OSAKA – After the commemorations for the atomic atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a few days left to contemplate what he will say about war and peace on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat and surrender. He has a wonderful opportunity to set a new path for Japan, for Asia and the world. I fear that he will continue to bulldoze a wrong and dangerous road.
“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, wrote, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, about the bombs. But war is also death, and World War II saw too many atrocities and too many leaders with blood on their hands. Altogether, up to 85 million people died in the war, including 3.3 million Japanese.
Before the dropping of the atomic bombs, there was the massacre of Nanjing, with over 200,000 Chinese dead according to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Japanese estimates are considerably lower), or 300,000 according to China; the Shoah (or Holocaust) slaughtering six million Jews, plus the murder of five million non-Jews by the Nazis; the battle of Stalingrad with two million casualties; the Burma Death Railway, on which an estimated 90,000 died, the majority civilians; mass murder of civilians on all sides by wholesale bombing of Osaka (10,000 killed), London (20,000), Berlin (20,000-50,000), Dresden (25,000), Hamburg (42,000), and Tokyo (100,000 plus); the battle of Normandy with 425,000 casualties; battles for Iwo Jima (nearly 18,000 Japanese dead and 7,000 Americans) and Okinawa (149,193 Japanese civilian deaths, many of them enforced suicides or human shields, 77,166 Imperial Japanese soldiers, and 14,009 American troops, plus about 600 from Korea, Britain and Taiwan).
The year before he died, I talked at length to Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC, who had flown as the British observer in the aircraft accompanying the one that dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Cheshire was a good man, who was sickened by war, left the Royal Air Force and devoted his postwar life to caring for the rejected and underprivileged. He had no doubt that both bombs needed to be dropped to bring Japan’s high command to their senses. “There was no other way; they were prepared to fight to the death of the last Japanese.”
Even 70 years after the end of the war, the effects linger on. In preparing this article, I was struck by several things: how bloody the last war was and how so many innocent people were sacrificed by blundering, as well as evil leaders; how the world has benefited from years of peace; and how much several countries are drifting, as if sleepwalking, toward old and dangerous antagonisms.
I fear that the lessons of the bloodshed are not understood by modern leaders. Abe will now briefly hold center stage, as the prime minister of the leading nation that was both victim and perpetrator of evil. But he seems not to comprehend the challenge. I hope that it is not because he is in thrall to his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was one of the leading players in the Japanese wartime government, as well as prime minister after the war promoting a new security treaty with the United States.
Soon after Abe returned to power, one of his close advisers told me that Abe had two inner demons wrestling for his heart and soul: the good fairy wants him to concentrate on restoring peace-loving Japan’s economic vitality; the other is the spirit of grandfather Kishi, beckoning him to rewrite history and restore the country’s political standing, as he sees it.
Sadly, the good fairy is losing. Late last year, Abe called early general elections, claiming that he needed the mandate to consolidate his “Abenomics” to lift the faltering economy. Since then, Abenomics has hardly figured on Abe’s agenda as he has devoted time and energy to his grandfather’s quest of making Japan a “normal country”.
Discussions among politicians and in the media circle endlessly round the words of Abe’s 70th anniversary address, whether he will use the formal word “apology.” Not another apology, urge nationalists asking, “how many more times will we have to apologize?” Abe’s core supporters in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are demanding that he stand up against foreign pressure and “restore Japan’s honor and trust,” according to a written request delivered to the prime minister by the party’s policy chief. They bitterly complain about the apology that then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono offered in 1993 to the “comfort women” (known in the rest of the world as sex slaves).
Abe has a deserved reputation as a Japanese nationalist. In 2000, as a second-term MP he complained that, “It is clear that the Constitution was drawn up under significant compulsion. … It is crucially important for us to make a new Constitution by ourselves.”
Having investigated and seen too many obstacles in the way of formal change by passing amendments or rewriting the Constitution, Abe decided that it would be easier to sidestep and reinterpret it, then use his parliamentary majority for the simpler task of passing new security laws implementing his reinterpretation.
