Arched over the coffee table in his seaside apartment in Nishinomiya, Japan, Makoto Oda is looking through copies of New York Times pages from World War II that he has spread out before him. Oda had photocopied the pages years ago and their wear and tear are evident, perhaps due to many other such showings to guests.
Oda finds the Times page he is looking for — dated 15 June 1945 — his finger darting to an aerial photo apparently taken by the United States military of its carpet bombing of the merchant city of Osaka, Japan, where he was born and raised. As if to pinpoint the exact spot, Oda’s fingertip goes straight to a place in the photo obscured by the clouds rising from the U.S. bombing, and stays firmly fixed to the page. "I was there," he says, "inside the smoke." Exactly two months after that photo was published in the New York Times, Japan surrendered.
For the 73-year-old Oda and many of his generation in Japan, war was not just something to be read about in history books or to be watched on flickering newsreels: It was something they lived, or didn’t live, through. That war, for better or worse, was the seminal event in Oda’s life. It is safe to say that telling the world the truth about what wars do to ordinary people has been something of his life’s mission ever since.
Where there is fire, there is bound to be smoke, and Oda during his lifetime seems to have always been where the action is. As one of Japan’s most celebrated postwar authors, as an activist against the U.S. war on Vietnam, as an advocate for disaster victims neglected by the Japanese government, as a voice for peace in the wake of 11 September 2001, as an uncompromising critic of racial and ethnic discrimination — Oda has been right there in the midst of the heat, using the power of his words to appeal to the conscience of society.
In an interview with independent journalist Brian Covert, Makoto Oda recently took time out from a couple of major book-writing projects to share his thoughts on such topics from his own place “inside the smoke.”
—Wars of the past
The Hawaiian Islands were an occupied territory of the United States of America at the time that World War II raged on around the world. As American journalist and former soldier Robert B. Stinnett has researched in his book Day of Deceit, U.S. military and government officials all the way up to then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt were looking for a way to convince a skeptical American public to support U.S. involvement in the war. "If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war [against the U.S.], so much the better," proposed U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum in an eight-point strategy memorandum dated 8 October 1940. A year later on 7 December 1941 — 8 December, Japan time — the American powers-that-be got their wish: Pearl Harbor.
MAKOTO ODA: ....When the Pacific War began in 1941, I was in third year of elementary school. My father kept saying that Japan will get defeated once the war begins: "Look at the map: this big country and this small country — smaller than California. We can’t win," like this. I was instructed in such kinds of ways.
When the war started on 8 December 1941, I didn’t get the news about the victory at Pearl Harbor. I went to school. Classmates told me: "We had a great victory!" I got surprised and became very happy. But not because of the victory of Japan. Near the beginning of the war, we had enormous anxiety of the future of Japan: such a big country, an enormously advanced country [the U.S.] fighting Japan, a backward country. Even as second-year, third-year elementary school boys, we were not so stupid. We knew the strength of the United States — a big country with big aircraft carriers — and Japan was so small.
We began to have enormous anxiety about the future of Japan. And when I heard the news of the victory at Pearl Harbor, in a sense, I began to feel released from anxiety. I began to feel happy, see? After the victory at Pearl Harbor, Japanese newspapers printed many kinds of homage to the victory of Japan, written by famous intellectuals. But I understand: They too got released and felt happiness, in a sense. I went home [from school] and said to my father, "We had a victory!" Then he calmly said to me: “Now we will be defeated.” I got surprised, like cold water thrown on me. My mother’s reaction was very funny: "Ah, so?" [nonchalantly], like this. That’s all.
....I was 13 years old when the war ended. I experienced many kinds of atrocities of war. These were made by the United States, especially in the form of air raids. I was in Osaka, brought up there. Osaka received air raids almost every day. But out of many, the most destructive air raids Osaka received eight times. I experienced three times this kind of destruction — completely one-sided destruction and slaughter. We didn’t have any power to resist air raids; even the military didn’t have it. The people didn’t have anything. Thus we came to be slaughtered, destroyed completely.
