Monday, 14 May 2007

Out of the Air

March, 1999.

My eldest, who has a flair for the dramatic, is itching to tell me all about the film she's just seen in her social studies class.

"And the enemy planes kept coming!" she says breathlessly, as I walk her home from school. "The sky was filled with them, like so many dragonflies! Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, they went, and they dropped their bombs. In no time the ground beneath them was consumed in flames!" She pauses briefly for dramatic emphasis. "Tokyo was burning!"

Uh oh.

Off work with a cold for three days, I've lost track of the date. But sure enough, it's that time of year again: the anniversary of the Great Kanto Air Raid of March 10, 1945. No wonder they've been watching a film about it in school, and how weird it must have been for them showing it, too, with my half-American, half-British kid integrating the class. I look around quickly to see if anyone has heard; the kid is speaking in Japanese and her voice carries. I try to think of a way to phrase what I have to say.

"Honey, you know those enemy planes," I say a little anxiously, "you do know what country they were from, don't you?"

She looks up at me, a little confused. "Um, no, I don't. Germany?"

I sigh. We've talked about the war before, she and I, but she's never been in the habit of paying mind to what I say and she obviously hasn't taken it in.

"No, not Germany," I say quietly. "America."

Her jaw drops. "Uso!" she cries out, "You're kidding!"

"No, I'm not. They were from America, honey. Japan and America were at war."

"But why would they do a thing like that? When they dropped those bombs, they had fire in them! They burned up a lot of people, and their dogs and cats and houses, too!"

"Well, you see, before they dropped those bombs on Tokyo, Japan had dropped bombs too. On other countries. And they'd done lots of bad things. Terrible things, really."

"But two wrongs don't make a right!"

"I know they don't, but it was awfully complicated, the war."

"But they shouldn't have burned up innocent people!"

What can I say to this? I think about the hundreds of thousands of innocents killed by the Japanese in China, the Philippines, and Indochina. But how can I begin to tell all this to a child? Suddenly living in Japan seems a lot more complicated -- for us, in particular. I start to wonder what the Japanese mothers of my kid's classmates will tell their children about the war. Or the Chinese mothers (there are two of them at our school) for that matter.

"A lot of people were upset about the fire-bombing of Tokyo," I say carefully. "And it wasn't just Tokyo either, honey, a lot of other cities were fire-bombed."

"By the Americans?"

"Well, yes. Other countries were at war with Japan too, but it was American planes that dropped the bombs." I can't help but think that the next thing she'll learn about will be Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Great.

"I've got to tell Kunie and Harumi!" she cries. "I'll bet they don't know!"

Part of me hopes that they don't, but I'm willing to bet that they do. Only my kid seems to have remained in blissful ignorance. All I can hope is that Kunie's and Harumi's parents try to be as honest and open as I am when they talk to their kids about the war.

"Look, when you talk to your friends about the war, just remember that the whole world was at war back then. And America didn't just decide to drop the bombs on Japan for no reason. It was horrible for the people on the ground, but it was horrible for a lot of other people too, before that." My heart is filled with dread. How long will it be before she comes home having been told that her mother's country nuked Japan and killed hundreds of thousands?

"I'd be really mad if someone dropped a bomb on Kunie and Harumi," she says with conviction, kicking a stone on the road for emphasis.

"I'll bet you would." Kunie and my eldest have been buddies since they were eleven months old. Harumi and she have been inseparable since they were a year and a half. I've babysat for Kunie a few times and when Harumi spent the night at our place once, I had to cuddle her for two hours before she finally dropped off to sleep. My kid's not the only one who'd hate to see anything happen to them.

"I don't think Kunie and Harumi would like it if their country decided to drop a bomb on us either," I point out. She gives me a funny look. My kid never sees the Japanese as any different from her at all; there is no 'us' and 'them' for her yet. Once, some Japanese-British friends of ours visited relatives in the U.K. At a playground in Birmingham, their young children were taunted by others and called 'Jap.' We were shocked by this. "What would you do if you heard someone yelling that word?" we asked our kid at the time, and she bristled. "I'd say 'Don't call me Jap, you stupid foreigner!'" We were amazed that our blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter saw herself as Japanese. But she's lived in Japan virtually all her life, so I suppose it is perfectly natural that she does.

A plane drones in the sky above us and we both look up. "I'm glad America isn't dropping bombs on us anymore," she says matter-of-factly, squeezing my hand.

