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Responsibility for Hiroshima

by Mamoru Ishida

As Aug. 6 approaches each year, I cannot help wondering how my best friend perished in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Possibly, like many other children, he was burned to death under a collapsed school, where I found the scattered, burned bones of children a few days after the bombing. He was just one of millions of people who had been driven into an impossible situation, with no choice but to die in a war that Japan started.

The Hiroshima bombing was a tragedy in the final chapter of the war. I have been asking if it could have been avoided. Two events were decisive: The first was the rejection by the Japanese government of the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 — the ultimatum calling for Japan’s unconditional surrender — on the ground that it could prevent preservation of the emperor system. Maintenance of the Establishment was considered more important than the lives of the people.

The second event was the death of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to a study by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Roosevelt had discussed with certain individuals whether the bomb should be held up only as a threat. He and investment banker Alexander Sachs had explored, as an alternative, dropping the first bomb so that it could be viewed by representatives of neutral nations, and the second bomb on an island off the coast of Japan following a proper warning.

If Roosevelt had lived and his threat had worked to force Japan’s surrender, America would not have gone down in history as the first country to use the atomic bomb on a mainly civilian population. Albert Einstein declared later that Roosevelt would have forbidden the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Unfortunately for the victims of Nagasaki, authority to deploy the bomb devolved to the U.S. military after the Hiroshima bombing. American Gen. Leslie Groves, the central military figure in the development and use of atomic bombs, said Truman could have stopped the Nagasaki mission with a single word. After learning of Nagasaki, Truman ordered that no further bombs be dropped without his express permission.

After the war, Hiroshima began its annual “Declaration of Peace” to the world. Yet it was not accepted by the peoples in Asia wholeheartedly. Was not the bombing of Hiroshima a result of Japan’s war of aggression? In 1995, Takashi Hiraoka, then-mayor of Hiroshima, realized that Japan had avoided confronting its war responsibility and that Hiroshima had failed to look at the bombing in its historical context. In his Declaration of Peace that year, he apologized for Japan’s colonial rule and war conduct.

While the responsibility of Adolf Hitler and his colleagues for Germany’s war is obvious, it is not a simple matter to identify responsible individuals in Japan’s war. Akira Irie, professor at Harvard University, who has traced the process leading to the war and its escalation, points to certain junctures where Japan could have changed course. Such opportunities were lost, though, as successive actions by individuals in the military were accepted ex post facto by the military leadership and, later, by the Cabinets and the Emperor himself.

National hysteria played an important role. Soichiro Tabara points out in a detailed study that prime ministers as well as the army and navy leadership were unable to resist it.

Emperor Showa is reported to have stated in retrospect that, had he opposed the war, the people would have put him in a lunatic asylum. Thus Japan’s Establishment became a prisoner of the hysteria it created. The lesson is that Japan should never let itself become a prisoner of events again and drift into crises.

Each time Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits Yasukuni Shrine, China and South Korea lodge protests, for the war dead to whom the shrine is dedicated include Class-A war criminals convicted at the Tokyo International Tribunal. Surely Koizumi is sincere when he says he reaffirms at the shrine his determination not to let Japan start a war again.

In my view, the confrontation between China and Japan over Yasukuni stems from China’s belief in the responsibility of specific individuals vs. Japan’s failure to identify those responsible. Reflective of Japan’s cultural characteristics, decisions usually are made after a consensus is formed; therefore, the responsibility of individuals tends to be submerged in the organizations to which they belong.

Although most Japanese believe that Japan’s war was wrong, an increasing number have grown tired of China’s repeated demand that Japan correctly recognize its history. When I mentioned this to a Chinese friend who had worked all his life so hard for the cause of China-Japan relations that he had often been criticized as a Japan-lover, he whispered that Chinese ill feeling toward Japan was not easy to resolve because the victims of Japan’s war and their families were still alive throughout China, a fact that every Japanese should keep in mind.

Even conservative politicians like Makoto Koga concede that Japan’s failure to come to terms with the war is the basic cause of friction between China and Japan. I doubt, though, that they will ever open the lid on questions that have been sealed for more than a half century, as they fear that doing so might touch the very basis of the Establishment.

Lifton and Mitchell write that no country ever fully confronts its own history, least of all when morally vulnerable, and that Japan has been deeply divided over how to face its brutal behavior before and during World War II.

Rightwing nationalists sound increasingly louder these days in opposing what they term as the Tokyo International Tribunal’s view of history. They argue that Japan had to fight in the Pacific War as a matter of self-defense against the U.S. embargo of important raw materials. They often seem to ignore the fact that the embargo was a reaction to Japan’s war against China and its escalation further south.

In the view of Lifton and Mitchell, a disinclination to confront the full truth of Hiroshima on all levels has led America to treat Hiroshima as a threat to its national self-image. As a result, it will remain haunted by the atomic bombings.

Germany, meanwhile, has succeeded in finding security in European integration, made possible by successive German leaders’ tireless efforts to win the trust of neighbors by honestly confronting the nation’s past.

Visiting the former Auschwitz death camp in 1977 as German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt said: “Without honest recognition of history, it is impossible to move forward to the future. Here it becomes overwhelmingly clear that history should not be interpreted as events that are a mere interaction of cause and effect. History demands obligation and responsibility.”

His speech at Hiroshima University in 1995 was solemnly entitled “Remembrance, Remorse and Responsibility.” He told students that, if he were a Japanese political leader, he would try to eliminate neighbors’ mistrust by honestly confronting the past and then work to create a community of Asian nations.

I share his view.