Oda shows photocopies of old New York Times issues dating back to the war:
This is in Osaka, a picture of Osaka city, from 15 June 1945. I was there, inside the smoke. When you look down on this, in a sense it’s a beautiful scene. But if you were there, it’s a kind of hell in the smoke, and people died there. I was there. So this was my own experience. This kind of situation I experienced three times. So I began to think of war: War means this kind of destruction and slaughter. We didn’t have any power to resist.
He reads from one of the New York Times articles about how the U.S. military had dropped "jellied gasoline" during its attacks on the city of Osaka — the first city in the world, according to Oda, ever to become the victim of "jellied gasoline" attacks in an all-out war. One of the primary targets of the U.S. carpet bombings of Osaka was the Zoheisho, a major Japanese weapons factory (and, Oda asserts, reputedly the largest arms factory in all of Asia) that was located near Osaka Castle in the central part of the city.
Our home was somewhat near to that place. This arsenal was completely destroyed by the American bombers on 14 August 1945 — 20 hours before the surrender of Japan. I was there. An enormous bombing. The target was big factories, so they were not firebombs but one-ton bombs, big ones. I think 800 planes came. Out of 800, 600 came to this [part of] Osaka city at that moment. They dropped many, many one-ton bombs, enormous explosives. They completely destroyed [the factory]. Nearby, our house was there.
I dug out the shelter, a very bad one. Inside the shelter, we trembled, I trembled, like this. And after the air raid, two hours, three hours, I came out. I began to read one small paper there. After the heavy bombings, the rain came. Black rain came. It was muddy; from the muddy ground I picked up one paper. I got surprised: It said "The war is over" in Japanese. They were dropped together with one-ton bombs. And I began to read it and I was aghast, in a sense, because I found out the [words] "The war is over." "Your government surrendered," it said. I didn’t believe it, because of the enormous bombings. The next day, 20 hours later, the Japanese emperor announced "we surrender."
[A]t the end of the war, Japanese people were supposed to weep. Our family didn’t weep at all. Many people didn’t weep. Look at those pictures of people crying in front of the [Tokyo imperial] palace. But count the numbers: It’s so small, 100, 200, something like this. [laughs] So the entire population didn’t weep, so exhausted we were. My mother’s reaction was the typical Japanese common people’s reaction: "Oh, they started the war and they ended the war."
This is a very important feeling of common people. We have to depend upon the feeling of common people, not intellectuals. My thinking always starts from the [viewpoint] of the common people — very important: "They" decided to make war without consultation with us, and "they" decided to end the war without consultation with us! I always keep such kind of psychology in my mind. This is necessary for all people in every country, everywhere. So [in this sense] my writing is quite different from other intellectual writings.
Oda cites as his earliest literary influences the ancient Greek comic dramatist Aristophanes and the late American writer Thomas Wolfe, two radically different writers from two different periods of history who dealt with issues of love and war in their own ways.
BRIAN COVERT: So when did you first start writing? When did you first start putting your own stories together?
MAKOTO ODA: I was quite young. Let me put it in this way: My career as a writer is quite different from the usual ones. After the war, I began to think: "No more war in the world." After enormous destruction, finally peace came to us. Peace was so important for us — for me too. "No more stupid people making war, no more war in the world," I began to think, I began to believe. Then, suddenly, war began to take place [in 1950] in Korea, a neighboring country. Osaka became a kind of hospital for the American soldiers; there were American hospitals there in Osaka. I didn’t expect such kind of thing would happen. "No more war," I had thought.
I began to think of war in the world. The world has no future, I thought. I began to disbelieve in the world situation. So I decided to write down my feelings. The title was Notebook on the Day After Tomorrow. I wrote it in epigram: "We can’t believe in tomorrow, only we can believe in the day after tomorrow" — this was my feeling. So I began to write notes. Quite different motives from writing a novel! Quite political, in a sense. I was in second year of high school, remembering the days of the Korean War. I was a kind of genius at that time. As I became older, I became an ordinary person. [laughs]
BC: That was a very heavy topic for such a young writer.
