Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Tokyo museum commemorates the unthinkable


TOKYO -- In the early morning of March 10, 1945, the world's second-largest city almost disappeared.

Huge U.S. B-29 Superfortress bombers pounded Tokyo with tons of incendiary explosives, setting the city ablaze. More than 100,000 people died. Over the course of 130 subsequent attacks, two-thirds of the city's 7 million residents fled.

So what is striking about the commemorative exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum is the complete absence of what one would expect: There are no photographs of the dead or wounded or of buildings charred by flames. Instead, there is an unprecedented effort to show how Japan's own decisions led to the inferno of the Great Tokyo Air Raid.

In the past, Japan memorialized its wartime agonies as horrifying events disconnected from any cause, as if Japan had played no significant role in the fighting. Indeed, the government recently abandoned efforts to build a war museum, because of disputes over whether it should acknowledge Japanese aggression and its thousands of victims.

Whenever scholars suggested a more open discussion, or even an apology for Japan's belligerence, they were shouted down by members of the right wing, who were outraged that anyone would dare to say there was something for which the country should apologize.

So the lack of outcry about the exhibit may mean that the public's collective amnesia about the war may be ending.

"Ten years ago," said a Ministry of Education official, "there would have been howls."

"As far as I knew, something like this didn't exist," said Yumiko Tokunaga, a 25-year-old jewelry clerk touring the museum, where the exhibit has been a year in the planning. "Japan is a forgetful country. I came because the generation younger than me doesn't know, and the generation older than me doesn't tell."

The museum, run by the city of Tokyo, tells of the change in ordinary life from Western-mimicking modernism in the 1920s, to militarism in the 1930s, to devastation in the 1940s. There are, for example, the toys. By 1932, the year Japan invaded China, the popular toys were no longer dolls and yo-yos but miniature bugles, rifles and army-style backpacks.

"The theme of the exhibition is to show the environment in which an air raid could happen," said Kaoru Matsui, curator of the show. "We wanted to show the trend of history that led from the Japanese war in China to the attack on Pearl Harbor to the air raid on Tokyo."

"To show death and misery is one way to display an image of horror," said Ms. Matsui. "But we wanted people to look at material and then feel by thinking about what it means."

Her show has escaped criticism, perhaps because it does not attempt to assign responsibility for the war. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is more typically the place for exhibits on Kabuki theater, or how Japanese in the nineteenth century spent their summers. But the lack of outrage also suggests that people may be more open than their government to discussing the war.

Rather than begin with the bang of a bomb, the displays begin with an old radio -- one of many appliances becoming popular in 1927 when Japan's wartime emperor, Hirohito, assumed the throne.

A time line notes the opening of a subway in the 1920s and the sensation created in 1931 when a major department store dressed a pretty woman in a short dress and called her a live mannequin. But about the same time, Japan became less interested in mimicking other cultures than in controlling them.

A video shows Japan's aerial bombings of China and the futile attempts of people to douse the flames. There is footage of Japanese soldiers entering Vietnam and of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Many who watched the films, according to Ms. Matsui, had been unaware that Japan had bombed China and the United States.

"Nothing like this is ever shown or ever taught," said Fumitaka Takayama, a museum visitor who was 4 years old when U.S. bombers reduced his family's house in Tokyo to ashes.

"Even this is so little as to be laughable. Unless you understand the attacks on China, you can't understand the attacks on


Childrens' drawings from that time begin to feature tanks firing at men on horseback and Japanese fighters shooting U.S. bombers out of the sky. A childrens' book shows four children and a dog worshiping the rising sun, and the text, which traditionally would say, "Bloom, bloom cherry trees," says, "Go, go soldiers." There is the paperwork used to draft soldiers and to ration rice, gauze and bread.

"I never realized the control the government had of people's lives," said Shigeru Aoki, a 27-year-old Osaka businessman seeing the exhibit for the second time. "The focus in past exhibits was only on how much Japan was damaged."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad