• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Hiroshima bombing anniversary

    Tomorrow morning is the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. I can’t really think of anything better to say about the attack itself than what I said last year. I’m not big on self-quoting, but if you don’t feel like clicking through:

    When I think of people immediately after the bombings, their faces obliterated by heat, expending their little remaining energy to bow in gratitude for the water volunteers brought to their lips (one of the most famous A-bomb memorials is inscribed with 水, the character for “water,” because that’s what so many victims cried out for), my heart aches. The same when…you know, bodies of water feature very prominently in Japanese literature, as they do the world over, as sources of refreshment and sustenance. Imagining people set afire, stampeding into rivers and lakes to cool themselves, only to find the water boiling hot, makes me cry. As an American who places the highest value on individuals, I wish we hadn’t had to cause such suffering to anyone at all who wasn’t irredeemably evil.

    But we did have to. Emperor Hirohito was ready to surrender, but he had military leaders who were plotting to intercept his proclamation, and no one on the American side could be sure how long rank-and-file Japanese soldiers and citizens would keep fighting. That there were other, more unsavory motivations for dropping the atom bomb (such as scientific curiosity about its effects) is hard to dispute. There probably isn’t any such thing as a guileless decision during wartime, for that matter. I wish the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs a peaceful eternal rest as much as anyone. But I’m glad America did what it took to win.

    I do think that, given the political controversies over Japan’s attitudes toward its wartime conduct, there are one or two additional general points that might be made. Dean links to a post by Riding Sun about the history textbook debate that presents a good overview of the teaching content and the back-and-forth of the debate. Something that’s worth bearing in mind, though, is this: the teachers’ unions, especially the Japan Teachers’ Union, are leftist. While their rank-and-file members tend to be not so extreme as the labor leadership, the average public school teacher is hardly a raving nationalist. When it’s the teachers who express political views, you often get stories like this one.

    It’s those teachers through whom whatever is said in the textbook is mediated in the classroom. Among the Japanese friends with whom I frequently have frank political discussions, many (including Atsushi) say that their teachers tended to skip the chapters in their history books about the period after the Russo-Japanese War. I mean, you figure, it would have been discussed at the end of the year, and it shouldn’t be hard to pace the class so that it runs out of time before uncomfortable subjects come up. I’m not sure how cram schools treat World War II; it seems unlikely that the entrance exams contain many questions about the period. The Japanese way of dealing with awkwardness is to ignore it, after all.

    I certainly do not condone this. A balanced view of one’s culture must include the bad with the good, and the way a civilization becomes world-class is by doing extreme things on a grand scale, so there’s going to be plenty of bad to discuss. That’s no less true of Japan than of any other country, including the former colonial powers of the West. I think, however, that when only the nationalist textbooks are discussed, there’s a danger of leaving the impression that millions of students across Japan are actually sitting in rows being harangued: “How did our troops get into Manchuria, class?” “By advancing into it, Sensei!” The missing part of that picture is that the lefties in the JTU favored the hard-pacifist line pretty uncritically for years–including not only acceptance of responsibility for wrong-doing doing the occupation of Asia but also the advocating of monetary restitution for individual Asian war victims. I’m not happy to see ultra-nationalists clamoring to swing the pendulum all the way to the opposite side, but it’s not as if they’d just awakened one morning and decided to do so unprovoked. Unfortunately, people with more moderate views and a pride in their country tempered by realism tend to keep silent when the topic comes up in public.

    Added on 6 August: I edited the above a bit for clarity–I’d originally not planned to post it before this morning, but I clicked on the button before I realized what I was doing.

    While I’m at it, one more point about liberal arts education: it isn’t the goal of the Japanese educational system. While I’m happy to join Riding Sun in saying that’s a problem, I don’t think that the nature of the problem is that the Japanese public education machine is aiming for an American-style liberal arts system and misfiring because the far right is getting in the way. Just about everyone wants to tell the students what to think–not just the nationalists but also the teachers’ unions and the Ministry of Education. (Well, now it’s the Ministry of [deep breath] Culture, Education, Sports, Science and Technology. Plans to have a partridge in a pear tree added remain unconfirmed as I post this, perhaps because they’re already under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.) There are education researchers and policy makers who favor a liberal arts curriculum as we would understand it, but the majority only disagree on what the students should be fed, not whether they should be force-fed ideas at all. The education establishment has mouthed things about liberal arts models because of the US occupation after the war, but like everything else that gets imported, they have been transformed according to the perceived needs of Japanese society.

    Added at 7 a.m.: Okay, one more thought. This is a passage from the end of Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword , written soon after the end of the war:

    What the United States cannot do–what no outside nation could do–is to create by fiat a free, democratic Japan. It has never worked in any dominated country. No foreigner can decree, for a people who have not his own habits and assumptions, a manner of life after his own image. The Japanese cannot be legislated into accepting the authority of elected persons and ignoring ‘proper station’ as it is set up in their hierarchical system. They cannot be legislated into adopting the free and easy human contacts to which we are accustomed in the United States, the imperative demand to be independent, the passion each individual has to choose his own mate, his own job, the house he will live in and the obligations he will assume. The Japanese themselves, however, are quite articulate about changes in this direction which they regard as necessary. Their public men have said since V-J-Day that Japan must encourage its men and women to live their own lives and to trust their own consciences. They do not say so, of course, but any Japanese understands that they are questioning the role of ‘shame’ (haji) in Japan, and that they hope for a new growth of freedom among their countrymen: freedom from fear of the criticism and ostracism of ‘the world.’

    Benedict has taken a drubbing in succeeding decades, often justifiably, for her generalizations about the rigidity of Japanese society, which were excessive even then. But she was right about a great deal, too. We bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki because we had to, but once Japan knew it had been crushed, it responded as it always does by adapting. Like any living civilization, Japan is a work in progress, but the overall progression over the last 60 years has been toward more liberty, and it has mostly been the Japanese themselves who have accomplished that.

    4 Responses to “Hiroshima bombing anniversary”

    1. asiapundit says:

      60 years ago

      Sixty years on the debate continues ove

    2. Dean's World says:


      Sean has more to say that’s worth reading.

    3. Dean's World says:


      Sean has more to say that’s worth reading.

    4. Riding Sun says:

      Indoctrination, not education

      The Japan Times reported last week that Tokyo has decided to use a controversial new history textbook criticized for whitewashing Ja…

    Leave a Reply