman said as she suddenly discovered why Hiroshima was a target.

As the Smithsonian debate proved, neither exhibits in museums nor hollow celebrations of the "global partnership" will convince Japan or America to see the war in anything close to the same light. But the anniversary is a rare and much-needed chance for Americans and Japanese to confront some of the suspicion and bitterness that still lurk beneath the surface of every trade dispute, every argument overJapan's responsibility to take a greater role in the world and every debate over whether the two largest economies will ever understand each other. Doing what Japan has done for too long--reducing the war to a few Government-approved sound bites--will make an ailing relationship only worse.

David E. Sanger, formerly chief of The Times's Tokyo bureau, now convers economic policy from Washington.
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http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/vj-day-1995.html - - - Last modified: Friday, 06-Aug-2004 09:15:57 EDT