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Letter from Tokyo

By Scott Harrison

The most striking feature about Tokyo is the sheer numbers of people and how these people seem to be in constant movement. I took the Narita Express from the airport to the Ikebukuro train and subway station. Getting off the train I found myself submerged into such moving, swirling masses of people that I would have been tempted to stop and laugh at the improbability of it all if I weren’t so tired.

Tokyo certainly should be given some world municipal prize for planning, building, and maintaining the entire infrastructure to handle all these people. Tokyo proper has 9 million. The greater Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area has 31 million. Violent crime levels are a fraction of what they are in major American cities. The sidewalks and streets are clean. Begging and homelessness is low and the air is clean. Every city manager should be required to spend no less than two weeks here looking and studying how this is done. How the interwoven mass transit systems are matched with miles of subterranean passageways with shops and restaurants. Better yet, maybe they should come here see what has been accomplished and bow their heads in shame.

I’m not suggesting there aren’t serious problems. I can tell you at least one. Half of the adult males are smokers, twice the American rate. And living in Tokyo certainly is expensive.

It’s the small details here that I think are revealing. There are so many bicycles, not high tech, all-terrain, expensive, speed racers but sturdy bikes with baskets where the rider sits upright. There are clotheslines up in patio balconies. In my room the washbasin moves over the toilet to make room for a shower area. all in a space smaller than my closet at home. I noticed the commuter train had heated seats. Sidewalks have special ridges for the blind or visually handicapped. Magnificent examples of utility and simplicity like these are everywhere.

Not that Tokyo had an easy time getting where it is.

On September 1, 1923 a massive earthquake struck Tokyo. The quake and fire destroyed 576,000 buildings and claimed 142,000 lives. Then as this city was climbing back onto its knees, the wars began. First the Japanese Imperial wars in Asia, then World War II. Japan bombed a clearly military target of Pearl Harbor in response, the Japanese argue, to a crippling oil embargo and an anticipated attack from America. America’s answer was to sweep into the Japanese mainland, firebombing its major cities and ultimately using its super weapon, the Atomic bomb, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing staggering numbers of non-combatants.

The American raids on Japan are poignantly described in the Oscar-winning documentary, The Fog of War, which I highly recommend. The film shows how American military planners specially developed firebombs to bring the greatest possible destruction to Japanese cities, which were constructed mostly of wood. This meant intentionally high civilian deaths. The action conjures in my own mind (because I am at the place where it happened) untold thousands of children running, screaming…burning to death. Why did we do this to them? Was this the only conceivable way to win the war, to just toss children and others in? And firebombing the major cities was before we used the atomic bombs on them.

By all means read Hiroshima by John Hershey if you haven’t already.

For me the question then becomes: after all the killing America did, the vast numbers of civilian deaths, how can the Japanese ever genuinely trust and accept us? And why should they? We fault the Germans for not properly teaching about the Holocaust and Nazi brutalities. We criticize the Japanese for their selective memory about China and greater Asia. But we are every bit as guilty as they are. If not more so. We have washed and trimmed history to fit our high opinion of ourselves. It is so clear to me that the only way to know history is to walk on the paths where history actually happened. It certainly helps.

Yesterday I went to the Yasukuni-jinja, the shrine that is a memorial in Tokyo to the 2.5 million who died in past wars. Beside the shrine is a museum that touches on the history of the modern wars.  In the last rooms are thousands of photographs of the faces of a few who died. When you’re my age, it’s clear: these guys are just kids. These guys didn’t even get into their lives before the governments used them and had their lives snuffed out. There were also letters home from the soon-to-be-dead.

They did not have pictures of any civilian dead. No faces of the elderly, mothers, and children. Maybe if they did, it would start to dawn on people that…in the end…in the final analysis, modern governments are stark raving mad…hopelessly, violently insane…that heads of governments enjoy war as some super-sport so long as they, the leaders, conduct the killing of others from a safe distance.

After the war, article 9 of the new Japanese constitution stated: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

 “In order to accomplish the aim of the proceeding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

These words were written by the Americans. If only we ourselves could have lived up to these principles we imposed on others.