To The Victor Belongs The Guilt?

In this summer of remembrance, comparing one nation's villainy in war to another's is a fool's game. Believe me, I have tried with my wife, Yuki--and it always ends badly. We have tangled over every aspect of the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to Japanese atrocities in conquered territories to the U.S. firebombing of civilians in Tokyo and Yokohama. Yet in the end, Yuki always punches my ticket for another trip on the guilt express by uttering one word: Hiroshima.

So here I am in that benighted city, ground zero of the Nuclear Age, thinking about the perception gap and the myths that still separate Americans and Japanese. Growing up near Detroit, I was never bothered much by the story of the Enola Gay's handiwork. By averting an invasion of Japan, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many U.S. and Japanese lives, I was told and still believe. Besides, Vietnam was the morality play of my youth--not World War II, the big one, the just war.

Yet as an American who has become part of a proud Japanese clan, I find my ideas about the Pacific War have grown sharper, more disquieting. I've heard how General Curtis E. LeMay's methodical firebombing mf Tokyo terrorized Yuki's older relatives in the spring of 1945. The mother of my wife's brother-in-law says she'll never forget glimpsing the face of an American pilot swooping down on her neighborhood. One Sunday, after going over scrapbooks with snapshots dating back to the turn of the century, Yuki's grandmother told us her theory of why she survived: Her home was spared when LeMay's pilots saw a giant white crucifix atop a church across the street.

SURVIVOR'S TALE. As awesome as the three-month campaign against Tokyo was, the nuclear strikes that unleashed the primal force of the universe against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were uniquely horrifying. Nestled in a river delta and surrounded by mountains, the primarily military town of Hiroshima provided a choice target for U.S. war planners to assess the atom bomb's destructive force. On Aug. 6, the world found out.

In Hiroshima, I meet Michiko Yamaoka, 65. She tells me she remembers seeing brilliant flashes of yellow and blue, which seemed beautiful. Then a 15-year-old telephone operator, she also recalls intense pain from severe burns to here face, shoulder, and hands. With a firestorm approaching, she fled to the mountains. Fearing the worst, "I said goodbye to my mother." With every hospital vaporized, she languished for weeks using cooking oil and crushed cucumbers as a salve. As it turns out, her mother survived; seven family members did not.

Plenty of Japanese--and some Americans, too--argue that the U.S. should apologize for the deed, regardless of the reasons. All this year, with the 50th anniversary approaching, the memory of Hiroshima has been dredged up over and over again--sometimes in weird and unexpected ways. I winced when I heard on Japanese TV of a plan (later scrapped) for the U.S. Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp with the mushroom cloud of an atom bomb. Similarly, the stories of the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay exhibit (which was changed because U.S. veterans groups objected to its lengthy discussion of the morality of dropping the bomb) didn't play well in our Tokyo living room.

I expected similar sentiments when I shared a cup of green tea with 56-year-old Hiroshi Harada, director of Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum, who survived the bomb and postwar privations. Harada says he had warned the Smithsonian board more than a year ago to avoid recycling Nuclear Age polemics. Show, don't tell, he counseled. The photographs would be enough. Now, he views the exhibit as a tragically lost opportunity. "We aren't asking Americans to say `I'm sorry.' We just want the truth to be told," he says.

He's right, and it's a pity a similar tack hasn't been taken by the Japanese. Since coming to Japan in 1993, I have found the public discourse about the war by turns maddening and worrisome. Take recent remarks by Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elder Seisuke Okuno that Japan entered the war to free Asia from the yoke of white colonialism and that the Japanese had been "brainwashed" in the postwar period to think otherwise.

BEST FORGOTTEN? In Japan, of course, veterans groups are also influential. Ryutaro Hashimoto, Minister of International Trade & Industry and a possible future Premier, is president of the Association of Bereaved Families. That's why the LDP, the power behind Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's coalition government, emasculated Japan's expression of "regret" for its treatment of China, Korea, and Southeast Asia by adding the caveat that actions against civilians are part of modern warfare.

On both sides of the Pacific, there are theories about why the Japanese always tend to see themselves as the victims--no matter what the crime. Some point to Japan's loyalty to ancestors, ethnic snobbery toward other Asians, and an enduring insularity that defies understanding. Others fault U.S. occupation-era policies that demonized Japan's once-proud military. Even during the recent U.S.-Japan auto trade talks, the LDP's Okuno accused the U.S. of attempting to "enslave" Japan economically.

It's not surprising that many Japanese--if they know the facts at all--feel that the slaughter in Nanking, arbitrary executions, and medical experiments on captives are episodes best forgotten. Americans may have a keener awareness of atrocities such as the My Lai massacre or the genocidal Indian wars, but how many of us dwell on them?

Survivors can't avoid their memories. In the 1950s, disfigured by her burns, Michiko Yamaoka felt a profound hatred toward Americans and, increasingly, her own people. Her dream of marriage and family had vanished, and she was often shunned by her countrymen. A waiter once demanded she wash her own glass. "He thought he would get radiation sickness." Tokyo had provided no serious medical benefits to victims, and a distraught Yamaoka attempted suicide.

At the Peace Museum, Harada shows me the art exhibit, pointing out an extraordinary photo by a survivor: In a barbershop near the bomb's epicenter, a skeleton leans back in a chair, as if awaiting a shave. It's eerie and moving and gets me thinking about another point.

"FARAWAY PLACE." A recent Gallup poll indicated that 35% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 didn't know that the U.S. had detonated the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, leveling a city of 350,000. As an American living in Japan, I find the idea that the memory could die out the most troubling thought. That seems an insult not only to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but to the Americans who fought and perished in the Pacific. "For most Americans, Hiroshima is a faraway place, and all this happened 50 years ago," Harada says.

Indeed, from Tokyo, it seems that nobody in the U.S. wants to acknowledge what happened that morning a half-century ago. My wife, Yuki, complains that neither President Clinton nor Ambassador Walter F. Mondale will be in Hiroshima on Aug. 6. I usually mumble something about Presidential politics and the sensibilities of veterans. Still, she has a point. An important American should be there, not to apologize or sermonize--or say anything at all.

Perhaps Yamaoka and the estimated 100,000 living bomb survivors should do the talking. After years of skin grafts, she still has scars--but less bitterness. And she never tires of telling foreign reporters her story. Why? "It's for all my friends I remember floating down the river."

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