COVER

Japan's torments

THE NATION IS DIVIDED BY ITS HISTORY AND THE HELL OF WAR

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 7 1995
COVER

Japan's torments

THE NATION IS DIVIDED BY ITS HISTORY AND THE HELL OF WAR

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 7 1995

Japan's torments

COVER

THE NATION IS DIVIDED BY ITS HISTORY AND THE HELL OF WAR

TONY WILSON-SMITH

Death becomes the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Designed by a Czech architect and opened in 1915, it was, from the beginning, a squat and unprepossessing structure, with little to distinguish

itself from many other equally unremarkable buildings in the centre of Japan's seventh-largest city. Yet today its shattered dome, windowless hulk and sense of brooding isolation give it an unmistakable dignity and simple poignancy. So does its new name: The A-Bomb Dome. In earlier years, the building's most redeeming feature was probably its location-less than 100 m from the place where the Honkawa and Motoyasu rivers meet, where the Aioi Bridge joined the city's east and west sections and formed a perfect T from the air. That T made an ideal target for the bombardier of the Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945, as the United States air force B-29 bomber flew over Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. and dropped its load. The 20-kiloton atomic bomb, the first nu clear weapon ever detonated in war, exploded 580 m above the ground. Its force, a crew member from the Enola Gay said later, left the city looking like "a pot of boiling black oil"; as many as 100,000 people died instantly, while many more were horribly disfigured. Temperatures reached an estimated 3,000° C-hot enough to melt steel girders, and almost everything else, within a 1,000-rn radius. Everything, that is, except the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Paradoxically, its position at the hypocentre of the blast saved it from more severe damage-and transformed it, as one of the only buildings left standing within a two-kilometre ra dius, into an enduring symbol of the horrors of war, the price of peace, and the painful beginning of the nuclear age. It stands today

exactly as it was left 50 years ago, accompanied by its new neighbors: the Peace Clock Tower, the Peace Bell, the Flame of Peace and the Children's Peace Monument. "Peace," says Minoro Ohmuta, chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Museum, "is something that you will Un-

derstand has a special significance to the people of Hiroshima." But the manner in which peace was achieved, and the question of how best to preserve it, are topics that confinue to divide Japan. They influence everything from Japanese foreign policy to the way in which

individual Japanese interpret their collective history. “Dealing with the legacy of the war is something that the Japanese people have still not been able to reconcile,” says Kunihiko Saito, Japan’s viceminister of foreign affairs. That is most evident in the reluctance of successive Japanese governments to atone for Japan’s role in the war. Earlier this year, the government, after intense debate, passed a resolution that expressed “regret,” but stopped short of offering any apology. In fact, even the form of the word “regret” that was used was, in the complex Japanese language, one of the milder expressions of meaning. In addition, special commemorative ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war on Aug. 15 were cancelled in July after members of Japan’s coalition government failed to agree on the content of the event All that has drawn sharp criticism from other countries, particularly those Asian nations that suffered under Japanese occupation. “What the bomb did to Hiroshima is not a lot worse than what the Japanese did to Manila,” says Maximo Soliven, publisher of The Philippine Star newspaper, who ifought the Japanese

as a teenage member of his country’s wartime resistance movement. “If they are sorry about Hiroshima, they could also say they are sorry about Manila.” Adds Leslie Fong, editor of Singapore’s Straits Times: “There is not a lot of patience in my country about why Japan cannot bring itself to say it was wrong.” Hiroshima itself exemplifies those tensions. The city’s peace museum offers photographs, films and displays that document, in gruesome detail, the devastation wrought by the bomb. There is the famous

“shadow,” a dark spot on stone that is the only reminder of a person who was completely incinerated by the blast. Newsreels contrast the bustling life of the city, which had a population of about 280,000 people before the explosion, with the barren wasteland that remained. A life-size display of wax mannequins shows children wandering through the rubble, the skin on their limbs melted away by the intense heat. But the museum—which draws an average of 1.4 million visitors a year—has also been criticized for failing to devote much attention to Japan’s own wartime record. One of the few references to Japanese aggression is a one-line mention on one display of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which triggered the United States’ decision to declare war on Japan. Similarly, a reference to the infamous 1937 “Rape of Nanking”—in which Japanese troops massacred an estimated 100,000 people in the Chinese city—was only added to the English-language version of the display last year, after scholars complained that the display was not properly balanced. Critics have even accused directors of the various peace displays of inflating the number of deaths from the bomb by each year increasing the total to include the death of anyone who lived near the area at that time of the blast. Thus, a man who was 40 at the time of the explosion, and who died at age 90 within the past year, would now be included as a victim. By that measure, a cenotaph near the museum now lists 187,000 victims. Ohmuta, the museum’s chairman, is keenly aware of the criticism. The museum’s directors, he said, decided after “long deliberation to concentrate only on the effects of the bomb on Hiroshima, rather than the entire war role of Japan, because our goal is to promote peace for the future, not to review a whole war.” At the same time, he is critical of the Japanese government’s refusal to apologize, saying: “The Japanese people should understand what they did, and apologize accordingly.” He also notes approvingly that “the Canadian government apologized to those Japanese-Canadians it interned, and that should be a model for us.” Not everyone agrees. At the national level, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the dominant force in postwar Japanese politics and currently the most powerful grouping in the coalition that governs the country, has traditionally opposed a formal apology. The reason most often cited in official circles is that any such step would create the

