Decades after the war’s end, Obama steps into Asia’s history debates in Hiroshima.
Though the end of World War II may seem part of the distant past (Japan formally surrendered seventy-one years ago today) the cultural and political legacy of that conflict still looms large over the international stage, particularly in Asia. President Barack Obama’s visit this past May to Hiroshima did more than pay homage to the victims of the atomic bombing carried out by the United States more than seven decades ago. The President also stepped into the complex and often treacherous realm of wartime historical memory.
Memories of wartime events among the combatants of the war are fractured and contested.
Memories of wartime events among the combatants of the war are fractured and contested—Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Americans have formed almost distinct narratives of the war and its meaning. And even within those societies, there are rivaling accounts and understandings of the past. These divergent memories explain why wartime history issues remain a catalyst for conflict in the region, where political leaders use this history to mobilize nationalist feelings.
The current impasse in regional relations facing Northeast Asia today demands a commitment to confronting the corrosive nationalism fed by unresolved issues of history. Disregarding the tragic, the regrettable, and the darker chapters of the past means not only an evasion of historical accountability but also a missed opportunity to learn from history; Germany’s failure to learn from its defeat in the First World War led to the rise of Nazism and World War II.
This lesson is particularly important for Japan, a country whose own narrative of the wartime past has selectively emphasized certain aspects over others. Bellicose actions against its neighbors in East Asia, for instance, tend to feature less prominently in Japanese recollections of the war than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This critical event, the first-ever use of nuclear weapons in wartime, is also a prime example of contesting versions of the wartime past. While the bare facts of what happened there, such as the scale of casualties, are well-established, historical memories of the bombings and their ramifications are at odds among the wartime participants. For most Americans, the bombing remains a justified, if morally troubling, act of war. It was necessary to bring a long and brutal conflict to a quick end, and avoid the much greater loss of life, both American and Japanese, that would have accompanied an invasion of the home islands. For Japan, its status as the first and only target of atomic weapons is the foundation of post-war pacifism and of a claim to victimization that avoids the issue of Japan’s own responsibility for aggression.
For China and Korea, however, there is little sympathy for Japan as a victim. In the interviews we conducted for our book, Divergent Memories, elite opinion makers in those two countries were almost universal in supporting the American decision to use the atomic bomb. Some went beyond that to celebrate the devastating attack that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians as a justified act of retaliation for Japan’s aggression.
It is not too surprising that Japanese “choose” to remember the bombing of Hiroshima while downplaying their own aggression in Asia. For Japanese wartime memories, events in and around China and Korea play only a secondary, if not exactly minimal, role compared to events involving the United States. Conversely, the atomic bombings of Japanese cities and their aftermath are omitted from South Korean history textbooks, and most Koreans do not know that many fellow Koreans, being forced laborers in Japan at the time, were victims of the bombings as well.
Because of this clash of narratives, many Chinese and Koreans worried that a commemorative visit from the U.S. president to Hiroshima would make it even easier for Japan’s conservative leaders to avoid painful issues of wartime history with its neighbors. For this reason, many opinion leaders in China argued that the Japanese prime minister should visit Nanjing to pay respects to the victims of Japanese aggression before the U.S. president went to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Bu Ping, a well-known historian who headed the Chinese delegation to the China-Japan Joint History Research Committee, told us that “it is fine for the U.S. president to go [to Hiroshima or Nagasaki], but I think it is inappropriate for him to go there and apologize until Japan thoroughly apologizes [to the Chinese] for its own actions.” Likewise, South Koreans feel that before the United States shows contrition to Japan, the Japanese must first offer apologies, backed by sincere action, to its former colonies.
The President clearly understood he had to navigate a political and philosophical minefield. He could not second guess the decision taken by his predecessor, President Harry Truman, to use atomic weapons, one taken in the heat of a global war then heading into its fifth year for the United States. Apology, or even the hint of it, was out of the question. The President also could not appear to ignore the suffering of others in the war, particularly those who were Japan’s wartime foes.
Obama’s artfully crafted address precisely avoided any statement of apology. In mourning the dead, he took care to pay respect not only to the Japanese men, women and children who perished but also the “thousands of Koreans” and a dozen American prisoners who died in the attack. He made brief but eloquent reference to many victims of the war, those who were “shot, beaten, marched, bombed, jailed starved, gassed to death,” some of them at the hands of the Japanese military. And though the President and his advisors were mindful of avoiding too open an endorsement of the Hiroshima memorial’s tale of victimization, while navigating the perilous shoals of competing wartime memories, Obama inevitably lent credence to the Japanese self-image of victimization and to the pacifist belief system associated with that image.
Ironically, however, the visit’s greater effect may be to shore up the conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and enable it to pursue, with American encouragement, the repudiation of Japan’s post-war pacifism. If the visit remains only a moment, admittedly a powerful one, in the ongoing reconciliation between two wartime foes turned allies, it would send a troubling message to those who were on the pointed end of Japanese aggression in Asia. The negative reaction in China and Korea to the visit had a ritualistic quality and, by the standards of previous rhetoric surrounding wartime history, relatively mild. In Korea there was a conscious effort not to overreact to the visit, not least out of deference to its American allies. But if the President’s visit is not followed by further steps, it could work to undermine progress toward reconciliation in the region.
President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima thus illustrates the need to understand the divergent memories of the war that continue to bedevil Asia.
The President’s visit should serve as an example for Japan as well. If the American president can make the pilgrimage to Hiroshima, and acknowledge the suffering that took place at American hands, then why can’t the Japanese leader undertake a similar gesture of reconciliation at the memorial to those killed by Japanese invaders in Nanjing or to personally apologize to a gathering of former so-called “comfort women” in Seoul?
President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima thus illustrates the need to understand the divergent memories of the war that continue to bedevil Asia, and the perils of ignoring the importance of pursuing true reconciliation. The President demonstrated political courage in breaking the historical taboo against such a visit. Despite the advice of those who warned of the risk of political backlash, the President correctly understood that the United States, as a nation, was ready to face its past. Now it is time for the leaders of Japan, China and Korea, with the ongoing involvement of the United States, to take the next steps toward reconciliation.