Tomorrow, August 6th, will be the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Some 80,000 people died instantly, and more than 200,000 died in total as a result. It was a terrible event, and hopefully one that will never happen again.
I just finished watching a two-hour news special on Japanese television about the event. Beginning with the war, it detailed the Manhattan Project, the fight within the US over whether the bomb should be used, and the fight between the Japanese military and civilian government over Japan's surrender. Afterwards, it gave an in-depth explanation of the effects of the bomb, the suffering of the people who died that day or survived only to suffer cancer or other diseases. Finally, it followed one of the bombers on the Enola Gay as he visited Hiroshima for the first time since he dropped the bomb as he visited the peace museum that now sits on a building that survived the blast. The climax was a conversation between this man and a married couple who survived the attack. They asked him to apologize for the bombing, and he steadfastly refused to, having lost too many of his own friends at Pearl Harbor and in the war itself. The ending was a call for peace, splicing current and more recent war footage with shots of the aftermath at Hiroshima.
But being in Japan, I am struck by how the focus in this country on the anniversary is in entirely the wrong place. The problem is, I see absolutely no reflection in Japan about why it came to this. Sure, there were military and political analysis of the situation leading up to the bombing, but where is the questioning of what lead to the war? The coverage is always about how bad the bomb was, and how much people suffered. But the fact that the bomb was awful, and that people suffered, that's clear already. Emphasizing this is just to shock people and warn them of the brutality of nuclear war in particular and war in general. It teaches us nothing about how to proceed as a nation or people. Japan has this knee-jerk reaction to the war and the bombing of "No War, just peace" which isn't a coherent or tenable ideal at all. Worse, this constant attention to the bombing and the suffering of the Japanese people has given them a sort of a victimization complex. Each time I saw the pictures of the people who died at Hiroshima, it was so awful it brought tears to my eyes, but by the end of the program, I thought, "Yeah, but where are the pictures of the American prisoners that the Japanese experimented on? Where are the thousands of Chinese women that were raped and bayoneted to death?"
There is, of course, a strain of thought in Japan that refuses to take responsibility for what the Japanese did during the war, if not just denying it outright. There has been a constant fight throughout the post-war period to make the Japanese textbooks accurately depict history, including Japanese atrocities. The problem was that the sort of purging process that took place in Germany with de-Nazification never took place in Japan; token people were tried and punished, while those truly responsible (say, anyone in the Imperial family) were never held responsible. This was done with the complicity of the Americans, who were more worried about a strong ally to resist the Chinese and Russians than they were about changing Japanese society fundamentally. And so the same group of giant companies that essentially ran Japan before the war continues to run it today, the same people in charge of politics and the economy. Obviously they have no interest in anything that could challenge their power in the country, and this effort to evade or rewrite history is reflected in the educational curriculum and the behavior of the government writ large. They say they've apologized for what they did, but apologies repeating how they have "feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology" mean bullshit, and even less when you are aware of the Japanese concepts of "tatamae" - the face people put on for the outside world - and "honne" - one's true thoughts - the two of which are basically assumed to always be at ends with each other. So, Koizumi, the prime minister, makes this sort of apology and then goes and visits the Yasukuni Shrine housing the souls of Japanese war dead including 14 Class A war criminals. A true apology requires real remorse, and real remorse is not just an attempt to evade responsibility and put the past behind them.
My point is that for all its semblance of ultra-modernity, Japan today resembles very much Japan after WWI. That is, the same sort of dangerous nationalist country, insular and incapable of thinking of people outside of Japan as the same as Japanese. It is my opinion that this is a result of the power base of the country not really changing at all. 60 years after WWII, the Japanese I meet here should be a lot more open-minded, but a McDonalds and a 7-11 at every train station has not made this country truly open, and kids who listen to Blink 182 and carry Louis Vitton purses do not really feel connected to the foreigners who's style and clothing they latch onto. The country has moved through its past without every dealing with it, and nobody really seems to give a shit.
The politicians are already building up China as the next big threat, and this coupled with the image of a victimized Japan that now has suffered long enough...Maybe after this next war with China people will realize they have to confront the lack of recognition of the humanity of the Other that lies at the inability of nations and their people to coexist peacefully.