Oda Makoto, Author and Activist, Talks to Brian Ohkubo Covert

Arched over the coffee table in his seaside apartment in Nishinomiya, Japan, Oda Makoto is looking through New York Times pages from World War II. The page he is looking for — dated June 15,1945 — shows an aerial photo taken during the U.S. carpet bombing of the merchant city of Osaka, where he was born and raised. “I was there,” he says, “inside the smoke.” Exactly two months after that photo was published, Japan surrendered.

For Oda and many of his generation in Japan, war was not just something to be read about in history books or seen on flickering newsreels: it was something they lived, or didn’t live, through. That experience was the seminal event in Oda’s life. Telling the world the truth about what wars do to ordinary people has been something of his life’s mission ever since.

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 September 11, 2001, and as an uncompromising critic of racial and ethnic discrimination — Oda has remained right there in the midst of the heat, using the power of his words to appeal to the conscience of society.

ODA MAKOTO: When the Pacific War began in 1941, I was in my third year of elementary school. My father kept saying that Japan will be defeated once the war begins: “Look at the map: this big country and this small country — smaller than California. We can’t win.”

When the war started, I didn’t hear about Pearl Harbor until classmates told me, “We had a great victory!” I was surprised and elated. Near the beginning of the war, we had great anxiety about the future of Japan: such a big country, an enormously advanced country (the U.S.) fighting Japan, a backward country. Even as elementary school boys, we were not stupid. We knew the strength of the United States — a big country with aircraft carriers — and Japan was so small.

After I heard the news of the victory at Pearl Harbor, I began to feel released from that anxiety. I went home and said to my father, “We had a victory!” Then he calmly said to me: “Now we will be defeated.” I felt like cold water (had been) thrown on me.

I was 13 years old when the war ended. I had experienced many kinds of atrocities of war made by the United States, especially in the form of air raids. Osaka was bombed almost every day. But out of many, the most destructive air raids hit Osaka eight times. I experienced three times this kind of completely one-sided destruction. I was there, inside the smoke. It’s a kind of hell, in the smoke, and people died there. So I began to think that war means this kind of destruction and slaughter. We didn’t have any power to resist.

[He reads from the New York Times about how the U.S. military had dropped “jellied gasoline” during its attacks on Osaka — one of the first cities in the world, according to Oda, where it was used. One of the primary targets in Osaka was a major Japanese weapons factory (reputedly the largest arms factory in all of Asia) located near Osaka Castle.]

Our home was somewhat near that arsenal, which was completely destroyed by the American bombers on August 14, 1945 — 20 hours before the surrender of Japan. I was there. An enormous bombing. Out of 800 planes, 600 came to this (part of) Osaka city. They dropped many one-ton bombs, enormous explosives.

The next day, the Japanese emperor announced, “We surrender.”

At the end of the war, Japanese people were supposed to have wept. 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: 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 person’s reaction: “Oh, they started the war and they ended the war.”

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!

When did you first start writing, putting your own stories together?

I was quite young. 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, to believe. Then, suddenly, another war began (in 1950) in Korea. There were American hospitals for American soldiers there in Osaka. I didn’t expect such a 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 [Asatte no Shuki]. I wrote in an epigram: “We can’t believe in tomorrow, we can only 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 my 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]

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 on the Fulbright program. It was the era of the Beat Generation and racial segregation in America, and Oda experienced it all. Taking advantage of his sojourn to the U.S., he later traveled in other parts of the world as well: Mexico, Europe and India. Back in 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.

Why did Nan-demo Mite Yarō (I Want to See Everything) become a bestseller?

The reason is very simple. It’s a travelogue, in the first place. 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. So I wrote in such a way: “Good things or bad things, every country’s the same. We had 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 in Vietnam, where the “jellied gasoline” reportedly used by the U.S. military on Osaka would become known around the world — as napalm.

Public outrage arose in Japanese society over the Vietnam War, 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 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 sheltered American soldiers based in Japan who had gone AWOL, helping several of them to escape overseas and avoid fighting in Vietnam.

How did you get involved with Beheiren, and what was its significance? How did it change Japan in those days?

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 war experience, these pictures of destruction. And after many years, I began to find 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 about history. We Japanese were responsible for 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. 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 the same: when I was a boy, I saw many pictures but had no feeling about it. 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 bombing of North Vietnam began to take place, at that time I saw the pictures on TV: dropping bombs with big clouds of smoke. I was there, in a sense. I began to know the enormous agony of the Vietnamese people. Then I began 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 know the role of the Americans who dropped the bombs — the victimizers.

I had enormous sympathy for American soldiers who got drafted against their 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. Japanese people were not happy about being in the role of a partner of the United States (in Vietnam), 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.

[continued in part 2]