A Blast from the Past

Today, December 7th, 2011, marks 70 years since Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And the bombs are still exploding.

It seems like an ordinary bright December day at the Yokota Air Force Base in Tokyo, Japan, but much of the base is closed, and instead of going to work, most everyone is taking advantage of this impromptu holiday, hunkering down in their on-base housing waiting to hear the ka-boom

Just yesterday a mysterious unexploded ordnance (UXO) was unearthed from a construction site behind the base fitness center, later identified by experts from the Yokosuka Naval Station to be a WWII-era bomb. 

It’s a strange and timely reminder that the base we occupy used to belong to the Japanese, and hence was a target by Allied bombers.  Today, seventy years later,  disposal technicians will detonate this ghostly munition, an explosion that will be a haunting echo from the grave of  the Pacific campaign.

This freshly unearthed chunk of cold metal is a chilling reminder of the horrors the world faced during WWII and the sacrifices that so many made.  For us at Yokota Air Force Base, it’s a forced pause and moment of reflection, as we remember the countless Americans who lost their lives in Pearl Harbor and beyond between the years of 1941-1945. 

But it’s also a reminder of how far the Japanese have come, and how far the relationship between the US and Japan has changed, as it’s difficult for me to believe that the very place where I live used to be enemy territory. 

Sure, residual  traces of hostility and sensitivity still exist in Japan, especially in Hiroshima and Hachioji.  Most people can identify Hiroshima as the first city to ever be destroyed by an atomic weapon when US Forces dropped the atomic bomb in 1945. Hachioji, a city in Greater Tokyo with about a half-million residents, was once the gruesome place where captured American airmen were beheaded with Samurai swords.  American pilots retaliated, adopting the phrase, “Save one for Hachioji,” meaning that they would reserve one bomb from their scheduled drops to hit Hachioji.  Elderly residents of Hachioji are still traumatized by the massive destruction, so much that our planes are forbidden from flying over Hachioji today.

For my generation, it’s hard to imagine a time when our countries were at war, much less to characterize the Japanese people as our “enemies.”  From the moment I arrived in Japan 7 months ago, I have felt a warm and welcoming spirit from the Japanese people.  To us, Hachioji is the nearest big city for a fun night out, and I’ve never thought twice about going there, nor felt any hostility from the people. 

The US took over Yokota Air Force Base after WWII, but many of the jobs on base today are held by Japanese, as our governments work harmoniously together to promote a safe and secure region.  During Japan’s triple-crisis of earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown last Spring, the US/Japan relationship showed it’s strength as both countries worked together to provide relief to victims. I think about the friendly Japanese gate guards who scan us in and out of base every day, and Satoru, the cheerful Japanese traffic director whose cartoon-like smile and animated way of twirling his flag has made him so famous around base that he has his own Facebook fan page.  Hardly the face of an enemy, right?

Perhaps the biggest lesson in all of this is the hope that the worst of enemies can eventually become friends.  I’m sure if you asked any American what they thought about Japs in the early 1940s, their response wouldn’t be very amorous.  I’m sure our grandparents had a hard time imagining the potential for our countries to become close allies.  Can this bomb from seventy years ago also point the way to the future, for America’s relationships abroad? I like to think it’s a reminder of the past, but also of what is possible. As I write this, my husband is preparing to deploy to the Middle East for the 4th time. Is it that far-fetched to think that our grandchildren might someday be walking around the Middle East and discover a bomb, or some vestige of today’s conflicts, and be equally perplexed? 

On December 7th, the date that will live in infamy, we will never forget the sacrifices of WWII. Several generations later, as rulers and regimes have come and gone, what’s left is a very unlikely friendship and the closest of allies.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Joy Felix says:

    Great post and very good points. I have often thought the same about China – once our ally in WWII, then an enemy and now in the strange political dance that is reminiscent of a frienemy relationship of adolescence. How things change. I hope you are right – my grandparents used to speak so highly of the “friendly Middle East” of the 50’s and 60’s, but fear of the Japanese who we today can hardly imagine being so brutal. It’s a great hope that someday the same will be true again.

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