Together amid the ashes

What changed a US soldier's view of the Japanese at the end World War II?

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Everything was gray. The sky, the distant shoreline, the water, the ship, even our wake, curling and hissing behind us as, hour after hour, we moved through the great bay.

At last, we entered the harbor area. Once lined with bustling docks and warehouses, it was now a tangled wasteland of twisted steel and shattered concrete, its roads and rail lines leading nowhere. This was the vast plain of rubble that was the port city of Aomori, Japan in September 1945.

Two hours after sunup, we American soldiers disembarked. Helmeted and with field packs and rifles slung over our shoulders, we fell in line and were told that we were to march through the city.

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But for what purpose? No one was sure.

An officer said that it was to "impress" the Japanese; a sergeant suggested we all needed the exercise after our long voyage from the Philippines.

For whatever reason, we tramped away through the devastation and headed for the center of the city. But even after we had marched for half an hour, no city appeared. It didn't seem to exist.

We saw no houses, no office buildings, no stores of any kind. Before us, a desert of ashes stretched to the horizon, the scene punctuated here and there by the bizarre sight of an iron fire escape leading to nowhere or a solitary bank vault half buried in the scorched grave of the city.

Finally, after almost an hour, we entered a small area that had amazingly survived the onslaught of American bombing. We passed through tiny pockets where a few shops and houses still stood, and eventually we came upon an entire street that was miraculously intact. There we halted for a few minutes. For the first time, we saw the people who had lived through it all and now lined the street silently watching us.

We saw old men and women, young children, and middle-aged people, and people wearing soiled bandages or leaning on makeshift crutches.

These people along the street were dressed in tattered traditional kimonos, work clothes, or patched and ill-fitting Western apparel.

However, one among them stood out from the rest. He appeared to be in his 70s and, although only about five feet, eight inches tall, he towered above the others. His clothing was a strange mixture of East and West, of the practical and the ceremonial, the elegant and the rustic.

Atop his head, he wore a black derby; beneath his feet, which were stockingless, a pair of high platform wooden clogs. In between he had clothed himself in a tieless, dull white shirt and a baggy pair of khaki jodhpurs.

Over all this, and neatly buttoned, was an old but very formal-looking swallow-tailed morning coat. Finally, the whole ensemble was topped off with a canvas knapsack hanging from his bent shoulders.

In some ways, the old man's raiment might have been a reflection of his life and the history of his homeland – the glory, the disgrace, the pain, the courage, the defeat and confusion.

At first, he stood there erect, almost at attention, but then he began to bow – slowly and deeply, over and over and over again. Almost in unison, the others began to do the same. I watched them, their expressions, stunned and shattered visages of defeat and lingering terror, and I wondered: Were they bowing to show submission to a conqueror, or were they bowing to give thanks to the God who had allowed them to live when so many others had died?

Surely, on both sides of that road there was a residual fear in thoughts of the death from which we had all escaped, and yet on both sides, there was some sort of hope for the future. In those things I sensed an unspoken bond between us, one that was to change my image of the people whose land we were about to occupy.

They were no longer "Japs," no longer embodiments of evil. They were just fellow human beings, standing with us amid the somber ashes of their city.

I spent more than a year with the occupation forces in Japan before returning to civilian life and eventually ending up as a high school teacher in California.

Then, 10 years later, I returned to Japan as an instructor at a national teacher training college in the southern part of the country.

When the school's spring break arrived, the first thing I did was board a train for Aomori. There I found a city reborn, a city of clean streets, multistoried buildings, and decently dressed people who could smile.

Still, as I walked through the city's bright shopping arcades, my thoughts were filtered through memories of 1945 and the waste of war.

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