Fumio Matsuo: Tokyo Needs Its Dresden Moment

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Matsuo is a former Washington bureau chief of Kyodo News Service.]

Although Prime Minister Koizumi renewed apologies to countries that the Imperial Army had invaded and colonized, Japan observed the 60th anniversary of its World War II defeat yesterday with great political unease: First, there were the tensions caused by his gamble in dissolving parliament over the rejection of his long-cherished plan to privatize the postal service. On the diplomatic front, Japan's isolation in the six nation talks in Beijing continues -- as does China's opposition to Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

However, in my opinion the most important cause of the uneasiness -- though invisible and unconscious, especially in younger Japanese -- is a thorn deep in the Japanese psyche: There has been no true closure with the U.S. over World War II. On the surface, U.S.-Japan relations are at an all-time high: Prime Minister Koizumi and President Bush share a strong friendship and Japan has been a loyal ally in the war on terror and has deployed troops to Iraq. Still, the thorn of WWII has to be removed to cement a true partnership for coming generations.

My conviction that we need a postwar settlement of accounts is triggered by memory of the way the city of Dresden marked the 50th anniversary of the Allied bombings that killed 35,000. I was surprised to see in attendance the military leaders of Germany's former enemies and representatives of the British Royal Family. It was clear that everyone had engaged in much back-stage diplomacy. Japan and the U.S., on the other hand, have never engaged in any meaningful discussion of their wartime actions, even though far more people (conservatively, 83,793) were killed by the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945, than in Dresden. This was the first of a series of indiscriminate bombings of 69 cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs. According to Japanese government estimates, about 510,000 civilians were killed. Yet Japan and the U.S. have never held such a reconciliation ceremony.

I myself endured one of these raids as a 12-year-old. In July 1945, my family and I were evacuated from Tokyo to the western city of Fukui, which came under attack by 127 B-29 bombers. We took refuge by lying low in a sweet potato field when a cluster bomb fell towards us. Instead of dispersing above ground as intended, the bomb malfunctioned and splashed unopened into the paddy, sending up a muddy gush.

That intense experience was my first encounter with the U.S. As a journalist covering America, I have always wondered why Japan went to war with the U.S. and to what extent we truly understood America. Now I am haunted by the even greater question of why Japan and the U.S. have not properly reconciled their differences as Germany and its former enemies have....

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