The A-bomb Survivors’ Movement: The Past 50 Years, Dialogue 2 [2]

Reflecting on, remembering Hiroshima

Now that a majority of Japanese citizens have no firsthand knowledge of World War II, how should the A-bomb experience be interpreted and conveyed to future generations? In the second part of this dialogue [originally published in July 2006], conducted in connection with the 50th anniversary of the A-bomb survivors' movement, the Chugoku Shimbun spoke with two researchers, originally from Hiroshima, about their thoughts on peace: Yasuo Hasebe, 49, a constitutional scholar and professor at the Faculty of Law of Tokyo University, and Takumi Sato, 45, an expert on the history of media and an associate professor at the Graduate School of Kyoto University. The two exchanged views which crossed the bounds of conventional thinking on the challenge of remembering and giving meaning to the A-bomb experience of Hiroshima.

by Masami Nishimoto, Senior Staff Writer

The number of people who hold the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate in Japan is about 260,000. In the city of Hiroshima, with a population of 1.15 million, the number has fallen to 81,000, and their average age is 73. As the traces and memories of the atomic bombing fade, what must be done to anchor the experience of the bombing in our history and win the understanding of people of all generations and across national borders?

Hasebe: Strictly speaking, historical facts are often not exactly the same as memories. But with regard to the A-bomb experience, it doesn't matter if these memories are not the same as the facts. If some factors are present which prevent us from winning others' understanding, we should focus on giving meaning to the experience. If the atomic bombing is just interpreted as the worst example of an “anything goes” mentality in war, its significance will be limited. This is because there are rules to war. There should be a basic rule that human beings must not be used as mere instruments. As I have mentioned, is the United States justified in arguing that the atomic bombings were necessary for Japan's unconditional surrender? Is this logic acceptable for such justification?

Sato: If we remember the A-bomb experience of Hiroshima as a symbol of the war damage of Japan, this perspective will naturally clash with the memories of other nations. If Japan brings up the subject of Hiroshima, the United States will bring up Pearl Harbor, and China will bring up Nanjing, resulting in an exchange of symbols of damage. But personal memories or those memories that are shared by people of a certain area are not always identified with those of the whole nation. From a certain period of time, suggestions have been made that the wrongdoing pursued by Japan during the war should also be a subject of discussion. Now explanations of Japan's aggression are also on display at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (Note 8). But it is too simplistic, politically, to maintain that even the victims of the atomic bombings, as subjects of Japan at that time, are also aggressors of our Asian neighbors. Aggressors are nations; individuals suffer the damage.

Some people say that the Japanese are insensitive to what Japan did in the past, but I never see us as forgetful or insensitive. When responsibility for damage done in the war is brought up, it's often used as political rhetoric and as a way to silence A-bomb survivors who try to talk about their experiences. This is a negative effect of not making the distinction between the memories of a nation and personal memories, between public opinion and popular sentiment. If this continues, we will never engage in any genuine dialogue. There are ways for individuals to be empathetic toward one another regardless of which side they're on. When I say that Hiroshima should be removed from the national memory, it's partly because I believe that channels for empathy at the personal level are important.

Hasebe: I agree that we should distinguish opinion that is derived from sentiment. Not everyone can empathize with others at an emotional level. If we can successfully give meaning to memory in as universal a frame as possible, more people will begin to understand. But there are positive and negative repercussions to this. If the atomic bombing is considered an example of mass killing which disregards the basic principle that civilians must be distinguished from combatants, it will lose its singular nature. If it is viewed from a universal perspective in order to win more understanding, individuality at the emotional level will be lost. This is the price that must be paid.

Could you explain what you mean by “Hiroshima will lose its singular nature”?
Hasebe: Are nuclear weapons so singular? There are other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, and mass killings have occurred in such places as Tokyo and Dresden (Note 9). If we talk about Hiroshima in a way to win universal understanding, it will be interpreted as one of many cases of mass killing.

