Japanese reporters flocked to the opening of the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay exhibit in Washington this week and then dashed back to their word processors to file scathing stories depicting the United States as a place where the atomic bomb is such a "holy relic" that no politician dares mention the death and destruction it carries.

The brief but damning reports in national newspapers and on some television news shows tonight generally agreed that the United States is "trying to legitimize the atomic bomb" with a museum exhibit that downplays the suffering at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and emphasizes the role the nuclear weapon played in forcing Japan's World War II surrender 50 years ago this summer. At least 100,000 people were killed when the United States dropped atomic bombs on those two cities in August 1945.

"The Enola Gay is presented here not as a warning against the great horror of nuclear war," declared TV Asahi correspondent Hideaki Saito, "but as a national hero that brought World War II to an end."

The Japanese government had a bitter struggle of its own this spring over this country's aggression during the war. But that experience -- which ended with a statement of "deep remorse" that barely passed one house of the parliament -- has been forgotten now as a scornful Tokyo watches the American debate over the Enola Gay and the scaled-back museum exhibit that came out of it.

There remains considerable debate here about Japan's responsibility for starting the war in the Pacific, but there is almost no dispute in Japan about the atomic bombs used at the war's end. Just about everyone agrees, as Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama put it this year, that the nuclear weapon was "an atrocity."

Accordingly, the Japanese watched with horrified fascination last winter as the Smithsonian's plans for an exhibit focusing on the bomb's destructive power and its aftermath were cut back under pressure from veterans.

Yoichi Funabashi, the influential Washington correspondent of the national newspaper Asahi Shimbun, declared last week that the resulting exhibit demonstrates that the atomic bomb is viewed in the United States as a "holy relic," something politicians dare not criticize.

"This is an exhibit without any record of the damage the bomb caused," Funabashi wrote. "Two aspects of the bomb that cannot be ignored -- the birth of the atomic age and the idea of never again' -- have been yanked out completely."

Decades ago, Funabashi noted, "top leaders like {former president Dwight D.} Eisenhower freely expressed their doubts as to whether the bomb was necessary. But the atmosphere in the U.S. is not so free today. Now there are no such leaders who dare to stand up to special interests like . . . the veterans' groups."

Other reports here have noted the lively debate among American scholars about the necessity and propriety of using the nuclear weapon.

This week, the Japanese press reported that the mayor of Hiroshima, Takashi Hiraoka, will go to the United States next month on a speaking tour. Hiraoka says that it is "the mission imposed on Hiroshima" to remind the rest of the world how many residents of his city were killed or maimed by the bomb. Hiraoka is scheduled to speak at American University on July 8.

Some Japanese reports today mentioned Tuesday's protests outside the Smithsonian by people asserting that the exhibit constitutes a defense of nuclear war. But most news stories here conveyed a picture of the United States as a country in which only one official view of the atomic bomb is tolerated -- a view that has no room for the victims or their pain.

The idea that the United States refuses to confront the damage wrought by U.S. bombs has been a common theme of Japanese editorials on the bomb and the Smithsonian exhibit. "To ignore the results of warfare, to say, I don't even want to look' -- that's downright childish, isn't it," read a recent commentary in the Asahi Shimbun.

The Enola Gay controversy has been reported in great detail in Japan's media for months, thus the official opening of the exhibit received front-page, but brief, coverage. Other stories, including the U.S.-Japan auto trade dispute, the arrest of four top bankers in a financial scandal and Japan's donation of rice to North Korea, received much greater display.