It seems not to bother him that he has no mandate for such changes; that most Japanese are against what he is doing; that influential scholars believe his actions are unconstitutional.
It’s worth looking at some academic opinion. Jean-Pierre Lehmann, founding director of The Evian Group, believes that Abe’s efforts to boost Japan’s military capacity “take Asia closer to war.” Professor Arthur Stockwin, founding director of the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies at the University of Oxford, points out that Abe’s “proactive pacifism” seems to be based on the principle of George Orwell’s Big Brother that “black equals white.” In his essay for East Asia Forum, Stockwin writes that Abe is not solely to blame: The situation has been exacerbated by Chinese military expansionism as by Japanese nationalism and revisionism.
Here Japan and China are, 70 years after the end of the war, fighting a vicious war of words that can have no good outcome and may lead to more dangerous, hotter action, with armaments and wholesale death that will make World War II look like a children’s tea party.
Abe’s difficulty, which he hotheadedly seems not to realize, is that he is trying to do two difficult things simultaneously, which can only make friends and neighbors suspicious: He wants to rewrite history and he wants to make Japan “normal” again.
How many times should Japan apologize? If it keeps undermining its apologies by later pretending that the events for which it apologized did not really happen, then it can only expect victims of its past to question its sincerity. If Japan wants to be “normal” — which in Abe’s view means having fully-fledged military forces that can fight in other people’s wars if he so decrees — while trying to expunge the past history of Japan’s cruelty, then he should expect distrust.
Abe is not a professional historian, and does not have any evident qualifications in the subject. He has a degree in political science from a not very distinguished private university. If his evidence of Japan’s wartime conduct comes via grandfather Kishi, he should be triply suspicious: once because Kishi had a vested interest as a key player in Manchuria, then in the war Cabinet: twice because Kishi would hardly admit unpalatable truths to his grandson; thrice because old men forget.
Abe should leave history to the historians and calculate the costs and benefits of being a “normal” country in the 21st century. His good fairy, if Abe were to allow her to whisper wise words in his ear, would surely tell him that strutting on a global stage depends on having economic strength to maintain it.
She would also tell him that Abenomics is increasingly a joke because Abe has failed to achieve radical reforms that would add dynamism to an economy suffering from arteriosclerosis of an aging, declining population. Trillions in quantitative easing by the Bank of Japan have weakened the yen and sent the stock market soaring, which have seen Japan’s big corporations laughing all the way to count their windfall profits, but done little for ordinary Japanese.
With the yen at ¥125 to the dollar, a professor at a Japanese national university earns about the same as a neophyte London Underground train driver fresh from six months training.
Abe might also consult his chum President Barack Obama, who spoke with tear-jerking eloquence in Kenya last month, urging Africans to put aside traditional tribal hostilities because “in the end, we are all part of one tribe, the human tribe.” So why is Obama backing Abe’s version of a new “normal” country, knowing that it will antagonize the human tribe living in China?
In his address, Abe should praise the peace, and the generosity of Americans, which allowed Japan to prosper. He should add that apologies alone cannot recompense for the suffering and destruction Japan caused (or for the suffering imposed on Japan). He should add he wishes to go to China, to Nanjing to pray for the souls of all those who perished there.
He also should invite Chinese President Xi Jinping and Obama to Japan, where they will pray together at Hiroshima and at Nagasaki, and then go to a Kyoto temple for a long weekend summit, with a maximum of three advisers each, no media circus, to talk frankly, to smooth away suspicions and reach practical conclusions on how to preserve peace and prevent greedy humans from destroying the planet by militarism, trade wars or climate change.
I fear there are too many wicked fairies in Tokyo, Beijing and Washington and all points between waving their evil wands, even if Abe’s good fairy can convince him that the best peace is shared prosperity.
Kevin Rafferty is a longtime journalist and commentator on Asia.