MO: Of course, of course. [laughs] I always take up heavy topics, heavy problems.
—'I Want to See Everything'
With an education at Tokyo University — Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning — and two novels under his belt, the young Oda, a student of Greek studies, went to the U.S. in 1958-59 to study at Harvard University. It was the era of the Beat Generation and racial segregation in America, and Oda experienced it all. Taking advantage of his overseas sojourn to the U.S., he later traveled around other parts of the world as well. When he came back to Japan, he ended up writing in 1961 the blockbuster book that would position him, at age 29, as one of Japan’s most prominent postwar literary figures.
BC: So your first big book was Nan-demo Mite Yaro, right?
MO: That was my third book, actually speaking. The first book was Notebook on the Day After Tomorrow,, a novel. I had written two novels before I took a trip to the United States. I became a student at Harvard. I took an examination for the Fulbright student program and I passed, then I went to the United States. I spent one year at Harvard, then I began to take a trip from Mexico to Europe and India. After I returned to Japan, I went to the publishing house of my novels. I said to the editor, "I want to write a novel again." He said, "No, no, not now. Your novels didn’t sell at all, in the first place. But what you told me," he said to me, "about your trip is very interesting. Why don't you write a travelogue first?" So in a sense, I was forced to write a travelogue.
It’s very funny about the title: I had written quite a long travelogue, and the editor was quite unhappy, [saying] "You did the wrong thing again — you wrote too much!" Quite reluctantly he wanted to publishing it [saying] "What’s the title?" I said: "I Want to See Everything" [Nan-demo Mite Yaro]. He was surprised: "Why such an audacious title? Better have a much more humble title." [laughs] It was too big of a title, an audacious, arrogant title. So I said to the editor, "Then concoct your own title." He didn’t concoct any title; finally he decided to take mine. [laughs] Nobody thought this book would become a bestseller.
BC: Why did it become a bestseller?
MO: ....The reason is very simple. It’s a travelogue, in the first place. They wanted to see the world — Japanese people wanted to see the world. At the same time [in the book], I stressed that every country has its own good character. At that time, the Japanese thought Japan was not a good country at all: very poor, very inferior, everything’s so bad in Japan.
BC: Especially after the war.
MO: So I wrote in such a way: "Good things or bad things, every country’s the same. We better have confidence." This kind of logic, this kind of thinking, appealed to the people. This kind of feeling appealed to the Korean people too [at the time]. Very strange, but quite natural in a sense.
—Vietnam and Beheiren
It wouldn’t be long before Oda’s newfound celebrity in Japan as a bestselling author would collide with his own childhood memories of WWII and his despair as a young idealist over the Korean War. By the time Oda’s book became a bestseller in the early 1960s, the United States had begun its war on the southeast Asian nation of Vietnam. It was in Vietnam where the "jellied gasoline" reported to have been used by the U.S. military on Oda’s hometown of Osaka, Japan in WWII would go on to become nearly a household name around the world: napalm.
A public outrage arose in Japanese society over the U.S. war on Vietnam, with Oda himself helping in 1965 to kick off a loosely organized grassroots movement called the Citizens Alliance for Peace in Vietnam — in Japanese: "Betonamu ni Heiwa o Shimin Rengo," better known as Beheiren. People organized local Beheiren chapters all over Japan and took their anti-war message to the streets, to schools, to local communities and to Japanese corporate boardrooms. Beheiren followers also hid and sheltered American soldiers based in Japan who had gone AWOL, helping several of the soldiers to escape to overseas countries and avoid fighting in Vietnam.
BC: I’d like to focus on some of your activism work with Beheiren. At that time, in a sense, it was quite a revolutionary movement in Japanese society. How did you get involved with Beheiren, and what was the significance of Beheiren? How did it change Japan in those days?
