As the rest of the world looks back on the events that led up to the end of the war in Japan 50 years ago, Japan itself is looking back on seven months of almost compa. trauma - an earthquake, terrorism, political and financial uphieaval - and contempingrable lating its past and its future with uncharacteristic anxiety. By Richard Lloyd Parry
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WHAT DOES it mean to be the only nation in the world to have been atom-bombed, to have had "the power of the sun" (as the earliest American propaganda explained it) turned upon you in anger? Today, at 8.15am, a few thousand people in Hiroshima will fall silent for a minute, and consider this question.

Many of them (though fewer than last year) will know exactly what it felt like, because they were there. Many more will face a harder task: that of imagining the blast and heat, the toiling mushroom cloud, the sight of their dead friends and their homes levelled to ashes. Plenty of them - perhaps most - won't manage the mental leap. They will look around them at the clean, modern, well-laid-out city, with its parks and art galleries and baseball stadium, and the sufferings of the old Hiroshima will seem as remote as the Ice Age. But none of them, if they are Japanese, will have much difficulty with the idea of destruction. Explosion, blast, shock wave, collapse, fall-out: the language of bombs is richly metaphorical. These are words used to describe breakdowns and terminations of many kinds - of faith, of security and of institutions, as well as of people, houses and cities. And the Japanese have been preoccupied with the language of destruction in 1995, the most metaphorical of years, the golden anniversary of the new Japan.

For a European journalist, Japan in 1995 is a remarkable place to be. So many extraordinary things have happened in the past seven months that you find yourself wondering what used to happen here, before the earthquakes and war anniversaries and gas attacks. The answer is nothing very much, for the most part. Occasionally a prime minister would fall, to be replaced by an identikit successor; every now and then a cabinet minister would be entertainingly caught with his fingers in the till and/or in a geisha's kimono. Even more fun was the stream of down-page, world-of-the-weird stories, about the vending machines in Tokyo selling packets of schoolgirls' underwear, for example, or the crazed boffin who discovered a way of making paving-stones out of human sewage. And then there was business and the stratospheric successes of Japanese banks and car and electronics firms. But that, for the most part, was it; and it was all comfortably predictable.

Post-war Japan, people remind you, has known extraordinary periods before. In 1960, left-wing student resistance to the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty climaxed in 70,000-strong demonstrations and street fighting close to the Imperial palace; President Eisenhower's state visit was cancelled after his ambassador and press secretary were stoned in their car. And the Eighties, the years of Japan's "Bubble Economy", were also astounding in their way: bloated by rising property prices, Tokyo became, by some estimates, the richest city in the history of the world. But these were one-dimensional dramas compared with the glut of crises that has beset the country this year. Someone should write a book about Japan in 1995. In fact, they should write several books, because the period could furnish any number of genres: not just the usual dry, socio-economic treatises, but hot, sexy bestsellers, with shiny cover lettering and doomy titles. For a start there would be the earthquake shocker (Kobe: The City That Died). Then there would be the economic potboiler about the coming financial collapse and its catastrophic effects on the world markets. Warriors of the Rising Sun might be a political thriller about the Japanese right, and its dreams of world domination. And there would be the other stuff - about the nerve gas killings, and the Armageddon cult, and the assassinations - which, if it hadn't all actually happened, would be the schlockiest book of all: bad, over-excitable science fiction.

It wasn't meant to turn out like this: 1995 should have been a much duller, drier and more pompous affair. From the beginning, everyone had recognised the potent symbolism of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War - two generations on, yet still close enough for many of the participants to be alive. It was supposed to be a time of remembrance and reflection on death and loss, but also a celebration of a reconstruction so total and flawless that it has almost completely effaced itself. Talk of phoenixes rising from ashes, and skyscrapers sprouting from the ruins, suggests something visibly dramatic about the Japanese "miracle", yet scarcely any evidence of it survives. Between Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which were nuked, and those few smaller cities which escaped conventional bombing completely, there is, apart from a few old temples and mouldy wooden houses, little essential difference: if you travelled blindfold first to one of the former, then to one of the latter, opening your eyes in each case in the city centre, you would not be able to tell which was which. The war and its memorabilia are confined to a handful of museums, military shrines and war memorials. You can seek them out, but they do not dominate or obtrude: they are a specialised interest, popular enough but not to everyone's taste, like gardening or tennis.

