Aside: I've added a few pictures to this page recently, in part due to the fact that this is one of the most-visited pages in my small collection. Which is weird, because I can't figure out why Google and other search engines rank this anecdote highly in searches for information about Pearl Harbor, the Dolittle raid on Tokyo, and even the firebombing of Dresden. I guess I should be glad for the traffic, but I suspect some people have wound up being seriously confused in their term paper research...

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this story, and encourage you to look at other pages in the Japan collection, and check out my book log. Or don't...

My parents visited me in Tokyo over Thanksgiving, which was a good time. It would've been weird to spend Thanksgiving alone, in Japan, and it was fun to have someone to show the sights of the city and surrounding areas.

While they were here, we went to dinner at a restaurant near my apartment (a "robatayaki" place, which basically translates to "all manner of grilled things") where I would usually go on Friday nights. The place was usually full of local businessmen, and one guy in particular- Mr. Takahashi, the president of the company that owns the building- has a deep interest with all things American, and paid for my meals and bar tab on a fairly regular basis. Which was a bonus- it's not often that I get to feel like an exotic attraction.

He enjoyed meeting my parents, and invited the three of us out for sushi later in the week. The sushi was excellent, and many bottles of sake were drunk, and a good time was had by all (here's a group shot (105KB) of me, my parents, and the Takahashis).

In the middle of the evening, though, there was an awkward moment.

"Fifty years ago," Mr. Takahashi said, "Japan was very crazy. We attack... many countries." (his English was serviceable, but not great) "We made terrible mistake- bombed America. We woke the sleeping tiger."

He then proceeded to apologize- more or less- for most of World War Two.

I still don't have the faintest idea what the correct response to this would be. "You're goddamn right it was a mistake" is pretty clearly wrong, as is "I'm sorry you bombed Pearl Harbor, too." But apologizing in return doesn't feel right, either- the war's two full generations behind me (both my parents were born after the war), so it doesn't seem my place to apologize for, say, the firebombing of Tokyo... The best I could manage was a sort of embarassed "Um. Yeah. It was a bad time for everybody," and try to change the topic...

It's pretty much an inescapable issue in modern Japan, though. While I was there, the Chinese government- in keeping with the long-standing Chinese foreign policy of being as irritating as possible to as many countries as possible- was flatly demanding that Japan formally apologize for her actions in the 1930's and 40's. (The Japanese government, in turn, hemmed and hawed, and expressed "regrets," but never actually said the word "apology," much to the annoyance of the Chinese, and in unconscious imitation of Bill Clinton...). The newspapers were full of editorials for and against formal apologies, and the Letters page of the Japan Times was choked with raging debates over the War Issue. A couple of people even suggested that Japan should demand formal apologies from the US for the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo.

I'm not going to touch the A-bomb question (and you couldn't drag me to either of those cities), but there's no way out of considering the question of Tokyo. Seeing as I was in Tokyo, and all.

Tokyo's had a hard century, all in all- it was flattened and burned in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and no sooner got built back up than it was bombed flat by the US during WWII. (For what it's worth, this isn't new- there's a sort of darkly comic Monty Python quality to the history of Tokyo. Traditionally, the city was built almost entirely of wood, and thus burned down every ten or fifteen years- you can almost picture the father of young Emperor Meiji saying "...but the fourth castle stayed up!")

Practically every major tourist attraction in the city has been reconstructed since the war- usually in earthquake-proof ferroconcrete, as they're not taking any chances this time around. And they all have signs informing you of the destruction of the temple/ shrine/ gate/ store/ castle in 1945.

As a lone American- usually the only American in sight- wandering around Tokyo, this gets a little embarassing. I often felt, when reading one of these signs, like the 15,000 Japanese people in the area were giving me dirty looks behind my back...

Far and away the worst point for this, though, was the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which describes most of the city's illustrious history in impressive detail. Which necessarily involves dedicating a corner of the room to the firebombing.

The exhibit is very well done. They have the obligatory photos, and a great big hunk of blackened and twisted metal from the bombing, and a video loop of bombing footage, and scenes of the aftermath. The most striking element, though, is a large wall-mounted map of the city which has lighted areas to illustrate the destruction.

There were many successive bombings of the city, beginning in 1942 or '43 (the famous Dolittle raid, a sort of "proof of principle" bombing, just to show that we could (barely) do it), which shows up as a few scattered pin-pricks of light on the map, and ending with the (in)famous firebombings in 1945. Which cover the whole map in red light. Pictures of the aftermath are almost indistinguishable from pictures of Hiroshima after the atom bomb.