MO: [pauses] Maybe it was a kind of spontaneous movement coming from the people. Not an ideologically sponsored, ideologically oriented one — just a spontaneous anti-war movement. People got angry about the war in Vietnam, including myself. My starting point was…my war experience, these pictures of destruction. And after many years, I began to find out my position: I was in this kind of "smoke" when I was a boy, but I didn’t notice this. I didn’t see history at that time. But many years later, I began to find out history: We Japanese did many kinds of bombings against Chinese cities — many, many cities, Nanjing, and others.
When I was a boy, I saw the same kind of pictures [looking down] from above, like this one [points to New York Times page]. When we went to the movie theaters and saw newsreels, they dropped bombs like this, smoke here. I didn’t have any feeling about it. I just saw it. Maybe American boys were like this when they saw these pictures in the New York Times, without knowing what’s happening inside the smoke. I was there, I was the same: When I was a boy, I saw many pictures but had no feeling. I didn’t think about the victory of the Japanese navy planes; I just saw it without any sentiment. But when I was inside [the smoke], it was a quite different situation.
When the war in Vietnam, bombing of North Vietnam, began to take place, at that time I saw the pictures on TV: dropping bombs with big smoke. I was there, in a sense. I began to find out the enormous agony of the Vietnamese people. Then I begin to organize the movement against the war in Vietnam together with others. My motives were that I had the experience of being a victim [of war]; at the same time, I began to find out the role of the Americans who dropped the bombs — the victimizers. So I began to organize this.
I had enormous sympathy with American soldiers who got drafted against their own will. They had to go to Vietnam to shoot people. This was the same situation as Japanese soldiers fighting in China [in WWII]. They were drafted, so they had to go there to fight with and to shoot Chinese. We have to get rid of this kind of vicious cycle, I thought. Japan was unwillingly a partner of the United States [in Vietnam]. Japanese people were not happy about being in the role of a partner of the United States, but we were forced to do this under the pressure of the United States, under the security treaty. It’s the same situation today too.
So we had to get rid of this kind of vicious cycle between the United States and Japan. That was the starting point. And [U.S. General] Curtis LeMay, he got a medal, the highest medal of [honor of] the Japanese government — he got it from the emperor [in 1964]. And after he got that medal from the Japanese government, he began to bomb North Vietnam, saying that "We are going to make Vietnam return to the Stone Age," like this. Very ironic.
BC: It seems that Beheiren was not just changing the visible situation in Japanese society, but perhaps inside, too, people were changing.
MO: I think so. And by the way, this was a very free movement, not ideologically directed. Completely freely, people got together. That was the first time: Some people were with the Socialist Party, some people were with the Communist Party, even if some were from the [ruling] Liberal-Democratic Party, it was all right.
—'Persona non grata'
As the years went on and Beheiren chapters disbanded following the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, Oda continued to support the Vietnamese people in his own ways. He also continued writing, producing volumes of works, including on human rights issues in both eastern and western nations. His reputation as a voice of the common person was to precede him and raise suspicions wherever he traveled in the world — especially in the land of liberty and democracy.
BC: I understand that you were blacklisted by the U.S. government during the Vietnam war days. Is that true?
MO: Very difficult [to travel there], even today. Communist Party members can go to the United States. Not me. I have many difficulties with [entering] your country. Many, many difficulties.
….I got invited by the CCAS — Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars — to make a speaking tour during the war in Vietnam. And I said OK, but my visa application was refused by the American embassy in Tokyo. I lived in Tokyo at that time. They asked me to come over, to report to the American embassy. I said, "No, why don’t you come here?" They didn’t come. My visa was refused. Finally, many people, American scholars, tried their best to negotiate with the American embassy. And the visa came three weeks later.