Foreigners and a few Japanese, familiar with the example of Germany and its long tradition of national atonement, feel uncomfortable about Japan's untormented, almost casual approach to the war. Yet if one talks to individual Japanese about it, or observes the schoolchildren who flock around the Hiroshima A-Bomb museum on sunny afternoons, there is nothing sinister or repressed in their attitudes. They recognise and understand the horrors of war - they are one of the best-educated nations on earth - and they are grateful that they have been spared the suffering that their grandparents endured. But the idea that they somehow share a responsibility for the war, a burden that must be passed down from one generation to the next, seems futile, and demonstrably illogical.

To many Westerners, this is a failure of values; to Japan it is a difference of perspective, and it produces bizarre distortions. In Tokyo the department store boutiques sell a brand of shoes called A-Bomb. There is nothing special about them: they are rather boring and middle-aged, though reassuringly expensive. But the fact that they exist at all is powerful evidence that, whereas the West always lives with half an eye on the past, feeling the wounds of history generations after they have been inflicted (try to imagine Passchendaele pyjamas or Zyklon B lingerie), Japan sees the past as dead and lives in the perpetual present.

THERE WAS every reason for thinking that this year's 50th anniversary commemorations would be the social equivalent of A-Bomb label shoes: superficially risque and intriguing, but in fact merely lavish, conservative and dull. As it happened, the year went according to plan for little more than a fortnight. On 17 January, a Tuesday, a huge, shallow earthquake struck 20km below Awajishima, an island off Kobe, the country's second biggest port, an arterial point on the rail and road network linking eastern and western Japan. The physical damage was enormous: elevated expressways toppled from their pillars, gas mains and telephone lines snapped, and the city's pride, the skyscraper-studded artificial islands which had been painstakingly reclaimed from the sea over 20 years, soaked up the sea like sponges dropped into a bath. Whole neighbourhoods of wooden houses burned. Many of the new, reinforced buildings resisted, but a few did not, and more than 5,500 bodies were finally recovered.

Equally shocking was the effect of this destruction on the authorities: blind paralysis, almost embarrassment. For the first few hours the city had only its own resources to fight the city-block-sized fires, unclog the streets and free trapped survivors. When the Ground Self-Defence Forces, Japan's Army, was asked why it hadn't deployed earlier, a spokesman said that he had received no orders. When the Defence Minister was asked why these hadn't been given, he offered the same answer: "Because no one asked me to." For two days after the earthquake, the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, made no changes to his schedule, and only got to Kobe when it looked as if the Princess of Wales might beat him to it. Thirty offers of foreign aid were received and politely put on hold; in the end, a few blankets and a dozen Swiss sniffer dogs were all that made it through the red tape. At 11.40am, five hours after the quake, Murayama had a 13- minute telephone conversation with Bill Clinton. The President put at his disposal the resources of US forces not only in Japan but in nearby Asian countries as well. Murayama reportedly thanked him and said, "If we need them I'll let you know." He never called back.

"A BAD earthquake," wrote Charles Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle, "at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity which hours of reflection would not have produced." If Japan has a national nightmare, it is not the atomic bomb which fell from above, but the earthquake which comes from below.

In Kobe's home region of Kansai, 80 per cent of the population watched the television news specials that evening, and the percentage was only slightly smaller, 76 per cent, in Kanto, the urbanised eastern plain containing Tokyo and Yokohama. Many people in the capital had friends and family in Kobe, but this alone did not explain the fascination. Many of those in the capital, one suspects, were thinking about themselves, not about Kobe; not about the present, but about their own future.

Some time in the next 10 years, it is generally assumed, Tokyo will be shaken by an earthquake powerful enough to destroy large areas of the city, and start fires that will kill many thousands of people. This is well known; everyone who visits Tokyo is told this within a few days of arrival. The first thing you learn about Tokyo is that it won't be there for much longer.

The reasoning is simple. Every 70 or so years, for three or four centuries, Tokyo, Yokohama and the surrounding area have been devastated by a vast tremor. These have occurred in 1633, 1703, 1782, and 1853. The last one, during which 140,000 people died, took place in 1923. You work it out.

