In this 70th year anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Swiss-based International Peace Bureau (IPB) nominated Hidankyo (Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations) for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. This is Hidankyo’s third such nomination by the IPB, following earlier bids in 1985 and 1994. There are about 60,000 survivors of the atomic bombings and their average age is nearly 80 years old.
“Over these 70 years they have made the choice of activism,” the IPB wrote in its nominating letter, “unceasingly recounting their experiences and struggles, and working constantly for a total ban and the elimination of nuclear weapons, appealing to governments and peoples all over the world.”
The IPB reminds us that hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) “are quite simply extraordinary human beings; not giving in to despair, they became convinced, through their struggle to survive the attacks and the subsequent long years of suffering, that their agonies must never be repeated anywhere.”
Hidankyo demands that the government admit the Japanese state’s responsibility for launching a war of aggression that eventually led to the atomic bombings, and argues that it should therefore provide state compensation to the bereaved families, as well as the survivors. It was not until 1957 that the government established medical services for the hibakusha and in 1994, the Hibakusha Aid Law was adopted, but Hidankyo says this law is inadequate because it doesn’t provide state compensation or admit the state’s war responsibility.
Hidankyo members also participate in the annual Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) review conferences, speaking of their experiences in order to remind participating countries what is at stake. This past May at the NPT review conference in New York, the Japanese government proposed that world leaders visit the A-bombed cities so they could better understand the effects of nuclear weapons. This proposal was dropped at China’s request as Beijing claimed Japan was trying to portray itself as a victim of World War II while downplaying its role as victimizer. Yet again, Tokyo found that festering issues relating to its wartime conduct in the 1930s and ’40s hampers its diplomacy in the 21st century.
Predictably, Japanese eager to blame China for stirring regional tensions see this as more evidence of Beijing cynically playing the history card, but surely Japan bears considerable responsibility for the ongoing contretemps over the shared past. Tokyo does itself no favors through indignant posturing. Japan’s proposal was a good one and I believe world leaders, especially U.S. President Barack Obama, should visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there is truth in what China said about Japan’s elevated (and orchestrated) victim consciousness and an inadequate recognition of the horrors it inflicted throughout Asia.
That needs to change and it is also high time for a sitting U.S. president to grasp the nettle of history, visit the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb memorials and pay respects to those who died and suffered as a result of the attacks. Having won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize partly for largely unfulfilled promises he made during a speech in Prague the same year on the future of nuclear weapons, it is incumbent on Obama to make a grand gesture.
More than 210,000 Japanese died in the atomic bombings from the blast, fire and radiation that swept through the two cities. Controversy continues as scholars debate whether the bombings were justified or militarily necessary — a sensitive topic in the United States, where public opinion remains supportive of former President Harry Truman’s decision to target urban centers with weapons of mass destruction; a 2015 Pew Research Center poll indicates 56 percent of Americans believe the bombings were justified while 34 percent disagree. Back in 1995, the Smithsonian museum attempted to mount a commemorative show that conveyed some of the scholarly “dissensus” around the atomic bombings. The U.S. Congress, however, wielding control over the museum’s budget, forced the curator to abandon his ambitions and nix the exhibits that cast doubts on the wisdom and necessity of Truman’s choice.
The hibakusha embody a humanitarian message, but as committed advocates of peace they are also keen to weigh in on political developments. They possess unassailable moral authority on matters of war and peace and are outspoken critics of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s legislation allowing for collective self-defense. They see his assault on Article 9 of the Constitution as a danger to Japanese democracy and peace, and, like most other people in Japan, are not convinced by Abe’s evasive reassurances.
“It is becoming an extremely dangerous time,” says Hiroshi Shimizu, secretary-general of Hiroshima Hidankyo. “The atmosphere in Japan right now reminds us of the 10 ‘silent’ years after the war, when the state secrecy law was in effect and the U.S. withheld records and even (denied) the existence of hibakusha.”
Ironically, Abe is invoking Japan’s peaceful seven decades to bolster his case for abandoning the pacifist principles that helped make this possible. Last August, Nagasaki hibakusha Miyako Jodai criticized the prime minister for what she called “an outrage against Japan’s pacifist Constitution.” As Abe craters in the public opinion polls due to his bulldozing of security legislation through the Diet, it appears that her sense of outrage is widely shared.
“I think that the movement to award the prize to the hibakusha is predicated on the notion that it would be an important way to bring the issue of nuclear proliferation and threat to more global awareness,” says Robert Jacobs, an expert on the history of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima City University. “I can’t imagine that they will award it to the hibakusha, even at the 70th-anniversary juncture, because how do you do that and not award something to Holocaust survivors? They may not have worked in a singular manner for a political goal like the hibakusha did, but you would have debates such as why ‘victims’ from an aggressor state could be awarded, but not victims whose society did not engage in war crimes.”
And what about the forgotten hibakusha of the Marshall Islands, where some atolls were rendered uninhabitable by extensive U.S. testing of its nuclear arsenal? Like Japan’s hibakusha, many Marshall Islanders suffered significant radiation exposure, but there is no museum, no tourists, and the belated compensation awarded by the U.S. Congress vanished in one of those unseemly Wall Street moments.
“Even the testimonies of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, the closest thing to a repository of oral histories, is rotting in a small building,” Jacobs laments. This is forgotten trauma desperate for some Nobel limelight.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.