TOKYO–A poll taken by a major newspaper and published on May 16 indicated that 93% of the Japanese approved of President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Hiroshima while only 3% disapproved. And the city of Hiroshima will give him a warm and wholehearted welcome when he arrives this Friday to lay floral offerings, accompanied by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the cenotaph that commemorates those who lost their lives when the United States dropped an atomic bomb.
This, despite the fact that the Japanese public has been told in no uncertain terms that Obama, like every American government official that has ever visited the site, will refrain from apologizing for the deed. True, there has been some grumbling in the lead-up to the event, albeit mostly from the political edges on the left and right. And a faint whiff of disappointment and resignation for the lack of an apology can be sensed, even among those who look forward to the event.
Even so, the visit is overwhelmingly, genuinely welcomed, as is, with no regrets. Indeed, one could argue that all this was foretold all the way back in 1952, when it was written on the cenotaph: “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil,” famously avoiding the assignment of specific responsibility. (The official Japanese version conveniently lacks a pronoun, further disembodying the source of the “evil.”
There are good reasons for this lack of hostility, or even resentment. For most Japanese, the Allied—mostly American—postwar occupation came across as benign beyond all imagination. True, the Cold War drove US calculations. But a genuine sense of charity and a determination to avoid seeking wanton revenge offered a stark contrast to the historical behavior of the typical victor, particularly after a hard-fought war with well-chronicled ill behavior on the part of the Japanese military. Given the good will built up during the occupation and the economic and security ties nurtured through the subsequent decades, it would be self-defeating and a little unreasonable to demand an apology that the other party will never be inclined to offer.
WWII Japan military’s role
Just as important, perhaps, if the Hiroshima victims were to come back to assign blame, they would first and foremost look much closer to home. There would have been no atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (or Nagasaki) if the Japanese military had not kept the Pacific War going beyond all hope, willing to take the Japanese people with it to oblivion in one last blast of glory. There would have been no Pacific War if the Japanese military had not sought to subjugate China, a war that even many so-called nationalists admit was a war of aggression. And there would not have been a war in China—well, not one with Japan as a principal—if Japan had not taken over Manchuria and installed a puppet regime there against the will of its Great Power peers.
The phantom fingers of blame would be pointed at the military, the political leaders who enabled them, and, perhaps not well-known outside of Japan, the mass media that served, often willingly, as their front runners and propaganda machine. Then there is the matter of the Japanese public. Most Japanese believed the stories that they were fed as the Imperial Army made their incursions through Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and beyond. They also continued to believe in them long after everything around them had begun to turn into rubbish and ruins, while others knew, but remained silent. This complicity, if mostly passive, on the part of the Japanese public as both victim and perpetrator surely must be a key factor in the welcome being afforded Obama’s no-regrets visit.
Obama’s unfulfilled call
But does Obama have nothing to apologize for? After all, this visit is first and foremost the other bookend for Obama’s 2008 Berlin speech, in which he delivered a call for “a world without nuclear weapons,” a speech that arguably played a meaningful role in his reception of what must be the biggest prepayment of a Nobel Peace Prize in history.
True, he did score a notable victory with the 2015 Iran deal. But as his second term draws to a close, the nuclear disarmament talks with Russia lies in tatters, while China blithely continues building up its nuclear arsenal (together with the rest of its military and security might). And another, openly hostile neighbor inches ever closer to nuclear power status. No, the evil has not been repeated, but his efforts to make sure we won’t have not had much effect. So perhaps Obama does have something to apologize for, on behalf of Putin, Xi, Kim, and all the other national leaders whose nations seem so reluctant to let go of the source of evil.
Jun Okumura is currently a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. He is a 30-year veteran of the Japanese civil service. During his career with the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry, he took part in several bilateral and multilateral negotiations, including UNCLOS II and and the Uruguay Round as the lead METI negotiator for trade in services. He headed METI’s Trade Finance Division during the Asian financial crisis. As president of JETRO New York, he worked with the Japanese consulate and business community to assist evacuated businesses and their employees in the aftermath of Sept. 11 2001.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.