In talking of earthquakes (atomic bombs too) numbers of dead can become rather meaningless. To put them into perspective, consider the casualties of the atomic bombs. In Hiroshima, 70,000 died at once, and 130,000 by the end of 1945. The total figure for Nagasaki was about 74,000. A 1991 projection by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for the casualties of the next Great Kanto Earthquake (as these great quakes are known) predicted 9,400 dead and 147,000 injured (two Kobes); eight years earlier, another official report suggested 35,700 dead and 63,000 injured (half a Nagasaki); a recent report by Haresh Shah, a civil engineer, formerly of Stanford University, posited an upper figure of 60,000 dead. In other words, the Kanto earthquake could kill almost as many people as a small atomic bomb.

Tokyo is one of the most selfish capital cities in the world. Government agencies, corporate headquarters and (counting the satellite cities absorbed into its urban sprawl) close to a quarter of Japan's entire population are concentrated in the Kanto plain. Within hours of the Kobe earthquake, shops in Tokyo were reporting a run on torches, protective helmets and dried food, the key components of the earthquake survival kit which every home is supposed to keep. Everyone agreed that the Kobe quake marked a key moment, in Tokyo's consciousness as much as in Kobe's. "My sense is that this, coming on the heels of the Japanese crisis of confidence over the bursting of the economic bubble, is particularly troubling," said the anthropologist Theodore Bester of Cornell University. "This will be one of the pivotal points in 20th-century Japanese history."

There is a delicate little poem about earthquakes by Anthony Thwaite, who used to teach in Japan. The stanzas are loosely based on haiku. These are the first three:

An easing of walls,

A shuddering through soles:

A petal loosens, falls.

In the room, alone:

It begins, then it has gone.

Ripples outlast stone.

Rain-smell stirs the heart;

Nostrils flare. A breath.

We wait for something to start

LIKE THE flapping of the butterfly which triggers a typhoon on the other side of the world, the Kobe earthquake had all kinds of unforeseen and imponderable consequences. A group of socialist politicians had been planning the formation of a new left-wing group to invigorate the ailing Social Democratic Party (SDP). The meeting was postponed, the momentum was lost, and the SDP now faces almost certain annihilation at the next general election.

At the same time, the decline of the Tokyo Stock Exchange put increased pressure on an exposed futures position held by a British trader in Singapore, contributing directly to the collapse of Barings Bank. And, in Tokyo and Yamanashi, a mountainous prefecture south-west of the capital, police redeployments interrupted a long running criminal investigation.

Raids had been planned on a mountain commune belonging to an obscure but very rich religious sect called Aum Shinri Kyo; but, in the aftermath of Kobe, they were postponed. This is the police's story, anyway, and it is certainly satisfying to draw a link between the two most remarkable events of the year.

What the police really knew about Aum Shinri Kyo will probably never come out. At the very least, Aum Shinri Kyo had been associated since 1989 with mysterious disappearances and abductions. Villagers living next to the cult's compounds had complained of loud, all-night chanting, obnoxious smells, illegal building work and intimidation. There was circumstantial evidence linking the cult to a little publicised incident last June in which seven people died in a mountain town, apparently from the effects of sarin, a nerve gas developed by Nazi scientists during the Second World War.

Following the Kobe earthquake, the raids were rescheduled for 22 March, a Wednesday. On the previous Saturday, police in Osaka rescued a student who had been abducted by Aum after helping his sister, who was trying to escape from the cult. On Sunday, police received gas-mask training from the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, and SDF chemical warfare units were placed on standby. The net was tightening around the cult and Shoko Asahara, its guru.

On the morning of Monday 20 March, viewers turned on their televisions to find themselves being treated for the second time in two months with wall-to-wall, multi-channel disaster coverage. From Kobe the memorable images had been panoramic and wide-angled: the mile-long stretch of expressway tipped neatly on to its side; the burning blocks viewed from the sweeping choppers. Here was the opposite: the cameras came in low and bobbed down steps and underground. The damage here was not civic, but frighteningly personal and internal. Commuters in business suits, still clutching briefcases, were pictured lying supine on the pavement with vomit and blood around their mouths and noses. Men in uniforms and gas masks - police, firemen, station officials, paramedics - darted among them, and among the stranded trains in the subterranean tunnels.

Just after 8am, sarin had been released on five separate trains, all due to converge, within minutes of one another, on Kasumigaseki, the closest station to the headquarters of both the national and regional police headquarters. Sarin is a terrifying gas which enters the body through the pores, not the lungs. Even a gas mask is no good; the only sure protection is an all-over bodysuit. Somehow, only 12 people were killed by the gas, but 5,500 others were treated for its effects. As with the first atom bombs, no one knows what the effects of non-fatal sarin exposure might be, and there are rumours of long-term damage to the liver and nervous system. For Japan, the imagery of this second catastrophe was as potent as that of the first. "We can't be sure of anything now," a neighbour of mine said, "even the air we breathe, even the ground beneath our feet."

AND THAT was not all. The next two months were scarcely less remarkable, although not in the way one might have expected. There was no panic, but there was something else instead. Tokyo is a tightly wound city at the best of times, but by no means unpredictable. The sensation is rather one of massive, but rigorously contained, energy. At night, the streets fizz with drunk, high-spirited people and jammed cars, but no one ever swings a punch or blares a horn. There is a deep sense of something immense held in check, of imminent drama, as if a monstrous genie were struggling to pop out of its bottle. Modern Japan's home-grown metaphor for this is Godzilla, the cinematic dinosaur who stomps over a polystyrene Tokyo in low-budget science fiction films. The archetype is an older legend: the vast mythical catfish which was said to lie below the Japanese islands. For years on end, the catfish sleeps soundly on the seabed. But now and then - in Kobe on 17 January, for instance - it flicks its tail.

Even then, however, it is hard to awaken. Japan reacted to poison gas in its capital, not with panic, but with intense, frowning caution. The first conclusion that everyone jumped to, even before details emerged of the cult and the planned raids, was that Aum Shinri Kyo was involved. The police had concluded this too, but - like the Prime Minister after the Kobe earthquake - their diaries appeared to be full that day, as they were on the next. And, during those two days, there was intense activity at Aum's headquarters, a collection of industrial-looking buildings in an obscure village called Kamiku Isshiki, near Mt Fuji. All day the frantic villagers, suddenly vindicated for their years of suspicions, frantically phoned the police to report the comings and goings: vehicles were leaving in large numbers loaded with cult followers and containers, including the white Rolls-Royce used by Shoko Asahara. But the raids went ahead as scheduled - on Wednesday 22 March, two days after the sarin attack.

The police arrived by the busload. Each officer sported a green pouch on his belt containing a gas mask. Key units wore all-over protective suits and carried caged canaries like 19th-century miners. But the warrants made no mention of sarin and subways. The raid uncovered industrial laboratories hidden behind plaster Buddhas, tons of chemical ingredients of sarin and other gases (enough, someone calculated, to have killed 4.2 million people if successfully mixed), Russian sarin detectors, gun parts, and ammunition - yet the police insisted that they were investigating not murder, but another kidnapping which had taken place in February.

In Tokyo there was a weird, exaggerated calm. Everything was done to make you feel as calm as possible - which made everyone very nervous. Pairs of policemen strolled on the subway trains, nonchalantly glancing at passengers' bags. Calm voices on the Tannoys soothingly requested us to keep a look out for suspicious parcels. On a couple of lines all the soft drinks machines were switched off, for fear that a clumsily opened can of pop, fizzing noisily on a rush hour train, might be mistaken for a canister of sarin and cause a panic.

Ten days after the sarin attack, the chief of police was shot and nearly killed outside his house by a gunman who escaped on a bicycle.

Rumour was all there was to go on. The police held no open briefings, and made no public displays of the guns and poison laboratories which they were recovering, or the warehouses full of nasty chemicals. Even the news was rumour, leaked to the Japanese media by unnamed "investigation sources". There were rumours about missing cult members, whose mugshots were to be seen on posters all over the country. One had sliced off his fingerprints to avoid identification (the shrivelled tips were found in an abandoned hide-out), undergone plastic surgery, and was now posing as a woman (true). One had been injured in the sarin attack and was being guarded by police in hospital (false). One, or more than one, was carrying flasks of sarin (false, so far).

The climax came on 15 April. Shoko Asahara, so the rumour went, had predicted that "something horrible" would strike Tokyo that day. Everyone expected more gas; the cult said no, it would just be a big earthquake. Two department stores in the Shinjuku district, the rumoured target, closed for the day. It was a Saturday, the busiest of the week. Calmly they explained that it was nothing to do with the rumours - they were simply shop-fitting and stock-taking. The day passed without incident.

The calm became still more strained. Four days later 500 people were taken to hospital after fumes spread through Yokohama station. Their cause was never found, but thereafter hardly a fortnight passed without "funny smells" being reported somewhere in Japan. There were funny smells in subways, funny smells in restaurants. Subways, especially at rush hour, can smell a bit funny; so can Japanese restaurants. It seemed that the rumours were getting to people. Then a cleaner in a station lavatory came across something funny, just in time: a bag of chemicals timed to release billows of cyanide gas.

The most widespread rumours concerned the whereabouts of the guru, Shoko Asahara. Someone had seen his Rolls-Royce at a hotel in Tokyo. Others maintained that he had escaped to Russia, North Korea, or Taiwan. A month after the first raids, "investigation sources" made a shock announcement: they were "seeking Asahara for questioning". At dawn on 16 May he was found, crouching in a coffin-like room in Kamiku Isshiki, in a building that had been "searched" by the police weeks ago. The next day a parcel bomb addressed to the governor of Tokyo exploded in his office, blowing off the fingers of one of his secretaries.

ALL SPRING and into the summer the crises proliferated and diversified. In every area of public life - political, economic, terrorist, seismic - people seemed to be waiting for something to start. The yen reached a record high, less than Y80 to the dollar, making Japanese exports more and more expensive, and forcing exporters to lay off and relocate overseas, so that unemployment rose too. The Ministry of Finance calmly announced that, as had been suspected for a long time, the banking system was mired in bad debts. It named the figure Y40 trillion. Naturally everyone took it to be much more. The Stock Exchange began to sink further, coming dangerously close to record lows, and causing fears that smaller banks might collapse. A different day of doom was set: 28 June, President Clinton's deadline for settlement of a trade dispute about car parts. The US threatened sanctions against luxury Japanese cars. Both sides talked with great calm about how this was a limited dispute and how healthy US-Japan relations were in every other respect. But the symbolism was bad: trade war on the 50th anniversary of the peace. An agreement was fudged at the very last minute and the dispute was resolved, or more probably postponed.

The dignified, symbolic, transitional year was in shreds. One hope remained. Tomiichi Murayama, often described as Japan's first socialist Prime Minister since the Forties, is no such thing. In the deal which his Social Democratic Party (SDP) had struck with its conservative partners (the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP) in the coalition government, it had been obliged to shed all its core socialist convictions, apart from one: that a formal parliamentary resolution be passed in the Diet, acknowledging and apologising for Japanese aggression, especially in its Asian colonies, and vowing that such a thing would never happen again. From his inauguration, in June 1994, Murayama had been unusually adamant. The motion was set to be passed in time for a state visit to China in May, but right-wingers in the government stalled and no wording was agreed. Humiliations like this were nothing new to the Prime Minister, but now he announced his determination to "act with grave resolution". This was decoded as meaning that he would resign if he didn't get his way.

This surely was the crucial issue of 1995, and, for a few weeks, it looked as if Mr Murayama and his government might be brought down by it. A couple of small local councils had passed similar motions and been forced to withdraw them. Right-wingers in black trucks had circled their town halls, blaring martial music and slogans through loud-speakers. At the end of May, an extraordinary rally was held in Tokyo. Entitled "Tribute, Friendship and Appreciation: A Celebration of Asian Symbiosis", it was organised by a group of nationalist opponents of Mr Murayama's motion, including 214 members of the Diet. It was dedicated to a simple proposition, outlined by speaker after speaker to applause from the audience. The "Great East Asian War" had been fought in a spirit, not of aggression, but of liberation. It was fought to free the Asian countries - Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma - from the aggression of Britain and the US. One of the speakers, a former Minister of Justice, even used the phrase, "a war of the yellow man against the white man".

