Those other historical issues

Defense Minister Kyuma Fumio — a Lower House representative from Nagasaki of all places — remains under attack today despite backing away from his argument that the US atomic bombings “could not be helped.”

The Nagasaki Prefectural Assembly has, in fact, passed a resolution condemning Kyuma’s remarks.

Kyuma has once again showed his utter lack of political judgment, and, mutatis mutandis, called into question once again Prime Minister Abe’s choice in advisers.

But I for one find DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro’s response to Kyuma more interesting. Ozawa, in a debate with Abe earlier this week, not only condemned Kyuma but also demanded that the US apologize for the atomic bombings. Politically speaking, this is a no-brainer. The reaction to Kyuma’s remarks show just how sensitive this issue is, and just how much anguish at being the only country to be attacked with nuclear weapons — and then to be allied with and defended with nuclear weapons by the very country that used them — lurks beneath the surface of Japanese society. So for Ozawa and the DPJ, facing a tough election battle, not just condemning the government for Kyuma’s remarks but demanding an apology from the US (implicitly criticizing the government for being on the receiving end of historical criticism without responding in kind) seems to make good political sense.

Even more interesting, however, is what this reveals about the strong desire for independence that colors Japanese attitudes towards the US. Once again, the thoughts of Amaki Naoto are revealing. Recognizing Ozawa’s opportunism, Amaki takes the opportunity to attack the whole political class for its longtime timidity on the question of forcing an apology out of the US. He wrote:

Japan, as the only country to be attacked with atomic bombs, should seek an American apology limited not just to our country, but, so to ensure that no other people undergoes this tragic experience, it is our responsibility to show our leadership qualities and take the initiative and demand that the US, which committed a crime, totally abolish nuclear weapons from the earth. The Japanese prime minister’s demanding an apology from the US before the eyes of the world — this would strongest demand for an apology, and it would be a demand for an apology that the US could not refuse.

However, successive LDP cabinets have not tried even once to demand this from the US. Of course, this is also Ozawa. On the contrary, by virtue of being defended by the US nuclear umbrella, the Japanese government has not even received a judgment from the International Court of Justice on the illegality of the use of nuclear weapons.

The pain associated with the atomic bombings is an incredibly important factor in how Japan has come to view the war and war guilt, because in a flash of light Japan, in the eyes of its people, became the first victim of a terrible new age. Even as the world viewed and continues to view Imperial Japan as the executor of an extensive war of aggression, the Japanese people themselves have long thought of themselves as victims (although being victims of atomic weapons has not stopped Japanese governments from relying on American extended deterrence).

There are no easy answers here, at least that I can see. But all of these unresolved historical issues need to see the light. If it makes for tense bilateral relations in the short term, the benefits of Japan’s “truth and reconciliation” process over the long time will be innumerable, and will be felt through the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, amidst all the talk about Sino-Japanese and Japanese-Korean reconciliation, everyone forgets the serious historical issues between the US and Japan, issues that remind Japanese of the pain of being bombed (conventionally and atomically) and then being occupied. Strategic considerations have meant these feelings have been concealed, at least, partially for most of the postwar period, sneaking out only occasionally (the debate over constitution revision is steeped with these emotions too). The US-Japan relationship is in as much need of historical openness as Japan’s relationships with its Asian neighbors.

So no more taboos or sacred cows. If anything, Kyuma should be given credit for trying to look at the war through American eyes. That kind of thinking is necessary for Japan to begin confronting the past nakedly, unshielded by victimhood.

What is it going to take for Japan to do this? And if Japan were to take steps to assess its wartime past more honestly, would the US respond in good faith, dutifully looking back at its own wartime behavior?

2 thoughts on “Those other historical issues

  1. Anonymous

    I like Amaki\’s thinking. Logically, of course, the US will apologize for ending the war when Japan apologizes for starting the war.


  2. AC

    The US is never going to apologize for the use of atomic weapons against Japan, because doing so would mean that using nuclear weapons is wrong, and that goes against US policy. All throughout the Cold War and even today with regard to Iran and North Korea, the US will not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons.Frankly, Ozawa\’s suggestion is one of the dumbest things I\’ve ever heard from a politician in Japan. Even raising the issue would cause a giant doo-doo storm that there would be no way to quell, and I I don\’t think a giant blame game between Japan and the rest of the world (the US and other countries in the region would be demanding their own apologies from Japan) would redound to Japan\’s advantage. Thankfully Ozawa will never be prime minister.


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