Is Japan equipped to handle historic decisions that cost lives, limbs and loved ones?

August in Japan means a cycle of wartime anniversaries involving dates many have committed to memory. Aug. 6: the first use of a nuclear device as a weapon, against the city of Hiroshima. Aug. 9: A second atomic bomb is dropped on Nagasaki. Aug. 15: Japan’s surrender the previous day — by acceptance of the terms of surrender in the Potsdam Declaration — is announced by Emperor Hirohito in his first ever radio broadcast to his bewildered, war-weary subjects.

This year it will be 70 years since these events occurred. For some reason round-number anniversaries get particular attention.

Yet here are some other 70th anniversaries that will or already have passed unremarked. Jan. 20: Japan’s leaders approve plans to defend the homeland, notwithstanding the predictably huge loss of civilian life doing so will entail. July 26: The U.S., Britain and China issue the Potsdam Declaration, the vaguely oxymoronic “terms of unconditional surrender” for Japan, which in their own odd way now form a part of the nation’s current constitutional system. July 28: Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki announces to the Japanese press that the only appropriate response to the Declaration is rejection — mokusatsu (literally, to “kill by ignoring”). In doing so he violates an agreement reached by his Cabinet the previous day to make no public comments on the Allied ultimatum. Needless to say, this statement was taken as a rejection.

Aug. 9: The Japanese government formally protests, through neutral Switzerland, repeated U.S. violations of international rules of war by indiscriminate targeting of civilians, including through the use of a “novel bomb.” Aug. 10: Japan offers to surrender “conditionally.” Aug. 14: Japan suffers the largest Allied bombing mission in the history of the Pacific theater, in part due to prevarication and dithering by its leaders over accepting the Potsdam Declaration and “unconditional” surrender.

Dramatic historical events get all the attention; for some reason we don’t commemorate the anniversaries of the decisions that cause them. Perhaps we should. Perhaps calendars should indicate not just national and religious holidays, but the dates on which important people in our collective pasts made decisions that caused tremendous harm. Perhaps it would make us more careful about our leaders, and them more careful about their choices.

Of course history is full of what-ifs and difficult questions of causation. Hindsight is as easy as it is inherently unfair. “Any schoolboy’s afterthought is worth more than the greatest general’s forethought” was the aphorism commonly used by U.S. President Harry Truman after the war to silence those who sought to question him about his decision to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. That decision had already been made on July 25, before the Potsdam Declaration was even issued, but in making it Truman was simply confirming the operational authority of the military to use as many nuclear weapons as it took to end the war — something that, short of complete annihilation, only Japan’s government could ultimately do.

In many ways, the decision to use nuclear weapons had been made long before Truman became president or knew very much about the project that created them. In fact, the most decisive order involving nuclear weapons issued by Truman might have been on Aug. 10, when he forbade their further use without his approval. Japan’s leaders, he reasoned, needed time to make their own decision.

Even so, the preparation of a third bomb for use continued at the U.S. air base on the Pacific island of Tinian until Japanese forces formally surrendered on Sept. 2. There were legitimate concerns that Japan’s fractious government would not be able to maintain the sudden new peace, and that the military would choose to recommence its suicidal resistance.

I don’t propose to engage in any of the arguments about whether nuclear weapons should have been used. While the debates will doubtless continue until the end of human history, on a certain level they seem pointless this far down the road. Hegel may have been on to something when he declared, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

To be frank, I find historical arguments about what Nation A did to Nation B 60, 70, 100 years ago tiresome in their simplistic nationalism and reduction of real people of today to faceless two-dimensional shadows of their dead grandparents and great-grandparents.

Nonetheless, I think there is merit in remembering that on a particular date in the past, a leader or a government decided that the best course of action was to sacrifice potentially millions of men women and children, or on other dates a president or general authorized the killing of hundreds of thousands of defenseless people (whether with nuclear weapons or firebombs), and on still another date, other leaders chose to wait and see when prompt action could have prevented those and thousands more deaths. Perhaps we might be more cognizant that decisions can have tragic consequences, even if we are unaware of them at the time.

As Truman’s stock response suggests, “unfair” is the likely claim of national leaders who sit in big chairs, making the historic decisions based on information and considerations known only to a powerful minority, when challenged about this decision or that. I am talking, however, about remembering that such decisions were made, not second-guessing them. Though if any decisions deserve relentless critical dissection, it would be those that cost large numbers of human beings their lives, limbs and loved ones.