Later, I talked to a leader of one of the key organisations opposing the apology, the Association of War Bereaved Families. Sakae Suehiro's office was in a basement, close to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, the final resting place of the souls of Japan's war dead, and the spiritual home of Japanese nationalism. He talked about his life as a child of expatriate settlers in wartime Manchuria, and in North Korea, from which he escaped after two years stranded at the end of the war. He described returning home at last, his distress at the spiritual vacuum of those who had lost sons and fathers in the war, his determination to help them to find some meaning in the loss. He was intelligent and well-informed, and even made the spiky Yasukuni Shrine sound reasonable - was it not natural for all countries to honour their dead, at Arlington Cemetery, at the Cenotaph? Then the talk turned to the history of the war, and, one by one, we began to tick off the great Japanese atrocities. The invasion of Manchuria in 1931 was not an invasion, but a humanitarian exercise to "protect the lives of Japanese". Pearl Harbor was not meant as a surprise attack. A declaration of war had been sent but carelessly "delayed" - and not, as was suggested, deliberately. "Japan is a country of politeness. It's hard to think it was deliberate." Of the Rape of Nanking, when the Imperial Army massacred Chinese soldiers and civilians, he said: "The Chinese claim 300,000 died but it is hard to imagine the Japanese military killed innocent people for nothing. It was more like five or six thousand, casualties of war, 40,000 at the most. Maybe that did include a few who died unhappily." The Association numbers a million families, or several million individuals.

None the less, at the last minute, Mr Murayama was saved. His resolution was passed at the beginning of June, but in such watered-down form that it pleased nobody, certainly not the Asian neighbours the Prime Minister had been seeking to placate. The wording included references to "colonialism" and "aggression", but in a generalised sense. In effect it seemed to be saying: we apologise for following the example of many other countries. Nothing had been settled. The only undeniable achievement of the long debate had been to galvanise the right - those who, one suspects, are not sorry but proud about the war. The myth of the Great Asian War of liberation, confined until this year to the more cranky extremes of the right, had been dusted off, polished, and found to be as bright and new - and perhaps even as menacing - as it was 50 years ago.

IT IS NEVER easy to force history through neat hoops, like anniversaries. But this time, perversely, the hype was to be believed: 1995 has turned out to be a landmark year. The old feeling that this is a country where anything can happen has been justified: Japan's catfish is stirring again. The fear now is not of disaster, but of another disaster: another huge earthquake, another terrorist attack, even another political disaster, perhaps involving some as yet unspecified lurch to the far right.

This last, chilling fear is the hardest to pin down, and the easiest to exaggerate, but it crops up again and again, and from unexpected people. Masaharu Gotoda is one of these, an 80-year-old member of the LDP, with all the classic right-wing qualifications: a former colonial officer in occupied Taiwan, a national chief of police, and a former Minister of Justice of notorious gruffness. But, as a minister, he opposed the dispatch of Japanese troops on UN peacekeeping missions, and threatening to resign if Japanese minesweepers were sent to the Gulf war. The common image used in this context is of the reformed alcoholic who risks tumbling from the wagon after a single liqueur chocolate. Gotoda uses a different one: of a small hole eaten away in a dam by a colony of ants.

After Japan's surrender 50 years ago, Masaharu Gotoda experienced, like many Japanese, a kind of revelation. He and his fellow officers were interned by their former Taiwanese subjects, and discipline disintegrated. Men betrayed and denounced one another as the hunt began for war criminals. "I had never seen the true, naked nature of people so vividly," he says. "I felt that as individuals, the Japanese people are very weak, lacking identity. They would move in one direction as a people, but when the direction fails, there is nothing but misery. Since the war, the economic advance has been outstanding. But the country is still capable of moving in the wrong direction, if one mistake is made."

A FEW weeks ago, at breakfast time, there was a tremor in Tokyo. The windows rattled, the walls shook, but after a few moments, the rumbles passed and everything returned to normal.

I remembered the last verse of Anthony Thwaite's poem:

The flavour of fear,

Something fragile in the air.

Gone, it remains here !