Fumio Kyuma’s resignation Tuesday as defense minister over his remarks on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has spotlighted the still sharply divided perception gap between Japan and the United States over what some see as one of the most horrific war atrocities in history.
In a speech in Chiba Prefecture on Saturday, Kyuma said the atomic bombings “could not be helped” as a means to end the war and avoid a postwar joint occupation of Japan that would include the Soviet Union. He was excoriated by various circles in Japan, who accused him of using, in part, the same logic as the Americans to justify the strikes.
The atomic bombs had left an estimated 140,000 people, most of them noncombatants, in Hiroshima, and another 70,000 in Nagasaki dead by the end of 1945. Even today, survivors who were exposed to radiation suffer health problems.
“It has become clear that what Defense Minister Kyuma really thinks is exactly the same logic as that of America,” said Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.
Although in the minority, Kyuma is hardly alone in his opinion in Japan. Meanwhile, in the U.S., polls have shown a majority of Americans feel the bombings were justified as a way to end the war quickly and to prevent a costly invasion of Japan.
According to a 2005 joint poll by Kyodo News and AP, about 68 percent of 1,000 American adult respondents said dropping the atomic bombs was necessary to bring the war to a swift end, an opinion that only about 20 percent of 1,054 Japanese shared.
In contrast, over 75 percent of the Japanese respondents said the bombings were unnecessary, while less than 30 percent of Americans said so.
Motofumi Asai, president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, a research center at Hiroshima City University, maintained that Japan would have soon surrendered even without the atomic bombings.
The U.S. used the bombs mainly because they needed to test and demonstrate the power of nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union before the end of the war, Asai said, echoing many other Japanese academics.
“I was surprised to see about 20 percent of Japanese still believe the bombs were necessary to end the war early, which was not true,” Asai said.
American scholars, on the other hand, have been divided between traditionalists who argue the necessity of the atomic bombs to avoid the casualties predicted in an outright invasion of the Japanese mainland, and revisionists who maintain use of the bombs was politically motivated and the killing of vast numbers of civilians was unnecessary.
The politically sensitive nature of the issue in America was clearly shown in 1995 and 2003, when the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum put the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, on display.
In 1995, U.S. veterans and politicians protested the Smithsonian’s attempt to add to the exhibit mention of the damage and human casualties that the atomic bombing caused in Hiroshima. The institution’s director, Martin Harwit, was forced to resign as a result and the exhibition of the atomic bomb’s destructiveness was canceled.
In 2003, when the institute put the plane on permanent display, it announced it would not include a description of the human cost of the atomic bombing, this time drawing strong protests from survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as groups of American scholars.
The Japanese government has meanwhile maintained an ambiguous attitude.
As the only country ever to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, Japan has tried to act as a leader in international nuclear disarmament movements.
At the same time, Japan has been protected by the postwar U.S. “nuclear umbrella.” Washington has pledged to defend Japan, even with nuclear weapons, if the country suffers an atomic attack.
The Japanese government has not argued that the use of nuclear weapons — including those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — is an outright violation of international law.
Instead, the government has maintained the attacks were not “in harmony with the spirit of international law,” which is based on humanitarianism, according to Foreign Ministry officials.