TOKYO — There is no massive statue at Sagami Bay of an angel with a sword and a coronet. No rows of white crosses above "99 Beach."
Narita is just an international airport. Yokohama, a seaside metropolis. The Great Buddha sits peacefully among the trees of Kamakura.
That the region around Tokyo isn't dotted with American war memorials is a matter of science, luck, politics — and endless controversy. These were all objectives in Operation Coronet, the planned seaborne attack on Tokyo in World War II. The greatest battle that never was.
Guadalcanal, North Africa, Italy, Tarawa, Saipan, D-Day, Iwo Jima, Okinawa — even the planned invasion of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu — were all prelude. Each a step toward victory, with more steps to get to the end.
Coronet was to be the end.
None of it happened because of two shattering flashes of light and heat: the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. Japan capitulated. The final surrender was signed Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.
Why travel across the Pacific to visit beachheads that ended up as nothing more than a file in a Pentagon drawer?
For me, the answer is simple mathematics. While the average age of a combat soldier in World War II was 26, the invasion of Japan would have required a massive infusion of fresh troops. Volunteers had to be 17. At 18, they could be drafted. High school kids like my father. Maybe he never would have gone to war. Maybe he would have fought and come home to march in those Veterans Day parades.
Or maybe he would have been one of those white crosses above a beach in Japan. He'd never meet mom. So, no me. Or my children.
Instead, he and the rest of the Class of 1946 were the first in several years to graduate into a world at relative peace. There are tens of millions of Americans and Japanese who exist today because the invasion of Japan didn't lop off their family tree.
A "what if" tour of the final invasion is frustrating, yet easy. Frustrating in that there are no markers for a battle that never occurred, and maps are in just a few specialty books on the subject. Easy in that most of the Coronet sites are an easy day trip from Tokyo.
A quarter million American troops supported by a deadly canopy of bombers would have smashed their way past a half million Japanese troops on the beaches. Fighting their way through smoldering ruins, the troops could come up against the most fanatical citizens who would heed the generals' call to be "100 million shields of the Emperor" and die fighting or by suicide.
The 1st Army would have landed at Kujukuri Beach on the Boso Peninsula, the stretch of cliff-backed sand just 40 miles from Tokyo. Known popularly as 99 Beach after an old Japanese measure of its distance, the 50-mile long beach is a place where urbanites go to beat the sweltering heat of summer. Surfers ride waves where, in 1945, landing craft with soldiers and Marines would have hit the beach, attacked by fukuryu, submerged suicide divers who would swim toward landing craft to detonate mines they carried on their backs. The Japanese planned massive human wave attacks, in part to blur the line of combat so that U.S. warplanes couldn't strafe the beach without killing their own troops.
One of the three American spearheads was assigned to fight west and take a minor airfield where kamikaze aircraft, including jet-powered manned flying bombs called ohka, could be launched. It's now Narita International Airport, the main gateway to Japan. The eastern approaches to the city, where Japanese troops would have put up a last-ditch fight to stop troops from reaching the Imperial Palace, lead right past Tokyo Disneyland.
Some of the greatest fighting would have occurred just below one of Japan's most popular tourist attractions.
The Great Buddha at Kamakura is a short train ride from the capital. The 40-foot-tall bronze statue, cast in 1252, sits serenely on a wooded hill. It has survived disasters including a 15th century tsunami that swept away the temple that once housed it, and the 8.3 magnitude Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. What no guidebook I have found tells visitors is that the Buddha would have been in the midst of the largest invasion in history, just two miles away at Sagami Bay. Ten days after the troops landed at 99 Beach, the second of the two Coronet waves of troops would come ashore — including the first armored divisions to be used in the Pacific. The Buddha, which had survived nearly 700 years, would need something approaching divine intervention not to be destroyed in the onslaught.
Eighth Army troops would have pushed north through what are now dense suburbs. The hotel that Gen. Douglas MacArthur would eventually use as his headquarters is now a small building in the booming port city with the nation's tallest building and a Ferris wheel that lights up at night. History buffs can stay in the New Grand Hotel, new being 1927, where MacArthur first lived after the surrender. It was one of the few brick buildings in the area, so it survived the firebombing raids that destroyed much of the wood-and-paper structures of traditional Tokyo and Yokohama. The suite where he lived has been kept in the style of the war era and can be rented by booking well in advance.
Tokyo itself has the most resonant sites associated with the war. In the center of the city sits the Imperial Palace, where wartime Emperor Hirohito ruled until his death in 1989, though stripped of divinity and any vestiges of power. His son, Akihito, the 125th emperor, still lives there. The white-walled palace with a dark, traditional pagoda roof is a 1960s replica of the 1888 palace that was destroyed by U.S. bombers in April 1945. A concrete-lined, bunkerlike basement is where Hirohito decided to surrender in August 1945. The imperial family makes two public appearances each year when tourists are allowed into the inner grounds — on Jan. 2 to celebrate the New Year and Dec. 23, the emperor's birthday. The rest of the year the interior is closed to the public, though tours can be booked of the outer buildings, gardens and the famous "double bridge," which reflects in the mirrorlike waters of the moat.
The most intriguing, or perhaps appalling, site is Yasukuni, the Shinto shrine to the kami (spirits) of those who served the emperor, especially those who died fighting in Japan's wars. Though it was dedicated in 1869, the shrine has become the center of nationalistic sentiment rarely expressed in post-World War II Japan. Those deified by the shrine are recorded in a register. Among the nearly 2.5 million names are top war criminals from World War II who were executed by the Allies.
