According to a recent newspaper poll, 80 percent of Japanese men and women in their twenties are unable to connect the name Pearl Harbor and the date of what President Franklin Roosevelt called "a day of infamy" with their country's role in World War II.
Asked by the mass-circulation daily Yomiuri Shimbun what the name Pearl Harbor brought to mind, many associated it with the honeymoon trips to Hawaii that are in vogue with today's newlyweds.
But Tatsuya Ohtawa, 62, still recalls vividly the feeling of regret that came over him when his Kate class bomber broke through the clouds over Oahu island's emerald fields of sugarcane at 7:30 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941.
"It was lovely," Ohtawa said of the view he saw. Then he added regretfully, "We were about to change an island of dreams into a living hell."
The well-executed surprise attack destroyed the backbone of the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor and touched off a war effort in the Pacific among the Allied forces that ended in Japan's crushing defeat in 1945.
But while Ohtawa and other survivors of that far-off Sunday morning -- and what was to follow -- talked about the poignant memories of war, such sentiments have quickly faded among today's younger generation of affluent Japanese.
The generation gap is ironic at a time when Japan's old adversary and current ally, the United States, is pressuring the economic superpower to build up its modest defense forces to help counter a growing Soviet military presence in the western Pacific.
Tomohisa Sakanaka, a senior writer for the Asahi Shimbun, a major daily, said, "After the defeat we decided to just concentrate on building up our economy. Who could have believed in the 1950s and 1960s that Japan would be as strong as it is now?"
Sakanaka, who described himself as "a typical militarized youth" in the wartime "banzai generation," explained, "The younger generation thinks that the day is not too far off when the Japanese economy will catch the 'British disease.' Those born after the war have had everything so they don't know to endure real hardship."
During an interview at the aircraft navigation school he now runs in Tokyo, former bomber pilot Ohtawa recalled that in late November 1941, orders came for the Imperial Navy's carrier fleet to assemble in an isolated bay in the Kurile Islands off the northern tip of Japan.
After months of arduous bombing practice, "we were finally told that we were going to attack Pearl Harbor," he said. "I was absolutely delighted. Since I entered the naval academy in 1935 we were told that the hypothetical enemy was the United States. Now we thought we'd have the chance to fight a world-class power and to decide the victor."
The mission had been cloaked in mystery, and as diplomatic relations with Washington began to crumble, rumors about the possible target circulated among the pilots.
"We thought we would go north because of the heavy cold-weather grease the mechanics had applied to the engine parts," said Juzo Mori. "We interpreted that to mean that we would attack and take over the American base at Dutch Harbor Alaska and then use it to strike at the American mainland."
But by the time the two men rattled their bombers off the deck of the carrier Soryu, cruising in heavy seas 240 nautical miles northeast of Oahu at daybreak Dec. 7, their destination was clear: battleship row, Pearl Harbor.
"We were attacking the American superpower," Mori, now 62, recalled, "and were resigned to the idea that we might never come back. But we felt if we were to die we should die with honor and wanted to make our torpedoes hit the mark."
As 138 Zero fighters, torpedo bombers and high-level bombers of the first attack wave roared over Oahu shortly before 8 a.m., Ohtawa's radio picked up the signal "tora, tora, tora" from commander Morio Fuchida's plane. The code word, Japanese for tiger, Ohtawa said, "meant that we had succeeded in making a surprise attack."
Minutes later, the seven American warships berthed next to Ford Island in Pearl Harbor came into view and Mori's V-shaped formation swung out to the west in a wide counterclockwise arc over the open ocean to zero in for the attack.
Barrelling into a steep dive, Mori approached what he recognized from training briefings as the battleship California. With his plane's propeller tips now nearly skimming the surface of the water, he dropped his "fish." As the ship's hull shuddered and released a column of thick black smoke, "I roared 20 meters over the deck of another battleship."
He was struck, he said, by the fact "that nobody returned fire. I saw many officers and men looking up in confusion. They looked like they couldn't believe what was happening. There were huge spouts of water erupting from the surface of the harbor and fires breaking out all over."
Banking his bomber in a steep right-hand climb, Mori said, "I passed through a curtain of machine-gun fire. I knew then that we were at war."
When Ohtawa's high-level bomber made its first pass over the battle scene at 14,000 feet, he recalled, "we didn't drop our bombs because there had been so many hits and there was so much smoke we couldn't see the target."
It took two more sweeps before he dropped his payload. "We were very exposed and made an easy target," he said. A burst of antiaircraft fire tore through his right wing "with a tremendous noise. All the windows became flaming red and the smell of cordite from the exploding shells was very strong."
Ohtawa was already a seasoned combat pilot, having flown a number of missions in China where Japan had been at war since 1937.
"I had never experienced such a battle," he said, "and truly admired the strength of the U.S. Navy. It was Sunday and we were told many sailors would be in church. But the reaction was very strong and immediate."
The Japanese press has, in recent weeks, commemorated Pearl Harbor with stories highlighting wartime events and reflecting a new popular interest in military affairs, a subject that remained taboo for much of the postwar period.
"The press has largely ignored the anniversary in the past," said Takao Tokuoka, a senior writer for Mainichi Shimbun, another mass-circulation daily, "but now the feeling is growing that we are back in the state of 1941."
As in those days, he said, the Japanese have become increasingly concerned about a possible cutoff in vital supplies of imported oil and other raw materials that could devastate their economy.
Such concerns have raised mixed emotions among the public and touched off a sharp debate here about the wisdom of substantially building the country's defensive armor -- a move forbidden under terms of the American-engineered Japanese constitution of 1947. A treaty between the United States and Japan in 1960 allows the latter to maintain armed forces in and around the island nation.
"Many Japanese tend to believe," Tokuoka said, "that it was the emperor and the militarists who started the war. Quite a few are mistaking those who want Japan to hold arms for people who want to start another war. It's hard for the Japanese to reconcile the need for a peaceful nation to have a strong military force.
"The Japanese want to ignore" the issue, he explained, "but we have to face the painful facts about who started the war which ended with that horrible weapon dropped on Hiroshima. Very many Japanese still believe that the war was started by someone else and that Hiroshima was a crime committed against mankind. That's a very selfish attitude."
American pressure for Japan to spend more on defense to help share a greater burden of heavy U.S. military commitments has helped intensify soul searching in a society where antiwar sentiments remain strong.
Rieko Nagumo, the 22-year-old granddaughter of the late Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who commanded the Pearl Harbor attack fleet, said, "Many years have passed since the war and people now are apt to forget all the misery. But instead of increasing defense spending, I think we should find a more peaceful way to use our money."
Nagumo said that when she saw a new movie featuring the exploits of the wartime Imperial Navy, one of many recent war films popular here, she was struck by the audience response. Middle-aged Japanese watched quietly and soberly, she explained, "but the high school kids seemed to get very excited. Young people have never experienced war and think that it can never happen again. To them, the battleships and the war scenes are cool. But that makes me worried and afraid."
Reflecting the opinion of a growing number of Japanese, Ohtawa said, "We don't want to cause a war, or be involved in one, again. But after 36 years, I think it's a bit selfish that we rely so much on U.S. forces. It's quite natural that we should have the means to defend our country."