The two greatest calamities to befall the people of Tokyo in modern times were the September 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the March 1945 firebombing by American B-29s. In each case, many tens of thousands perished within a matter of hours.
In Sumida ward, a working class area in the east of the city that suffered grievously on both occasions, a large Buddhist-style memorial hall, the Tokyo Irei-do (erected in 1930; rebuilt in 1951), links these two events – as though the whirlwind reaped by Japan in the Second World War was itself an act of God.
Nearby is a museum that preserves relics of the earthquake destruction: stopped clocks, fused glassware, that sort of thing. Entry is free, and the day I visited a sprinkling of Japanese visitors were making their way solemnly past the exhibits.
The museum is dimly lit and badly in need of refurbishment; there are myriad ways the objects could be better displayed and explained. But nothing about the Japanese treatment of history surprises me any more. Whether it is the glib denials of conservative politicians and media commentators or the whitewashed phrases of certain school textbooks – history is one of the most elusive and vulnerable commodities in contemporary Japan.
As I wandered through the museum I came upon a large wall chart illustrating the foreign relief aid provided in the wake of the 1923 disaster. I happened to have recently researched this subject and discovered that the £75,000 ($5.4 million in today’s money) pledged by Australians in private donations ranked them, per capita, among the most forthcoming in the world. Their “spontaneous sympathy and generous aid” was applauded by such as the leader of the Japanese delegation to the Pan-Pacific Science Congress, which was meeting in Sydney at the time.
I examined the wall chart with a sense of anticipation. The donated sums were shown as coloured columns rising above the countries named: Mexico, Panama, Peru, Sweden… My eye ran along the line. No Australia. How could it possibly be missing? Then I realized that the Australian contribution must have been absorbed within the sum assigned to “Britain and her possessions.” Alas, I reasoned, the fact Australia had been a sovereign nation for two decades had not penetrated all levels of Japanese officialdom by 1923. Wrong again. At the bottom of the chart was the date it was made: August 1958.
While a small lacuna in the historical scheme of things, what are we to make of the fact that in 2013 Australia remains – in this Japanese memory at least – a “British possession”? It is surely a reminder that Australia continues to be perceived as culturally derivative and, to some extent, not quite authentic or sovereign. We may console ourselves with the thought that this old idea is suitably place among an ill-kempt collection of museum pieces. But, as we strive to confront the challenges of the “Asian century,” it is still a shock and a disappointment to find the stubborn anachronism on display at all.