I nod and squeeze her hand back. I try to imagine the pilots flying the B-29s that dropped their deadly loads on Tokyo and the surrounding areas fifty-five years earlier in all the madness and confusion of war. I wonder what in the world they would think of my daughter and me, walking hand in hand along this peaceful road in the suburbs of Tokyo, having this particular conversation.

I picture them thinking it's as weird and wonderful as I do.


Brian said...

I am a little foxed by exactly where and when this conversation took place -- my maths is not good .

But I will be curious to know what the situation is at the present moment . What has developed from it ?

And last night I watched a programme about Japanese war brides in Australia -- now mostly widows -- a very nice lot of ladies .


Mary Witzl said...

Sorry, Brian -- I'll go and put in a time reference. I meant to do this last night but forgot.

Japanese war brides in Australia must have had a tough time of it. I can imagine they had their work cut out for them as informal cultural and goodwill ambassadors. Have you ever heard of the writer Lois Battle? Her mother was an Australian war bride in the U.S., and Ms Battle sees herself as both American and Australian. I love her writing...

Okay -- off to make that change.

Kim Ayres said...

I'd be really mad at anyone who dropped a bomb on anyone close to me too. Shame our politicians don't seem to share the sentiments of the rest of us.

Eryl Shields said...

I sometimes think that if we all thought a bit more like children the world would be a much better place: two wrongs don't make a right. My husband says things like 'if America hadn't nuked Japan we would all be speaking Japanese by now' and I wonder would that really be such a bad thing.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Sometimes I think that once they've got the bombs, politicians are just itching to use them. Why have them, after all, if you can't drop them on people? And now Iran can enrich uranium. Great.

Eryl -- While I am glad that Japan lost the war -- they truly had an evil empire -- I cannot agree with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the summer of 1945, over one-hundred Japanese cities had been reduced to ashes by fire-bombing, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were overkill; even Eisenhower, hardly a dove himself, wasn't in favor of a nuclear attack on Japan, reasoning that Japan had already been defeated.

That said, the Japanese Ministry of Education chooses history textbooks that cover the American fire-bombing and nuclear attacks on Japan, but tend to leave out material on Japanese aggression and war crimes. I have had students who had to learn all about these events as adults. One woman came back from a family holiday in China so upset and shaken that it took her months to get over it. Until she'd visited Nanking, she'd had no idea of what had happened there during the war; she also was unaware of Japan's colonization of Korea.

I suppose the moral of the story here is to try and keep an open mind and not blindly accept what we are taught -- and to approach the study of history without an agenda.

Kanani said...

Have you ever read the books by Richard Feynmann about the Manhattan Project? They're sobering, and while he doesn't get into the politics behind it, the orchestrated efforts of scientists and politicians and ivy league schools (who supplied the scientists and the expertise). He was very much aware of what he had helped create. And I don't think he ever forgot it. I seem to recall that many of them died of weird cancers.

It's a really shitty thing when my kids realized that we come from a nation whose politics warmongering, and that ultimately, the deficit, the lack of good will shall fall on them when they are trying to grapple with the results of today's Wolfowitz schemes.

Now Wolfowitz --he's the only person I'd advocate the death penalty for.

Mary Witzl said...

I have not read this, though I have read about the Manhattan Project. I know that a lot of people who were working on the science behind the bomb didn't want it to be used. Einstein and Szilard in particular made appeals against using the bomb.

What a lot of people don't realize is that the Japanese had their own atomic program and were working on producing an A-bomb themselves. Although it is disputed just how close they got to achieving their goal, one of their leading nuclear scientists, Dr Nishina, was a close associate of Einstein's.

Another thing I remember hearing is that a third nuclear attack on Japan was actually discussed. Thank God they stopped after two cities.

Carole said...

Your daughter sounds delightful. Painful subject though, which seems to evoke strong emotions in all who read it.

Mary Witzl said...

It is a painful subject.

Oddly enough, my kids don't want to hear about Japan's role in WWII. During our first month in Scotland, we happened to meet an elderly man while we were out walking one day and mentioned to him that we had lived in Japan. He held forth on what a cruel race the Japanese were, and to this day my kids refer to him as 'that man who doesn't like us.' He liked us just fine, but my kids see themselves as Japanese and think it was us that he was upset with.