When I was a kid in the ’50s, there were echoes of World War II all around. My friends and I played with toy soldiers and sang Army songs that praised Betty Grable and ridiculed Mussolini. Sometimes my dad and I would watch Sgt. Bilko or “The Big Picture” on TV, and he’d remember his days in the Army. One day my dad opened one of the olive-drab steamer trunks beneath the basement stairs. It was full of stuff he’d brought home from Japan. A short sword. A white and red silk flag. A brown field telescope inscribed with little white characters. A guide book to Tokyo and eight English-language tourist books published by the Japanese National Railway. They were beautifully illustrated paperback books (one even with a real woodblock print) on Sumo wrestling, Odori dance, traditional Japanese architecture, and the Japanese national character. Published during the war, they showed Japanese life as it was before my dad was there, before their cities were bombed and burned. Dad let me keep those books, and I poured over them many times as I was growing up. I have kept them to this day.
I remember one time on television seeing the testing of an atomic bomb in the Utah desert; I think it was live. Dad said that dropping a couple bombs like that had ended the war. When he spoke of the “Japs,” there was a cold edge to his voice, then the pointed silence of words suppressed. It was funny. He never told me anything about his time in Japan. Only that the “Japs” got the pounding they deserved. Years later, I noticed that he’d stopped calling them Japs. He complimented me on my new Mazda station wagon. I wondered if he ever had read those books he’d given me.
Japan always interested me. When I was 5 or 6, my mother introduced me to a young woman named Yoko who was visiting from Japan. She was beautiful and wore an elegant kimono. She was from the Japan of my tourist books, a refined and ancient culture that seemed to have little in common with the simian, buck-toothed soldiers we saw in the movies and cartoons.
Yet as we all know, there had been those death marches. There had been Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians and the bombing of innocent cities. Forced labor. The beheadings of Allied pilots. The isolation box in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Those kamikaze airplanes slamming into the decks of our ships.
By the end of the war, the United States was pursuing an annihilationist policy against Japan, fueled in no small part by a question of which race was to survive. President Harry Truman decided to drop the atom bomb because, in his words, the Japanese were “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.” You could see that for yourself in the old movies and newsreels. When I was young, lots of people still hated the Japanese.
When I was in high school, my mother brought home a Modern Library edition of Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946).
It described, through the experiences of six survivors, the bombing of Hiroshima and the immediate aftermath. Hiroshima personified the tragedy for me. Of the 2.5-3.2 million civilians who died from the bombings of 66 Japanese cities, including Tokyo, 129,000–246,000 died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (11.6% to 7.7%).
After reading Hiroshima, I realized that there were hundreds of thousands of lovely people like Yoko who perished because of the atom bomb. I began to wonder which side in the war seemed more inhuman.
When the mother of a friend told me that the US Office of War Information had commissioned cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict to do a wartime study of the Japanese character, I read her findings in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946). It rounded out my appreciation for these people who had been, in Benedict’s words, “the most alien enemy the United States had ever fought in an all-out struggle.”
There are many more books today about Japan than there were when I was a boy.
But there aren’t many children’s books about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or about nuclear war. Images of nuclear annihilation are generally not what a parent has in mind when choosing picture books for their kids at the library or local bookstore.
It’s a subject most of us would just as soon avoid. But it’s also a subject none of us should forget.
The world is a far more dangerous place today than at the height of the Cold War. At least then we knew who our enemies were. Now we are unsure of everything save that life and human survival are tenuous things.
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