Thursday marked the 74th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II and the first one in the Reiwa Era. It also was the first time for Emperor Naruhito to attend the annual ceremony commemorating the nation’s millions of war dead. At Nippon Budokan Hall, the emperor and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe renewed the pledge to learn from the nation’s tragic history and stressed that the devastation of war should not be repeated.
“Looking back on the long period of postwar peace, reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” the emperor said. “I express my sincere condolences with all the Japanese people to the people who have fallen on the battlefield and pray for world peace and further development of our country.” The prime minister stated that Japan’s pledge not to repeat the tragedy of war will never change even with the passage of time from the Showa Era through Hesei to Reiwa.
But as we begin the Reiwa Era nearly three quarters of a century after the war’s end, those memories may be fading fast. The anniversary remains significant in that it gives each one of us an opportunity to reflect on the horrors of the war, which claimed the lives of more than 3.1 million Japanese, and to keep such memories alive.
Emperor Emeritus Akihito experienced the war firsthand as a child. During the war, he had to evacuate from Tokyo to Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, to Nikko and then to Oku-Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture, and suffered food shortages from time to time. In 1946, when he was in the sixth grade, he wrote “constructing a peaceful nation” in calligraphy as a New Year’s resolution. Since then he appears to have tried to live up to those words by making a series of visits to the sites of fierce battles and devastation during the war, including Saipan, Peleliu Island in Palau and the Philippines.
In 1975, then-Crown Prince Akihito became the first member of the imperial family to visit Okinawa, where 200,000 people were killed in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa, including civilians and both Japanese and U.S. military personnel. At the Himeyuri Peace Museum, which honors female high school students who lost their lives while giving aid to the wounded during the battle, the crown prince was attacked by activists with a Molotov cocktail. That incident must have made him keenly aware of the mixed feelings of many Okinawans toward the imperial family at that time.
Under the postwar Constitution, which forever renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation, Japan has pursued the path of a peaceful nation and hasn’t taken part in war for 74 years — an achievement the country should be proud of. At the same time, however, 83 percent of the population was born after the war and many Japanese may think of the devastating conflict as something from the distant past.
In June, a rare resolution was passed in the Lower House urging member Hodaka Maruyama to quit over controversial remarks he made alluding to Tokyo going to war with Moscow to regain control of four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
During a May visit to one of the islands, Maruyama asked the leader of a group of former Japanese residents, “Do you think there is any alternative to war” to recover the islands? The resolution condemned the 35-year-old lawmaker for making a series of “unthinkable remarks, including one that goes against the pacifism enshrined in the Constitution.” It is both surprising and alarming that this young lawmaker did not hesitate to talk about the possibility of waging war.
Today, a wave of nationalism is sweeping much of the world and some political leaders are openly making protectionist remarks. Efforts to denuclearlize North Korea are making no progress and relations between Tokyo and Seoul have seriously deteriorated in recent months over issues involving wartime labor and bilateral trade control, and signs of nationalism are on the rise in South Korea. As the history of the two world wars shows, it is not easy to put out the fires when flash points turn into armed conflicts. Political leaders must find a way to defuse the escalating disputes.
The remark made by then-Crown Prince Naruhito, on his birthday in 2015, should be revisited as a message to people who live in the new Reiwa Era. “Although I was born after the war and did not experience it, I think that today, where memories of the war have started to fade, it is important to look back in a humble way on the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences of war and the knowledge of the course of history that Japan has followed, from the generation that experienced the war to those who have grown up without first-hand knowledge of it.”
We must continue to tell the stories of the war and pass on the important lessons to future generations.