The museum attached to the shrine has a vast collection of military artifacts, including an ohka bomb. But the displays paint Japan as justified in its expansion into Asia, claiming that regional colonialism ended because Japan forced the Western powers out of the Far East. It touches lightly on Japan's own totalitarian rule, most notably the massacre at Nanking. Japan was forced into attacking Pearl Harbor and surrendered only when the Americans used an inhumane horror weapon in the atomic bomb. One of the trees in the courtyard is said to be the place where the kami of dead kamikaze suicide pilots gather.
Even within normally restrained Japanese society, Yasukuni is controversial. Right-wing groups dressed in black with rising-sun headbands rally around its perimeter. Visits to the shrine by politicians are a societal litmus test — those who go are praised as strong by the right and seen as revisionists by the left. Those who stay away are American lapdogs to the right or realists who own up to Japan's own crimes to the left. The shrine and grounds are beautiful, and depending on the day, the stage will be filled with traditional dancers or a sumo exhibition. It's a strange mix. A similar shrine and museum in Germany to dead Nazis would be unthinkable.
I've balanced my trips to Coronet's beaches and Yasukuni with trips to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seeing the tricycle of a 3-year-old boy immolated in the Hiroshima blast, I felt a deep sickness inside. History will weigh the morality of the various ways of ending what historian John Dower called "the war without mercy" in the Pacific.
While U.S. estimates of casualties varied widely, a simple fact tells the scope of the invasion of Japan: The U.S. made 495,000 Purple Heart medals to be given to the wounded and the families of the dead. With the war's end they went into storage for future use. The supply lasted through the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the invasions of Grenada and Panama and the first Persian Gulf War, as well as a dozen smaller conflicts. New medals weren't pressed until 1999, when U.S. troops were serving in Kosovo.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Flights arrive at Narita International Airport, which has a great observation area and an aviation history museum. Aviation buffs should check out the terminal's specialty gift shops, which sell airliner models and airline logo garb.
WHERE TO STAY:
Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. The 1923 masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright survived the 8.3 magnitude Great Kanto earthquake the year it opened and the World War II firebombing of Tokyo, only to be torn down in 1968 for a banal replacement. Parts of The Old Imperial Bar are all that remain of the original hotel. Still, its location near the Imperial Palace and the Yasukuni shrine make it a good choice. Rooms from $300 per night. 1-1, Uchisaiwai-cho 1-chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. imperialhotel.co.jp
New Grand Hotel, Yokohama. Built in 1927, the hotel was Gen. Douglas MacArthur's first headquarters upon arriving in Japan. Babe Ruth and Charlie Chaplin were also guests before the war. MacArthur's suite is kept in the style of the period and can be rented. Make sure to ask for a room in the historic section or you'll end up in the tower added next door in 1991. Rooms from $257. 10 Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama. hotel-newgrand.co.jp/English.
Sagami Bay. A 10-minute walk south from Enoden Railway Hase Station brings you to the landing beaches that would have been used by the Eighth Army. The peaceful bay is fringed with houses, surf shops and small restaurants. The Great Buddha of Kamakura is five minutes north of the station. Shops along the street to the temple sell treats, including mitarashi dango, rice dumplings on a stick covered in a sugary soy sauce. Nearby is Hase Temple, with sweeping views of the bay. The Enoden is a trolley-like train that makes its way through the back yards and lanes from its terminal next to the main Japan Rail station in Kamakura.
Kujukuri Beach. The beach was chosen for the landing by the First Army because of its long, straight coastline and lack of coral reefs. Known popularly as 99 Beach for its length in ri, an old Japanese form of distance measure, the 50-mile beach was where American troops would first come ashore. A good map, but little else in English, can be found at 99beach.com/beach/index.html. The easiest rail link is from Tokyo to Kujukuri town. It's just under two hours from Tokyo to Choshi Station on the JR Sobu Line limited express, where visitors change to the Choshi Line for Inubo-saki Station.
Imperial Palace, Tokyo. A 10-minute walk from Tokyo Station is the home of the emperors since they moved the capital from Kyoto in 1868. Built over the remains of the shogun-era Edo Castle, today's residence dates from the mid-1960s but is built in a late 19th century style. The palace is surrounded by parklands, moats, lakes and lovely gardens that bloom with cherry blossoms in the spring and turn deep red with Japanese maples in the autumn. In addition to the traditional New Years and Emporer's Birthday visits, the public can enter the inner grounds this year on Nov. 20 to mark the 20th anniversary of Akihito becoming emperor. Tours can be arranged online through the Imperial Household Agency at www.kunaicho.go.jp/eindex.html
Yasukuni. Controversial Shinto shrine to those who served the emperor, including war criminals. The modern museum next door tells a decidedly pro-Japanese version of World War II. Demonstrations of traditional Japanese arts often take place in the gardens. 3-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda-ku, in Tokyo. The nearest subway stop is the Kudanshita station. yasukuni.or.jp
"Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan," by Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar (Simon & Shuster, $29.95). Combing through the often conflicting documents of politicians and military figures on both sides, the book makes the case that the invasion of Japan remained a real possibility until the second bomb destroyed Nagasaki.
"The 25 Best World War II Sites, Pacific Theater" by Chuck Thompson. (Greenline Historic Travel, $19.95). A great addition to the military travel bookshelf, this is one of the few guidebooks that gives war sites in the Pacific the kind of roundup that you can find in several European theater guides (including Greenline's own excellent companion volume). It has little on the Japan invasion sites, but is top-notch for Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Yokohama and lesser known sites like the kamikaze museum in Kyushu. A must have.
Lonely Planet Japan (Lonely Planet, $17.99). Lonely Planet's typical wide-ranging, getting off the beaten track guide into areas like the Boso Peninsula and sites besides Kamakura along Sagami Bay that are skipped over by other mainstream guidebooks.
TRAVEL INFORMATION: Japan National Tourist Office at 212-757-5640 or jnto.go.jp