August in Japan

A little something we published in Japan Echo in 2005, the sixtieth year after the end of the war. I like to revisit it when August rolls around.

Remembering Hiroshima

August has arrived. Soon Hiroshima will commemorate the anniversary of its atomic bombing. At 8:15 in the morning on August 6, a call for silent prayer will be intoned, and the Peace Bell will be struck. It is a moment that aways makes my heart heavy.

My father was originally from Hiroshima, and when I was a child, I always spent the summer there. My grandparents’ house went up in flames in the bombing, and my grandmother had a keloid scar from a burn on her arm. An aunt and a cousin had miraculously survived the impact. A number of more distant relatives had died, along with many other people connected with my father, such as his teachers. So the atomic bombing felt close to home.

Even so, the annual memorial ceremony leaves me with a strange feeling. Especially when a pair of elementary school students come forward and declaim a pledge of peace with an artificial intonation, I find it almost too much to bear. I am not upset with the schoolboy and schoolgirl delivering the pledge but with the adults who have them do so.

Why does this bother me? There are a number of reasons. For one thing, I wonder if the victims of the atomic bombing are so special. To be sure, the bomb probably killed more people in a stroke than any other event in human history. Furthermore, almost all of them were ordinary civilians. The dropping of an A-bomb on Hiroshima and of another on Nagasaki a few days later indubitably constituted a pair of truly extraordinary horrors. But history is full of horrors. Some 50 million people were killed in World War II as a whole. Nazi Germany slaughtered some 6 million Jews. The Japanese also killed and were killed in large numbers. And in the prewar through postwar years, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong are said to have caused the deaths of tens of millions of their own people. In our own day people continue to suffer horrible deaths, whether from human-caused troubles in places like Africa and North Korea or in natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami. Are the A-bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki really that special by comparison with the countless victims of other horrors?

Another point that bothers me about the memorial ceremony is the sense of seeking justice that is an undercurrent running through it. Most Japanese have become tired of hearing China’s relentless demands for Japan to take responsibility for its past misdeeds. I certainly have. Yes, Japan hurt China. And we have apologized time and again. So the Chinese should stop their insistent refrain. I feel this all the more when I see signs that the demands are driven by a political agenda. But wait a moment. Here in Japan, every summer we express our “special feelings as the nation that suffered atomic bombing.” Is this not similar to the sense of victimization that China keeps expressing toward our country?

One of my American friends, who is Jewish, has told me of feeling a similar sort of discomfort with the ongoing emphasis of some other Jews on the Holocaust. Nobody questions the horror of the slaughter that the Jews suffered. But the more today’s Jews go on about it, the more they seem to be setting themselves up as “special.” And some day this may cause them once again to become isolated. This is my friend’s fear.

The final point that troubles me is the fact that 60 years have passed since the A-bombs were dropped in 1945. This may be a short span by some standards. But it is long enough that the vast majority of today’s Japanese are people with no direct experience of World War II. The dropping of the A-bombs has become an abstract historical event. Some say that is precisely why we must strive to keep the memory alive. They are probably quite right. But nothing softens human sadness as much as the passage of time. Perhaps a period of 60 years is not enough, but it does represent a milestone of sorts.

Death, in my mind, is a very personal and religious matter. The horror of the A-bombs should not be measured in the numbers of people they killed. The same goes for all the deaths caused by the war. In that light, now that six decades have elapsed since the war ended, shouldn’t we be able to console the spirits of the war dead in a quieter manner? Memorial ceremonies for the A-bomb victims are fine. Visits to Yasukuni Shrine to pray for the war dead are fine too. But when it comes to talking about the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the deaths in Nanjing, or the deaths elsewhere, I wish that those on the left and those on the right—along with the mass media, including this newspaper—would refrain from trying to push their particular views on the rest of us.

On the evening of August 6, when all the official commemorative observances are over, countless small paper lanterns are set afloat on a river in Hiroshima. The sight of all their lights reflected in the river as they flow downstream etched itself deeply into my memory as a child. August also brings the Bon festival, during which the spirits of the dead are believed to visit their families. I hope that, as we commune silently with these spirits, we can both reflect on the past and at the same time affirm our modest hopes for the future. (Agawa Naoyuki, Professor, Keiō University)

Translated from “Sengo 60 nen no tōwaku,” Mainichi Shimbun, August 3, 2005. (Courtesy of the Mainichi Newspapers)