IN a small sign that Japan may be moving toward a more objective view of its role in World War II, a major Tokyo museum has opened an exhibit that shows how Asians, as well as countless Japanese, were victims of the war.
The exhibit, sanction by the Tokyo city government, marks the 50th anniversary of the devastating bombing of the Japanese capital by United States air raids in March, 1945.
A single Allied air raid in the predawn hours of March 10, 1945 hurled thousands of tons of bombs on Tokyo, killing 100,000 people - almost as many as died in the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five months later. To many Japanese, the bombing ranks with a 1923 earthquake that ignited fires and leveled the city.
But the exhibit also explains the impact of Japan's conquests of China and Southeast Asia, and details how war affected the lives of Tokyoites.
Like permanent exhibitions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Edo-Tokyo Museum's exhibit condemns the bombing of noncombatants. The difference is that the exhibit deals with Japan's air raids on the civilian populations of Chinese cities in the 1930s.
Since the mid-1950s, Japan's official posture has been to play down its military takeover of much of Asia in favor of an emphasis on Japan as being forced into war and a victim of it. This view helped the political careers of leaders who wanted to forget their wartime roles.
Recently, the Japanese government has become more candid about its war history to appease its Asian neighbors, as younger politicians have taken over. Yet the atomic-bomb memorial museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki reflect earlier policy in ignoring the history of Japan's aggression in Asia that contri-buted to the use of nuclear weapons.
COMPARED with the much-criticized Smithsonian Institution exhibition on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effort made by the Edo-Tokyo Museum to present a former enemy's point of view is highly nuanced, relying on a four-minute video tape that a casual viewer might easily miss.
``The show didn't go far enough,'' fumes Katsumoto Saotome, a writer who heads a group that has been working for over 20 years to collect information on the air raids.
Even so, says Michiko Nakahara, a historian at Waseda University, ``This is wonderful, especially when compared to the Smithsonian's backtracking. I'm amazed that a Japanese institution would do this much.''
Official attempts to avoid public remembrance of the war has left the Japanese with little taste to revisit the experience. So far, the Tokyo show, which opened on Feb. 4 and runs through March 19, has created barely a ripple of public interest.