August 6, 2020

At 8.15 am on 6 August 1945, the USAAF B-29 Bomber Enola Gay dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. The innocuously nicknamed “Little Boy” obliterated the city’s urban centre, instantly killing an estimated 80,000 people, and claiming 60,000 more lives by the year’s end. An atomic attack on Nagasaki followed three days later. 75 years after those horrific events — just in time for today’s anniversary of the bombing of the city — the Hiroshima District Court, on 29 July, made a widely reported ruling.

It extended to 84 plaintiffs, with ages ranging from late 70s to 90s, the certification of atomic bomb victims. In other words, it recognised them as having been exposed to radioactive “black rain”. These plaintiffs were just outside the area, officially designated after the fact, where radioactive droplets from the nuclear explosion fell. In spite of their long struggles with radiation-linked diseases, they had been denied the same level of medical benefits that were given to “certified” atom bomb survivors.

For those plaintiffs and other survivors, the nuclear summer of 1945 is never a distant memory. For most Japanese today, it is. Nevertheless, all Japanese people grow up with ample knowledge of the horror and cruelty of nuclear weapons — be it from obligatory lessons at schools, or from popular manga and movies. (Barefoot Gen, a semi-autobiographical manga by Keiji Nakazawa that has sold 10 million copies worldwide, is but one example.) As a result, Hiroshima — Hiroshima more than Nagasaki, for being the “first” — has become a quasi-religious abstraction that reigns at the heart of Japan’s pacifist ideology.

During the Second World War, Japan’s national ideology revolved around the cult of emperor worship. After Japan’s defeat, the cult of peace worship took its place. This worship draws its moral strength from two interconnected sources. One is Article 9 of the US-drafted postwar constitution, which renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. The other is Japan’s broad-based anti-nuclear arms sentiments, of which Hiroshima is the most potent symbol. And so every year, on 6 August, the city makes national headlines as Japan commemorates the anniversary of the bombing.

“Peace” is everywhere on that occasion. The “Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony” is held in the “Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park”, built near the bomb’s detonation point. Top politicians and dignitaries join in silent prayers with ordinary citizens at 8.15 am, followed by the tolling of “peace bells”, the mayor’s “peace declaration”, and a releasing of doves into the sky once shrouded by a mushroom cloud. Around the anniversary, many commemorative events are held, including art exhibitions, flower shows and concerts featuring the world’s top musicians. (The late pianist Peter Serkin, in 2017, played with the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra at its “Music for Peace Concert”. He also gave a moving private performance on a Baldwin piano that once belonged to Akiko Kawamoto, an American-born teenager. The piano survived the bombing. Akiko didn’t.)

Due to fear that Covid-19 will spread, many of this year’s 75th anniversary events have had to be cancelled, and the main ceremony will be drastically downsized. Even so, Hiroshima’s essential importance as a galvanising point of postwar Japanese identity will remain unchanged.

Three is nothing inherently wrong with a country valuing and praying for peace. Peace is hard not to like, and it is also unifying. It can act as the lowest common denominator to bring together people of different political persuasions — as well as former enemies. (The Japanese welcomed Barack Obama when he made a peace-making visit to Hiroshima in May 2016, the first US President to do so while in office.) Adopting pacifism as a national ideology also helped Japan regain its international legitimacy in the Cold War era. Going pacifist meant that Japan, an erstwhile rogue state with expansionist designs, could begin identifying itself as a reformed, benign power — and the most dependable US ally in East Asia.

But peace, or more precisely, the kind of pacifism that Japan has cultivated over the past three quarters of a century, has its drawbacks. For one, it has hindered a meaningful political debate. By emphasising Japan’s own wartime sufferings and its current desire for peace, the conservative Japanese regime, in power for most of the postwar period, has tended to downplay Japan’s record as an imperialist aggressor, first in East Asia, and later in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. And until recently, the Right’s narrative generally overlooked the fact that the nuclear casualties included Allied POWs, as well as Chinese and Korean forced labourers.

The vociferous Right — for some time now represented by the hawkish leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — insists that a revision of the postwar pacifist constitution is necessary so that Japan can become a truly sovereign nation-state. Unless it becomes an active military power, this line of argument goes, Japan cannot preserve peace. But that same need to preserve peace is invoked by the political Left too, which regards any intimation of a constitutional revision as a sacrilege.

“Peace”, in this instance, is tautological. It serves as a reason for Japan to have an active military and at the same time, to continue rejecting that option. A lack of dialogue between those two opposite camps is worrying, when changing conditions — primarily in the forms of China’s rise and a nuclear-armed North Korea — are making it necessary for Japan to examine what kind of peace Japan wants and how best to achieve it. Does Japan need to alter its constitution? How active should the Japan Self-Defense Forces be? Can Japanese peace — and by extension, regional peace — be secured without the strong backing of the United States? If pressed on any of these questions, Japanese individuals would likely have different answers. Yet, the Japanese version of pacifism, anchored in the horrific experience of the atom bombings, has long created a misleading sense that the nation is more united than it really is.

Another disadvantage of Japanese pacifism is the selective historical memory it has helped to forge. In this retelling, nuclear weapons become overly exceptional. In 1945, they were an extension of strategic preferences that had led all the belligerent parties to bomb their enemies’ civilians. The world was initially shocked by the German bombing of Guernica in April 1937. But all the powers would adjust to the dehumanising idea that civilian deaths were a necessary part of total warfare, either because precision-bombing of military targets was deemed too difficult, or because targeting civilians was regarded as an effective demoralising strategy — or, more and more, as the war dragged on, both.

Before the Blitz, Japan was one of the first countries to bomb civilians, most notably in Chiang Kai-shek’s relocated capital Chongqing from late 1938 onwards. Once the Allied forces, too, got started, they went all out — in Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, and many other cities, followed by a series of B-29 fire-bombings of Japan. Too few Japanese individuals nowadays, even those who whole-heartedly preach “No More Hiroshima”, remember that Tokyo sustained the biggest air-raid on the night of 9/10th March 1945: 80,000 to 100,000 people perished in one night.

This is not to minimise the exceptionally destructive power of the nuclear weapons or the subsequent moral controversy that emerged as radioactivity’s horrifying and long-lasting effects became known. It is only to stress that one cannot assume, from what we have learned since, that explicit calculations of an immoral or an even racist nature propelled the US decision to drop those atomic bombs on Japanese cities. While those calculations could have existed alongside more urgent strategic preferences. The foremost US priority in the summer of 1945 was to win the war with Japan through extensive bombing, be it incendiary or atomic.

By the time Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, more than 200 Japanese cities of various sizes had been bombed. Okinawa had fallen. And the civilian population had been thoroughly starved by a blockade of US-planted sea mines that prevented the transportation of food supplies. The prospect of a two-fronted invasion by the Soviet Union and the United States terrified the Japanese leadership. (Stalin was poised to declare war on Japan even before Hiroshima.) With the Soviet Union’s entry into the war on 9 August, Japan’s surrender was imminent. The atomic bombs might have influence the timing somewhat, but the fear of the Soviet invasion and a potential revolution were compelling enough reasons for Japan to give up the fight.

With more than 80% of Japan’s population having grown up in peacetime, war is understandably a remote notion. It is also understandable that for most of today’s Japanese, “peace” — or at the very least, the absence of war — feels like a sui generis condition given to them in response to their earnest prayers for it. But without an active political debate, based on a more balanced view of history, that peace might not last.