Bearing Witness to the Bomb

Memories have a place, but Japan should face the complexity of WWII

MY 77-year-old grandmother will welcome the American government's change of heart on the Hiroshima stamp. To her nothing can justify the American attack on Japanese civilians.

My grandfather was drafted twice. At the beginning of the war he was sent to the Army, but he was infected with malaria and had to return for medical treatment.

Toward the end of the war, he was called again. This time he sold his stock in his business so that my grandmother could afford to move out of Tokyo. He did not think he would be coming back. Before he went he cut his long hair. My grandmother, then pregnant with their fourth child, moved the family far from the city to a small village in the northern part of the main island to avoid the bombing on Tokyo.

My grandfather was killed in a tank battle in the Philippines. My grandmother was not officially informed of his death until three years after the war ended. His body was never returned. She made a grave, and in it she buried the piece of his hair she had saved.

She often told us of the suffering that the Japanese people endured in the war. She spoke of the losses and of endless shortages of food. In my childhood she was pained if her grandchildren did not finish their food. Sometimes she would find the waste of food so unbearable, she would finish anything we left.

She showed us old black and white pictures of my grandfather and herself standing in front of the house they would have remodeled if he had returned.

In my early schooling, the teachers stressed the suffering and the effects of the war on the people. And from these lessons I formed an impression that had to be corrected some time later. I came to regard the war as a somewhat undefined evil that plagued the Japanese people. But its causes were not readily explained.

History books in elementary and secondary school taught little of such things as the Japanese Army's actions in Manchuria and other parts of China and the invasion of the Philippines.

The Navy's attack on Pearl Harbor was not fully explained. Teachers would answer questions if students knew enough to ask, but the reasons for the beginning and the end of the war were left indistinct.

My teachers told stories about the war much the same as my grandmother's. One remembered that during the blackouts in Tokyo it was so dark in his house at night that it was difficult to read. Because of the threat of the American bombers, lamps had to be covered with black cloth.

Even today, to illustrate the suffering, some communities organize special dinners at which the meager meals of the war, dried bread and thin soup, are served. And every year, around the anniversary of the atomic attacks, television programs and movies are shown to remind people.

The horrors and death that resulted from the bomb attacks are well known. Most Japanese, of all ages, can imagine what it must have been like to live through those times. But only to a much lesser degree do they know the reasons for the suffering.

Even the famed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa has avoided the reasons for the atomic attacks. His 1991 movie ''Rhapsody in August'' is about an old woman who lost her husband in Nagasaki; at the end of the picture she accepts an apology for the bomb from a half-Japanese American.

At a press conference before the premiere of this movie, Western reporters asked Mr. Kurosawa why he had not made a movie about Pearl Harbor. He heatedly replied that he made a movie about the atomic bomb, not about how the war started.

Now the Japanese government has successfully protested the issuing of a United States stamp which showed the mushroom cloud and read, ''Atomic bombs hasten war's end, August 1945.'' To most Americans the atomic bomb is simply an event in history. They do not understand that for the Japanese the history and the suffering are separate. All nations have histories, but only Japan knows what it is like to live through a nuclear attack. And we must bear witness.

However, 50 years have elapsed. I think it is now time for the Japanese to face the full history of the war, because there is much more to be learned from this history. And a complete perspective should be taught in schools.

Several years ago, when I was working in Australia, I met an old Filipina who started to talk to me about the war. ''The Japanese Army came to my village and killed hundreds of people,'' she said. ''They put the dead bodies in a truck and drove away.''

She was talking just like my grandmother. Her face showed neither humiliation nor anger. She simply wanted to tell me what happened to her during the war.

I was embarrassed listening to her -- not only because my country was responsible for such atrocities, but because I had only vague knowledge of those events.

In fact, that was the first I had heard of it.

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