A Canadian eyewitness to the bomb

John Ford, a retired railway superintendent in St. John's, Nfid., was a 22-year-old Royal Air Force flight engineer when he was captured by Japanese troops in Java in 1942. He spent 33 months in Fukuoka No. 2 prison camp on the outskirts of Nagasaki. Now 76, he recalls Aug. 9, 1945, the day that Americans dropped an atomic bomb on the city: ii^Fhat morning was just like I any other. We were paradI ed down to the dockyard, where my job was to cut and shape sheet metal. No air-raid siren sounded. When I heard the blast and saw the flash, I looked towards Nagasaki. The big mushroom cloud rose over the city, blotting out the sun. Even where we were, you could see all the twisted metal and things flying through the air. But we didn’t know it was a bomb. We hadn’t heard about Hiroshima, so we thought maybe it was a munitions dump or battleship exploding. Maybe it was the end of the world for all we knew. Four days later, a U.S. bomber dropped emergency rations and a note saying the Japanese had surrendered. We were in too sorry a shape to celebrate. I’ve had three bouts of skin cancer since then. I don’t know for a fact that it was the cause, but that’s my feeling. Anyway, not a day goes by without me thinking about what we underwent in that camp. The only thing you can really say about the bomb is that it ended the war and got us out of there.”

potential of demands for restitution of war crimes that would run into billions of dollars. “There is a great fear,” says the foreign ministry’s Saito, “that once such a step was taken, the country would be paying forever and ever.”

But there are also many people who believe that Japan did nothing wrong in the war. One such person is Yuzan Fujita, the 46-year-old governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, a region that is now home to 2.9 million people. Soft-spoken and poised, Fujita is a former manager in the Mitsui trading empire who has lived in both Australia and the United States. But even though he was bom four years after Japan’s surrender, Fujita’s comments about the war are filled with the sorts of phrases that Japanese leaders used then to justify their actions. Japan, he says, was “at risk” from “colonizing powers,” and “was obliged to respond” to their actions. During an exchange with journalists last month, he repeatedly sidestepped questions about Japan’s role in the war. “The only important issue,” he said, “is ensuring peace in the ftiture.”

But the Japanese cannot agree on the best means of achieving that. In recent years, the country has been under intematnal pressure to change its constitution, which the Americans imposed on Japan after the war and which prohibits Japanese military forces from serving abroad. The United Nations would like Japan to offer support on peacekeeping missions, and Canada is pushing for Japan to be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which now has 15 members. That, says Saito, “is something Japan would like, but there is no rush or pressure to achieve it.” With the Asia Pacific region growing in economic and strategic importance, there are also conflicting views on the role that Japan should play in that part of the world. Right now, outside of China the greatest military force in the area belongs to the United States, which has 100,000 troops across the region, including 45,000 in Japan. But a growing number of analysts believe that American troops will leave the region within a decade because of the high cost of maintaining bases and the increasingly introspective mood in Washington.

In Japan, that would not be a welcome development. The American presence has allowed the country to cement its alliance with the world’s remaining superpower while sidestepping the issue of how it should exercise its own might. “The United States is a great force for stability in the region,” says Saito, who is expected to become Japan’s ambassador to Washington this fall. “We would certainly want to see them stay here as long as possible.”

So would people in many other countries—although few people appear to subscribe to the old view that America’s presence was necessary to prevent Japan from rebuilding as a military force. “What happened in the past should be remembered, but it does not mean that Japan should never again play a role on the world stage,” says Philippine war veteran Soliven. “It’s time for Japan to start taking on its full responsibilities.” The peace museum’s Ohmuta, however, offers another view: “Before we again tell other countries what to do, we must feel comfortable with ourselves, and with them.” Fifty years after Hiroshima disappeared in a flash, the pain that Japan suffered—and inflicted—lingers on. □