Sato: If Hiroshima were to lose its singular nature, this would not necessarily be negative. Singular events are not the only ones that history should record. I was pleased that one of my students recommended that I read “Yunagi no Machi, Sakura no Kuni” (“Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms”) by Fumiyo Kono (Note 10). This manga story conveys few overt political messages, but its inspiration is shared across generations and national borders. Its example may present one possibility.

On the subject of historical views, young people in Japan and China who do not have experience of war are speaking out with emotion through their written statements on the Internet. What should be learned from history and what are the messages that should be communicated?
Hasebe: People tend to stick to their own perspective of history. We should strive to understand the points of view of others, seeing things from their perspectives. It's important to understand that people may interpret things differently from you. In the words of the American philosopher Richard Rorty, each person has his own “final words.” Once these “final words,” or conclusive words, are spoken, he tends to become locked into a circular argument. Whatever messages were made by people in the past or in the present, he tends to interpret their statements as he wishes from his own point of view. It's vital to understand why others, with what sort of awareness, interpret the problem that way, regardless of your own viewpoint.

Sato: If we all consider our own experience as somehow sacred, there can be no dialogue between people of the war generation and those of post-war generations. If someone tells you that you shouldn't be talking about things that happened before you were born, you're left with nothing to say. Experience and history are different in nature. A historical perspective is ultimately a political perspective. Historical views and political perspectives are things that are developed intentionally from the constant clash between popular sentiment and public opinion. Discussing matters of justice and peace, without such efforts, would become unproductive.

Raising the idea of revising Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is no longer taboo. Mr. Hasebe has argued that altering Article 9 is unnecessary since it enables Japan to maintain the Self-Defense Forces. Still, many people in Hiroshima fear debate over its revision, feeling this is a threat to peace.
Hasebe: In my view, Article 9 does not forbid maintaining a minimal military force for the purpose of self-defense. If the clause is interpreted literally, there is a tendency to think that it prohibits force of any kind. But from a constitutional perspective, which distinguishes the personal from the public, a ban of this nature would not be justified. Interpretation of the law isn't a matter of right or wrong. You may say “Peace is a lofty ideal and to realize this ideal I will live unarmed, since this is the right way to live as a human being,” but you are speaking about your own will, which is a personal matter. The Constitution, though, is a framework designed to bring benefit to society as a whole; it's not something that formulates how human beings should live. If the Constitution cannot effectively protect people's lives and property, then it is unacceptable from the standpoint of its legal interpretation.

We should be cautious about some of the arguments made to amend the Constitution, since they attack the framework that was created after the war so that a variety of values can fairly coexist. On the other hand, if you view Article 9 as a principle which tells us how to live rightly as a human being, this would also be incompatible with the framework, in which a variety of values coexist in a fair manner. When our aim is to secure people's lives and property, which is a nation's greatest goal, we must be careful not to include disincentives to this goal in the Constitution. If we took on the task of amending Article 9, proposals should only be made after calmly considering whether or not the change would effectively contribute to the people's freedom and security. I sometimes come across arguments which would not meet that standard.

Feeling threats from China and North Korea, the tone of messages from the media has changed.
Sato: When I was engaged in joint research with Professor Yo Takeuchi [of Kansai University] and other researchers on Muneki Minoda, who sparked the pre-war attack against an interpretation of the emperor as an organ of government, one thing surprised me. The right wing, including Minoda, would never accept any interpretations of the Meiji Constitution that deviated from their own and they criticized the interpretation as a de facto amendment to the Constitution. That is to say the right wing were supporters of the Constitution before the war. Being intolerant to a certain range of interpretation is dangerous, even if the purpose is well-meant. The time before the war when the Constitution was questioned, as with the interpretation of the emperor, was a critical period. Making an issue out of the Constitution in particular will lead to a politically dangerous situation.

Also, is it sufficient for the media to simply report on political movements, whether seeking to protect or amend the Constitution? Now that the Internet is inundated with information, the most important function of the mass media, be it newspaper or television, is to assess which issues are appropriate for public debate and provide an arena for that discussion. The media must consider the sort of consequences that will be brought about when their coverage of the confrontation between the supporters of the Constitution and those seeking to revise it, who foment a crisis-like atmosphere for effect, is done in a dramatic fashion.

