Learning from Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years after

By Daniele Pestilli on August 8, 2015
Thumb hiroshima dome
Hiroshima's Atomic Bomb Dome

On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9th, a second nuclear bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, in the southern island of Kyūshū. The first, named “Little Boy,” was an uranium type bomb that claimed an estimated 160,000 lives. The second, known as “Fat Man” was a plutonium bomb, and it claimed the lives of 80,000 people. Less than a week later, Japan surrendered and World War II came to an end.

August 15th, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the War. This year's anniversary, however, is unlike the once-a-decade memorials that have been held in the past.

Hiroshima peace memorial
Statue of Mother and Child in the Storm at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

First, there are only 200,000 elderly survivors from the atomic bombings that are officially recognized by Japan’s government. Many of them may not be around to recount their harrowing ordeal on the 80th anniversary.

Second, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is the first leader in decades who has made significant strides toward reawakening Japan's military presence in East Asia since the War. Despite scant public support and doubts regarding the constitutionality of a ratification that stretches and twists Article 9, Japan's cabinet approved a bill allowing foreign military intervention on May 14th this year, turning a blind eye to the country's 70 year old post-war pacifist constitution.

According to this new plan, Japan will strengthen its relations with allies like the U.S. by being able to provide intelligence and military assistance at a time when new challenges are emerging, such as China's growing military assertiveness. As an article on The Diplomat quotes, vice president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former foreign minister Masahiko Komura explained, “Collective self-defense is a minimum condition that Japan must have to be able to defend itself and expect the cooperation of allies and partners in its defense.”

This is not the first controversial bill that Prime Minister Abe passed. In 2013, the “State Secrecy Bill” sped through the lower house of Parliament and on December 10th 2014 it came into effect. Mr. Abe claimed this was quintessential to convince allies to share intelligence with Japan. Critics vented that, contrary to the Prime Minister's claim, the law will only help conceal government misdeeds and limit freedom of the press. In 2013, the New York Times wrote that this law would give the Japanese government almost unfettered power to classify any information it deems a “state secret” as off limits, the promotion or publication of which would be punishable with up to 10 years in prison. In 2014, the Japan Times wrote that this “draconian law” jeopardizes democracy itself in Japan. As Meiji University legal scholar Lawrence Repeta warned in the same article, “excessive secrecy leads to war.”

Japan had many chances to win that war
A bestseller in Japan. The blurb reads, "Japan had many chances to win that war"

This does not seem like an impossibility. War rhetoric has in fact been picking up momentum in recent years. Japan appears to have entered a phase of insecurity regarding its position on the international landscape. Once the second strongest economy in the world, Japan now stands in third place after China in terms of nominal GDP, and fourth when comparing GDP to purchasing-power-parity. It is facing a slew of new problems, amongst which a super-aging population, a dwindling workforce and recessionary symptoms.

A terrifying, big war is headed towards Japan
"A terrifying, big war is headed towards Japan"

Major Japanese bookstores are selling titles such as “Japan's battle strategy to not be effaced from the world map,” or “A terrifying, big war is headed towards Japan.” Another bestseller boasts a cover with a kamikaze aircraft. The book's blurb says “Japan had many chances to win that war”. One other reads, “My 40-year war with Asahi News” for which the blurb reads, “Restoring the honor of a scarred Japan and the Japanese people.” (Asahi News is a center-left newspaper which has been coiled in several scandals for misinformation. It has also been critical of Japan's imperialist past.) Another is entitled “The war debate that only Japanese people are unwary of” by Tomabechi Hideto, which explains the raison d'être for Article 9's reinterpretation and manipulation under the Abe administration. Japan, the author claims, faces the threat of foreign terrorism and cyber-attacks; war can no longer be brushed off as being another country's problem.

Restoring the honor of a scarred Japan and the Japanese people
The book's sensational blurb reads "Restoring the honor of a scarred Japan and the Japanese people"

Now, on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, Japan finds itself in a fragile position. Military expansion in East Asia was one of the major catalysts for the World War. The suppression of human rights as well as Japan's war crimes were the source of deep remorse after their defeat. Chinese media commented that Japan's Hiroshima ceremonies have drawn too much attention to the “victim” aspect of the bombing while turning a blind eye to the reasons why this occurred or the events surrounding it, such as the murder of 20 million Chinese civilians from 1937 to 1945. To put this figure in context, it's the equivalent of wiping out the population of Wyoming, Vermont, DC, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Hawaii, Idaho, West Virginia, Nebraska, New Mexico and Nevada in an eight-year span. This victimization, to some, is a way of justifying the Abe administration's call for re-militarization.

Japan's battle strategy to not be effaced from the world map
A book entitled "Japan's battle strategy to not be effaced from the world map"

On August 15th, Prime Minister Abe will publish a statement to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the War. According to the Japan Times, the government has set up a 16-member panel to consider the Prime Minister's wording, which will be carefully scrutinized by nations worldwide. Japan Post Holdings' CEO, Taizo Nishimuro submitted his proposal to the Prime Minister. In it, he explains that Japan historically promoted a culture of aggressive invasion on the continent, but following the war, Japan developed with an attitude of keen self-reflection. He expressed his desire for Japan to show what it has learned from its past, basing its conversations not on apology but on thoughts of a collective future.

U.S. President Barack Obama, recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in 2009, may visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki for this memorial, making him the first sitting President to visit these cities. Some have asked that the President go and see for himself the survivors of bombings, so to understand their message and listen to their experiences not simply as “victims,” but as “members of the human race.” The White House sounded cautious regarding such a visit.

On this important 70th anniversary and hereafter, Japan must find the strength to resist the temptation of falling victim to a mind-frame of aggression and recall the horrors that such a mentality can engender. It must set the example for nations around the world. As the sole recipient of two atomic bombs, disdain for belligerency should be paramount amongst its leaders' agendas. Ultimately, Japan must heed the words of its own hibakusha, or atomic-bomb survivors, like Mr. Sumiteru Taniguchi who has warned an impassive Shinzō Abe to not meddle with Japan's pacifist constitution. As Mr. Taniguchi once asserted, “Among those who survived the atomic bombing, there are some who died saying that they couldn't even stand to hear the word 'August' anymore.”

Contributing researcher: Kanda Nozomi