This was probably the most awkward spot I've been in in several years. I basically tip-toed past the exhibit, slinking (insofar as a man of my size can "slink") out as quickly as I could. And I still caught dirty looks from the Japanese visitors. Dirty looks to my face, even, which is pretty incredible in Japan.

It's hard to really blame them, though. The firebombing of Tokyo was a fairly bastardly action. It was more justifiable than, say, the firebombing of Dresden (Tokyo was, after all, a city of some military importance), but still primarily a tremendously destructive act of terror. The death toll runs into the hundreds of thousands, and the property damage was incredible.

The residents of the city have a right to be a little peeved at this, though it happened fifty years ago. It's a hell of a thing that was done, and I do feel a little sorry about it- it's still not my place to apologize, but it's not often I run into places where my country was responsible for so great a loss of life.

On the other hand (and there's always another hand), though, there were moments when it was hard to feel much sympathy. The editorial pages occasionally featured WWII apologists who are only a hair less scary than the Holocaust-denying freaks. There are occasionally bands of militarists (watched like hawks by the police) set up in public places and haranguing passersby about Japan's glorious past. Even the cringe-inducing museum display contained a jarring note- anti-aircraft guns and captured items from American pilots shot down during the bombings were proudly displayed not ten meters from the lighted map.

Far and away the worst spot for this, though, was the Yasukini Jinja- the "Shrine for Peace for the Nation" is the translation generally offered (here's a randomly artsy picture(62KB) of the gate to the shrine), though it's a Dr. Strangelove kind of "peace" at times. This is the spot where the Japanese war dead are enshrined as minor Shinto deities. (A sign helpfully explains that "this is unique to Japan inasmuch as the unknown dead of Europe's wars have not undergone this kind of apotheosizing.")

Included among the enshrined are the nine men hanged as war criminals at the end of WWII. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty monstrous thing. Tojo Hideki et al. were probably some of the most cold-hearted and bloody bastards ever to stalk east Asia (an impressive achievement), and they're put out there for worship by the citizenry, held up as beings to be venerated. And they are venerated, by quite a parade of worshippers.

Now, to be fair, these men were enshrined in secret after the war. This wasn't a considered public decision, and it's generated no small amount of controversy. And they're sharing space with a hundred thousand or so common soldiers who were, if not innocent, at least not guilty on as grand a scale... But they are there, and it's a frightening statement.

There's also a military history museum, with the obligatory samurai armor and swords and so forth, and also a full-scale model Zero. There are cases full of the posessions of kamikaze pilots, and laudatory poems about their accomplishments. The whole thing takes a fairly unrepentently militaristic tone, right down to the map outside the building (205KB JPEG of the map). It's not labelled in English, but the intent is fairly clear- the map (embossed on copper plate set in marble) shows east Asia and much of the Pacific, with raised red dots marking the spots of significant military victories scattered all over the coastal regions of the mainland, and most of the small islands. It's basically a small tribute to the days of an expansionist Japanese Empire.

Still, even here, there are things which offset the chilling militarism. The other notable feature of the map is a large raised star out in the middle of the Pacific. It's possible that this is just a compass rose, or some such, but it's in about the right spot to be Hawaii (based on my shaky knowledge of Pacific geography), and as such can be interpreted as marking "The biggest mistake we ever made..."

And as I turned away from the main hall of the shrine itself, considering the issue of the enshrined war criminals, I realized that it's all OK. They're enshrined, sure, but they're doing 72 rpm in whatever corner of the afterlife they inhabit. Within sight of the main shrine hall, there's a Coke machine. Which is as good a symbol of the complete triumph of Western commercialism over the old Japanese militarism as you'll find anywhere.

And that's really as good an ending as I can think of to the whole War Issue. I still don't have the foggiest idea how I should've handled the occasional apologies for the war- there were lots of shitty things done during the war, and a large number of obnoxious things said after the war, by both sides. Nobody's guilt-free on this one, but I don't think anybody should still be apologizing. And around the edges of the non-apologies, and hedged statements of sympathy, enough of an accomodation has been reached that I don't think there's much to worry about...

And as for the occasional modern-day militarists ranting on streetcorners? When I ran into them, I would cross the street, buy a Coke in one of Tokyo's ubiquitous McDonald's, and smile...

(PS: While the Subject: header is derived from FDR's famous remarks about Pearl Harbor, the day itself passed wholly without comment. I only realized that it had been the anniversary of the start of the war the next morning, when I had to check the date for something else. So, if not a totally dead issue, it's at least not totally inescapable...)

Last modified: 29 August, 2002