Before moving to Japan, my understanding of the Hiroshima bombing was that it was horrendous but necessary, an act that precluded worse atrocities from occurring and a result of the brutal war that preceded it. This is what many Americans think. This is what I thought when, as a U.S. Naval Officer, I was assigned to be a the sole Liaison officer at the Japanese Maritime Officer Candidate School (MOCS), located on Eta Jima, Japan, a small island just south of Hiroshima and the previous site of the Imperial Naval Academy. My perspective would soon change. The Japanese lament the bombing, but, in present day, see it an impetus for the cause of pacifism and denuclearization. Whether or not the bombing was necessary, it happened. Most important is how the Japanese and Americans discuss what happened so that we can move forward together.
President Obama will become the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, intending to stop this month at the site where the United States dropped the first of two atomic bombs that ended World War II. Rather than offering an apology for the bomb, Obama intends the visit as an opportunity to promote his efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons on a global scale. Past administrations avoided the site, not wanting to fray U.S.-Japanese relations over a topic as sensitive as the Hiroshima bombing, whose necessity has a lack of consensus in both countries. Obama’s decision to visit and speak at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is fraught with meaning for both countries, but especially for Japan, whose primary narrative regarding World War II revolves around consequences of the Hiroshima bomb, a victim’s perspective that the park illustrates and which seeps into the wider culture.
While in Japan, and during the weekdays, I lived in Eta Jima in a house provided by the Japanese Navy. Every weekend, I took the ferry from Eta Jima to Hiroshima and stayed in my personal apartment. On the weekend before the 69th anniversary, I was walking on the sidewalk of Hiroshima with my Japanese friend, Mamiko. Walking in the opposite direction, in the street, were a throng of Japanese people, holding signs and repeating a chant.
“What are they saying?” I asked Mamiko. My Japanese proficiency wasn’t what I would have liked.
“They are saying for the end of all nuclear weapons,” she said.
“Oh, ok.” I said.
“And they are saying for all Americans to leave Japan,” she said.
On the day of the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, a weekday, I taught my students class. None of my students mentioned the anniversary of the bomb. Neither did any of my co-workers, both the Japanese civilians and the Naval officers. I’m sure they were aware of the anniversary; they just didn’t display a desire to talk or not talk about it. The Japanese officer candidates are not taught the history of the Imperial Navy. Neither are the Japanese civilians. There is a museum in Eta Jima that speaks to the history of the Imperial Navy, but that is the extent of their education.
After one meeting with the English conversation club, which I was in charge of, I was talking with the president, Midshipmen Kiyosaka, about World War II. I was trying to figure out how to broach the topic of the Hiroshima. He must have sensed what I was getting at.
“Sir, we don’t mind talking about the bomb,” he said. “It’s no problem.”
I was taken aback, both by his frankness and by his opinion that the bomb was not considered verboten. This could be because, in some sense, the bombing of Hiroshima is separate from the perpetrators of it: it’s the act that is considered evil by modern Japanese people, not Americans themselves.
If the bombing of Hiroshima can be talked about in a meaningful way, it must stay within certain limits of propriety. It is understood that the day of the anniversary is considered a day for the Japanese. Last year on August 6th, Prime Minister Abe spoke in Hiroshima, calling for the global elimination of nuclear weapons. The Mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui accused “selfish” nuclear powers, including the United States, of delaying that goal. United States ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, was also in attendance, only the second American official to attend the anniversary in Hiroshima.
Wisely, President Obama is visiting in May, far removed from the anniversary. Complete non-proliferation of nuclear weapons may be impractical, but reducing their numbers and their role in global politics is a necessary goal in a world where the possibility of a rogue state or terrorist getting their hands on one is feasible, the consequences of which would be catastrophic. Even for the United States, a reduced stockpile reduces the risk of an accident while maintaining our goal of deterrence. Denuclearization is a conversation that Japan wants to have and American should take part in it. And whether or not the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima was justified, it would be best for the Japanese have an honest dialogue about the role their Imperialistic history had in the Hiroshima bomb. It’s not about placing blame. It’s about accepting responsibility, on both sides. The United States dropped the bomb, and whether or not Obama apologizes is ancillary. What’s more important is the lesson learned. The same holds true for Japan. Such dialogue is necessary for the future relationship between Japan and the United States, whose congruity is necessary to maintain stability in the Pacific region and to deter the aggressive advances of the Chinese military.
I made many friends in Japan, both Japanese and ex-pats, civilian and military. Most of the time, we did not discuss the bombing of Hiroshima. Such conversations aren’t really the basis of a friendship. We would, however, spend a lot of time walking through the Peace Memorial Park, admiring its beauty. After Mamiko and I walked past the protestors, we walked to the park, where thousands of people were gathered, inscribing messages onto lanterns that they float down the canal.
I still have the picture that Mamiko took of me holding my lantern. “Peace and Love,” I wrote, and then, “—Colin.”