To close this interview, could you offer a message to your hometown of Hiroshima, the A-bombed city?
To sum up, the people of Hiroshima should convey a message that is based on as universal a framework as possible, bearing in mind the words and viewpoints that are understood by those outside of the city. Weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, must eventually be eliminated. But discussions should include consideration of how people outside Hiroshima view international relations and history as well as a review of the political significance of the appeals for nuclear abolition that were made by Hiroshima during the Cold War.

Sato: To make that message universal, paradoxical though it may be, it's important that the character of each speaker be distinct. There will be no universality if there is no originality. Simply incorporating what someone else has already said into your message will not leave an impression in the listener's heart. By abandoning commonplace peace appeals and reexamining the A-bomb experiences from scratch, you can expand the universality of your message to the outside world. When personal experience is tied to discussion, such as those held at United Nations plenary sessions, it leads instead to misunderstanding. To this point, the issue of Hiroshima has not been taken up in a satisfying way, and there's no denying that it has been used for political purposes. The situation must have suppressed some people’s feelings. Now is the time to get us back to the personal level and steadily pursue historicizing the memory on our own.

Yasuo Hasebe
Yasuo Hasebe is originally from Naka Ward, Hiroshima. He went to Shinonome Junior and Senior High Schools attached to Hiroshima University and graduated from Tokyo University’s Faculty of Law. After working as a professor at Gakushuin University, he assumed his present post in 1995. He has written such books as “Hikaku Funo na Kachi no Meiro” (“The Incomparable Labyrinth of Values”) published by University of Tokyo Press, “Kenpo to Heiwa wo Toinaosu” (“Raise the Question of Constitution and Peace Again”) published by Chikumashobo Ltd., and “Kenpo towa Nanika” (“What is the Constitution?”) published by Iwanami Shoten. Professor Hasebe is also a member of the Committee for Settling National-Local Disputes affiliated with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. He resides in Tokyo.

Takumi Sato
Takumi Sato is from Higashi Ward, Hiroshima. He attended Onaga Elementary School, Futaba Junior High School, and Kanon High School before graduating from Kyoto University’s Faculty of Letters. Prior to assuming his present post in 2004, he held several positions in academia, such as associate professor at Doshisha University. His “Kingu no Jidai” (“The Era of Kings”) published by Iwanami Shoten, won the Suntory Gakugeisho, a literary prize for academic books. Other works include “Hachigatsu Juugonichi no Shinwa” (“Myth of August 15”) published by Chikumashobo, Ltd., and “Media Shakai” (“Media Society”) published by Iwanami Shoten. He now resides in Kyoto.

Note 8: Display showing Japan as aggressor In 1987, prompted by requests from citizens' groups, the City of Hiroshima decided to add a display in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which questioned Japan’s responsibility for its aggression in Asia. The display, however, was criticized by China as insufficient.

Note 9: Number of victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima According to the estimate submitted by the City of Hiroshima to the United Nations in 1976, 140,000 people (including some 20,000 military personnel), plus or minus 10,000, were dead by the end of 1945. In the Great Tokyo Air Raids, in which B-29 bombers made indiscriminate attacks on Tokyo in March 1945, about 100,000 people lost their lives. In February 1945, British and American forces bombed Dresden and at least 30,000 people died.

Note 10: “Yunagi no Machi, Sakura no Kuni” (“Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms”) “Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms” is a manga story by Fumiyo Kono, who was born in Nishi Ward, Hiroshima. The story is a tranquil depiction of a woman living in Hiroshima ten years after the bombing and what happened later to her family. The story earned Ms. Kono the 2004 Japan Media Arts Festival Grand Prize in the Manga Division. It was made into a film, and shooting will take place in Hiroshima in August 2006.

(Originally published on July 18, 2006)

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The A-bomb Survivors’ Movement: The Past 50 Years, Dialogue 2 [1] (July 18, 2006)