That is certainly what we expect of nations of laws — that people who do things that result in harm to others, whether intentionally or not, will be identified, their decisions scrutinized and responsibility allocated. It is a basic assumption of democratic societies that governments are held accountable for their decisions, and that the process by which these decisions are made should be as transparent as possible. Perhaps part of that process should involve remembering the decisions in our past and those who made them.

Nor should we limit our remembrance to decisions made 70 years ago. In my mind, anniversaries in calendars should also include (for example) Oct. 16, the date on which the U.S. Congress authorized the asinine invasion of Iraq (2002), and Aug. 1, when a hair-splitting Justice Department lawyer issued the first of the so-called torture memos to justify the abuse of terrorist suspects in U.S. custody (also in 2002). The people who made these decisions undoubtedly want to be forgotten. That should not be allowed to happen.

But this column is supposed to be about Japan. The problem here, of course, is that it can be notoriously hard to pin down when decisions are actually made and by whom. This was clear from the remarkable spectacle of Yoshiro Mori, president of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics organizing committee and former prime minister, declaring in an interview last month that “the whole government” — in other words, nobody — was responsible for a controversially complex and expensive stadium design that was subsequently scrapped. This is the sort of statement that can only be made with a straight face when decisions are made in secret, or in public but through elaborately staged public meetings involving too many people to either actually affect the decision or reasonably be held responsible for approving an artificially limited set of options presented to them by anonymous bureaucrats and power-brokers.

The Tokyo Olympics won’t lead to mass death (one hopes!), but Mori’s statement was disturbingly symbolic, coming as it did at the same time that his disciples in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party were ramming legislation through the Diet to enable the Self-Defense Forces to play a more proactive, potentially violent role in its alliance with the U.S., and in military campaigns abroad that have no immediate relationship to the defense of Japan.

Leaving constitutional issues aside, there may well be plausible arguments in favor of Japan having a stronger military and using it more actively in international affairs, whether alone or through alliances. Given the disparity in size between Japan and its most likely military adversaries, there may even be arguments for Japan having its own nuclear deterrent (something Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “forgot” to rule out in his speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing).

My point is not to advocate for or against any military options for Japan, something I am not competent to do in any case. I would suggest, however, that whatever new weapons and greater operational parameters are given to Japan’s military, the real question may be whether they will be — can be — used responsibly.

By “responsibly,” I mean “in a manner that will enable people of the future to mark their calendars with the dates on which identifiable individuals made judgments that resulted in death and horror in Japan or elsewhere.” Such decisions may well be unavoidable —thinking peace will reign just by people wishing it so may be naive given the apparent Hobbesian nature of international affairs — but surely the decisions should be rendered in a way that defies subject-free, passive-voice obfuscation as to who made them.

If that can’t be done when building a sports stadium, can it be expected when dispatching troops, launching missiles or making other decisions that end up involving the country in a futile foreign war? Whether Japanese governance is up to the task of using whatever new military capabilities the country acquires should be as important a question as what those capabilities should be.

Constitutionally, the pinnacle of the executive branch — the Cabinet — must be politically accountable. Yet often it appears to serve primarily as a brief carnival ride of political patronage: Since the elevation of the Defense Agency to a ministry in 2007, 13 different people have served as minister of defense. And does democratic accountability even mean anything when electoral laws stifle meaningful debate at precisely the time when citizens must decide who to vote for (and why)? Are there meaningful checks built into the decision-making processes that can lead to war, or just opaque routines that push responsibility down the line to the safely anonymous hive of officialdom?

Whether Japan’s most important ally, the United States, has better decision-making processes or has used its vast military power wisely in recent years is certainly questionable. But at least it has been possible to identify people involved in decisions leading to the commission of acts that in the opinions some constitute war crimes. As a result, some individuals — former George W. Bush administration officials, including both the president and vice-president — have reportedly lost some of their freedom to travel abroad due to risk of arrest and prosecution in other countries.

Unlike power, responsibility generally sucks. The systems that have evolved for obfuscating responsibility in governance in Japan are perfectly rational in their own way. Whether they should be able to involve the country in foreign wars is another matter.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Your comments:

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