This funny story began to happen after that. With this visa, I went to San Francisco; I had a speaking engagement in Washington DC. At that time, [Japanese prime minister Eisaku] Sato went to Washington DC to negotiate with Nixon about Okinawa. So I arrived in San Francisco, they looked at this passport, then "Please come over here" — the usual routine for me, always. Many places, many countries. And I was ushered to a small room. The officer there said: "We cannot decide if you can enter this country or not." I said: "This is the visa here." He said: "The visa is a different matter. Visas are issued by the State Department. This is the department of immigration. So we cannot decide," like this. "Go to Washington DC," he said to me. I had a speaking engagement in Washington DC, so it was OK for me. I went there, made a speech. After that, I was asked to report to the immigration bureau in Washington DC.
A funny thing happened after that. I went with an American lawyer. The officer there — a very high-ranking officer, I think — asked me questions: "Have you come here to incite illegal activities in this country?" I said, "Of course, no. I was invited by the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. I am making a speaking tour at Harvard and many universities," like this. He said to me, with my American lawyer: "Can you swear to this?" "I can swear very easily, it’s quite true. I swear." And then, he asked about my schedule. I told him. ....I said to him — very funny, like a Zen dialogue — "I am now in the United States of America.” He said, “No.” Very funny! “No, you are not in the United States." I said to him, "Here is a part of the United States of America. I’m here. It means that logically speaking, I am in the United States of America." He said, "No." A stupid conversation, for five or 10 minutes like this: "no-yes." Finally, my lawyer said, "Give up this kind of stupid dialogue."
And then the officer put a small paper in my passport. Then after the speaking tour, I went to San Francisco to depart the country. And the officers there took this paper, that’s all. They did not stamp my entry, my exit. I didn’t exist there. It means that I was not in the United States of America. I was there, but I was not in the United States of America! It was like a socialist country.
….One day, quite a long time ago, I got invited by the Smithsonian Institution to participate in a symposium in Washington DC. I thought it’s a good idea to go to the United States with the invitation from the Smithsonian Institution. In Osaka, I went to the consulate of the United States and I presented [my documents]. After several minutes, someone said, "Mr. Oda, could you come over here?" This is the routine, always, for me. I went to a small room and the vice consul, I think, said: "What is this about you going to the United States?" Some difficulties. I said to him: "It’s up to you, it’s up to your government. Maybe it’s because I participated in the movement against the war in Vietnam." He said, "I did too." [laughs] Very funny. He became a good friend; he lived here in Nishinomiya. He’s now an ambassador somewhere, I think. He’s a kind of literary enthusiast; he also writes novels.
[Another time] there was a conference about the rights of minorities in New York. I got invited, but I didn’t want to go [to the U.S.] anymore. But they asked me to come over; finally I decided to go without a visa [like other Japanese tourists]. Then, as often happens, they checked a list — I’m an "undesirable foreigner" perhaps — and they began to search everything [during a body check]. "Stand!", like this. I got angry. "I want to go back," I said to them. They said: "You can’t go back, since you have not yet entered this country." [laughs] They took my name cards, they searched everything. They found a name card [I was carrying] of Ramsey Clark. I thought they might put some white powder in my pocket. They can do that, without you knowing.
After one or two hours later, I got released. I went to the conference in New York. I talked about my experience to the audience: minority people, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, many people. They said, "This is a common thing. We experience the same kind of thing every day"! [laughs] And then after that, whenever I show my passport to immigration officers, they look at my face. Something there is in their machine. Something is written there.
BC: So you are still in the files of the U.S. government.
MO: Maybe so. I don’t know.
BC: But that is happening more and more these days.
MO: Yeah, I think so. But I don’t want to go to the United States any more. ....I became persona non grata to many countries: Thailand, for example, Malaysia, Singapore. I wrote many things about human rights in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore. I became a very "noisy" person for them. I organized a conference of Asian people here [in Japan] first and the second time in Bangkok, Thailand. I went there, I was stopped at immigration. And the Japan Airlines people came to me and said, "There is now some problem with your case." They discussed it in Thai language: I was a "suspect" of the [leftist] Red Army of Japan. They decided to put a tailing policeman on me. Thailand is such a country. These are awful states, wherever they are. I’m sorry to say the United States is one of them.
BC: It’s true. It’s getting worse.
MO: No more free countries.