When it comes to hibakusha and the victorious Americans, one can expect a portrait of contrasts.
But as time heals the wounds of war, the resulting scar tissue has concealed many of the differences of opinion — both about the necessity of the atomic bombings and the need for an apology.
Now, with U.S. President Barack Obama poised to be the first sitting American leader to pay his respects at Hiroshima, the world is getting a fresh look at how the two nations have dealt with the aftermath of the traumatic attack.
Tamiko Shiraishi, a 77-year-old survivor of the devastating U.S. nuclear strike on the city, had long grappled with these questions of culpability and justification.
For her, America’s decision to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on the city was, in a way, a last-ditch attempt to push a defiant Japan into surrender and facilitate the end of a prolonged battle, she said.
“Had Japan surrendered a little sooner, America wouldn’t have had to drop the bomb — Japan kept fighting, even though it knew it was destined to lose. It even lied to its citizens and told them their country was doing well,” Shiraishi, who experienced the bombing when she was 7 years old, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
Asked whether she thinks the bombing was necessary to terminate the war, she said: “I really hate to admit it, but I must say it was.”
For 92-year-old Jerry Yellin, popularly known as the U.S. fighter pilot who flew the last combat mission of the war, the decision to drop the bombs was cut and dry.
“This was a weapon of war,” Yellin told The Japan Times in a telephone interview. “And I thought it saved my life, and I think it saved millions of Japanese lives.”
The Japanese, Yellin said echoing Shiraishi, were prepared to give everything in the event of a U.S. invasion. Men, women, children — military or civilians — all were preparing to fight on if asked.
“I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this — Japanese and American,” Yellin said. “When you have a fanatic group of people, as the Japanese had, the young army majors, colonels, lieutenant colonels and captains, they wanted to fight to the bitter end. They were willing to kill the Emperor to do that.”
This, Yellin said, was evidenced by the lack of a response to the bombings.
“Had we had more bombs, we would’ve considered using them to bomb them till they said that that’s enough. It took till Aug. 15 to make the (surrender) announcement,” he said. “We wanted to get it over with and go home.
“So it saved a lot of lives,” he said. “The Japanese … were our enemy and we were at war.”
A survey conducted earlier this month by U.K.-based polling firm YouGov of 2,097 U.S. adults found that 45 percent think President Harry Truman made the “right decision” by dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while 25 percent said it was the “wrong decision.”
In a similar YouGov survey carried out last July, 45 percent of Americans aged under 30 described the bombings as the wrong decision, while 31 percent answered it was the right decision.
Meanwhile, the results of a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year were heavily skewed, with 79 percent of Japanese respondents saying the bombings were unjustifiable and a mere 14 percent calling them justifiable.
Obama’s scheduled visit for Friday, meanwhile, has catapulted back into the spotlight another long-standing controversy of the war: Whether America should apologize for the bombing of Hiroshima, which had killed an estimated 140,000 people by the end of 1945.
The White House has firmly ruled out an apology, which could risk a backlash at home among veterans’ groups. In a recent interview with NHK, Obama also said he would not revisit the history of the decision.
“It’s important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions,” he said. “It’s a job of historians to ask questions and examine them.”
For Shiraishi, an apology by Obama is more than she hopes for.
“Some people say he should apologize for the bombing, but personally, I don’t think he has to,” she said. “If he could just dedicate some flowers and bow down, that’s all I expect of him and I could forgive (America) from the bottom of my heart.”
Shiraishi said she had long struggled to overcome her animosity against America, but deep down, she says she knows Japan shares blame for what happened to her city.
“It’s Japan that started the fight. We need to be mindful of that,” Shiraishi said, referring to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,400 Americans and thrust the U.S. into the global conflict.
In an apparent reflection of Shiraishi’s views, a recent survey by Kyodo News of 115 hibakusha both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that 78.3 percent of them don’t expect an apology from Obama, compared with 15.7 percent who do.
Nihon Hidankyo (Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization) — the only nationwide hibakusha group — also decided not to call for an apology from Obama. In its statement, it urged the president to, among other things, honor his vow to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons and meet hibakusha to hear firsthand of their plight.
Toshiki Fujimori, a 72-year-old assistant general-secretary of the organization, admitted a part of him would like to hear Obama’s apology. But demanding one, he said, would have risked relegating to the back burner what the group considers its priority — the abolition of nuclear weapons.
“President Obama apologizing for the bombing doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “What we demand is for America to change its policy of relying on nuclear weapons to protect the security of its people. Only after such a policy shift will nuclear weapons be eradicated from the Earth.”
For his part, Yellin, like most of the dwindling number of U.S. veterans, welcomes Obama’s Hiroshima sojourn. However, he sees no logic in offering an apology.
“It is absurd to think of any country or any man apologizing for the actions that saved the lives of millions of American soldiers and Japanese civilians and soldiers should an invasion of Japan been necessary to end the war,” he said.
“The atomic bombs ended the war.”
Fujimori, who as a baby narrowly escaped the brunt of the blast thanks to a two-story building that protected him and his mother, is adamant that the atomic bombing was never justifiable.
“It’s against humanity. It’s a weapon for indiscriminate killing. It never should’ve happened,” he said.
But at the same time, he said his heart goes out to people in Asia whose families were killed by Imperial Japan.
“If there are people in Asia who justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on the grounds it helped Japan surrender in the midst of its invasion and saved lots of lives instead, I can’t blame them for thinking that way.”