Yuki Tanaka: The roots of Oda Makoto's antiwar activism were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Roundup: Talking About History

[Yuki Tanaka is Research Professor, Hiroshima Peace Institute, author of Japan’s Comfort Women. Sexual slavery and prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation, and a coordinator of Japan Focus.]

On 30 July, 2007, social and political critic, novelist and political activist Oda Makoto died in Japan at the age of 75. Throughout his life, he published numerous essays and more than 100 books including some thirty novels. Two of his novels, Hiroshima and Gyokusai (The Breaking Jewel), have been translated into English and dramatized for a BBC radio program and broadcast worldwide. In Japan, however, he is remembered above all as the political activist who founded and led Beheiren (Japan Peace-for-Vietnam Citizen’s Alliance), a major grassroots movement against the Vietnam War, which gained extraordinary popular support in the 1960s and 1970s.

Oda Makoto at 75

Oda was boundlessly energetic in promoting peace and democracy, and in criticizing all forms of injustice, inequality and discrimination. In the past several years, he was particularly active in the movement against reforming Japan’s peace constitution and played an important leadership role in protecting Article 9.
Oda was one of inaugural members of the Article 9 Association, a nation wide civil organization established in June 2004 to campaign against the Liberal Democratic Party’s plan to abolish the pacifist clauses of Article 9 of the constitution. However, considering the current situation, in which Article 9 is step by step being eroded by state actions, Oda sought to popularize the idea of peace and non-violence through grass root movements. He called, for example, for a movement to make Japan a “Conscientious Objector Nation”. This was because of his strong belief that the constitution itself is useless without persistent popular efforts to promote peace. Shortly before his death, Oda repeatedly warned of the fact that the Nazis seized power by making the Weimar Constitution practically ineffective, for example, by enacting a law that gave the Nazis carte blanche in 1933. He claimed that this German experience teaches us how important it is for the idea of peace and non-violence to permeate nationwide if we wish to protect our peace constitution.
Oda studied Greek philosophy as an undergraduate at Tokyo University between 1952 and 1957, before going to Harvard for a year on a Fulbright scholarship in 1958. His interest in Greek philosophy, in particular the origins of the idea of democracy, continued throughout his life. Classical thought strongly motivated and informed his political development. However, it was his unforgettable encounter as a young boy with the indiscriminate bombing of Osaka City in the last days of the Asia-Pacific War that most profoundly shaped his ideas and writings, and led to his deep commitment to humanitarian causes throughout his life.
This paper examines the inter-relationship between his experience of U.S. aerial bombing and his philosophy as a writer and activist.

The vivid memory of air raids on 14 August 1945
Did the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring an end to the long and bloody war in the Asia Pacific region? If your answer is ‘Yes, it did,’ then how do you explain the fact that relentless saturation bombing of Japanese cities by U.S. forces continued up until 14 August 1945, five days after the bombing of Nagasaki and the day before Japan officially surrendered to the Allied nations? This is the question that Oda Makoto often put to audiences at his public lectures.

One of the last bombing raids on 14 August 1945 targeted Osaka City, where 700 one-ton bombs were dropped from 150 B-29 bombers. The main target was the army arsenal near Osaka Castle, but bombs also fell on Kyobashi railway station, where two passenger trains had just arrived, approaching from opposite directions. Many civilians were killed by direct hits. At that time, Oda was a 13 year old boy, hiding in a shabby and fragile air raid shelter in his backyard, trembling with fear from the horrific noise and vibration. Indeed, one of the one-ton bombs fell just 200 meters from his shelter. Osaka was bombed almost 50 times between 19 December 1944 and 14 August 1945, and Oda personally experienced many of these attacks. In total, about 15,000 people were killed, 340,000 houses were destroyed, and an estimated 1.2 million people lost their homes and were driven from the city.

Osaka damage from bombing raids
Oda’s vivid memories included the distinctive smell of corpses under the rubble caused by the bombing. Remembering this smell, he wrote in the introduction to his last book, Churyu no Fukko (Restoration of the Middle Class), published two and a half months before his death:

‘It is the powerful impression of the smell that I cannot forget from my experience of the aerial bombing of Osaka. In other words, it was the foul smell reeking from corpses. Dead bodies did not stink while the bombing was going on, as they were still fresh. But a few days later we junior high school boys were mobilized for clean up operations and had to drag the dead bodies out from under the rubble. By then the bodies were decomposed and they stunk like hell. I could not eat tinned salmon for a long time after the war, because the smell of tinned salmon is almost the same as that of decomposed bodies.’

The experience of being showered with bombs and the foul smell of dead bodies left a deep impact on Oda, creating memories which seemed to linger until his death. Throughout his writings, we find numerous references to this war-time experience. Until last year, Oda gave a public lecture on war and peace each year on 14 August in Osaka, indicative of the significance of this experience for him. In other words, the horror of 14 August 1945 was an important source for his ideas, and inspiration for the array of social and political critiques he produced, as well as his novels....

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