Home History The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
Apologies and Denunciations, 1989-1996
Emperor Hirohito became seriously ill in September 1988, prompting television programs and newspapers to report his condition daily, including changes in his temperature and pulse. When the emperor fell into critical condition on January 7, 1989, all the broadcasting stations in Japan began airing special programs on the history of “Showa,” his reign since 1928. The special media coverage continued through January 8 when the emperor died.
Ever since SCAP and Japanese leaders had shielded the emperor from prosecution at the Tokyo Trial, it had been taboo to openly question his responsibility for the Asia-Pacific War. The special programs that aired between January 7 and 8, too, focused on positive aspects of the emperor’s reign. Nevertheless, the emperor’s imminent death had prompted a small number of Japanese citizens to critically revisit the Showa period. In 1988, NGOs across Japan organized symposiums and seminars to explore the emperor’s war responsibility. These NGOs included pacifists critical of the emperor’s role in the war, activists who questioned Japanese mass media for emphasizing positive aspects of the emperor’s reign, as well as Christians who feared that funeral ceremonies following the emperor’s death would marginalize non-Shinto religious minorities in Japan.1
Among these critical voices, one in Nagasaki City stirred a nationwide controversy. At the Nagasaki City Council in December 1988, JCP member Shibata Sunao asked LDP mayor Motoshima Hitoshi, “Do you think we could have avoided the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki if the emperor had decided to end the war sooner?” In his response, Motoshima acknowledged that the emperor could have done so and stated, “In light of my experience of serving in the military and involving in military education, I think the emperor shares war responsibility (senso sekinin).”2 Moto- shima’s statement infuriated his fellow LDP members and right-wing organizations. The LDP Nagasaki Prefectural Association immediately demanded that Motoshima retract his statement. Members of right-wing organizations also came to Nagasaki City Hall en masse, used loud speakers to denounce Motoshima, and sent him several death threats.
Yet, Motoshima maintained his position. After barely surviving an assassination attempt, he spoke at the 1990 Peace Memorial Ceremony and called for “apologies” (shazai) to “Korean and Chinese people who were forcibly taken to Japan, treated inhumanely under Japan’s brutal colonial rule, and killed by the atomic bomb.”3 This was the first time either Nagasaki or Hiroshima City had officially commemorated foreign A-bomb victims in relation to Japan’s past wrongdoings. In August 1991, Hiraoka Takashi, a former ChUgoku shinbun reporter newly elected as Hiroshima City mayor, followed Motoshima’s example and stated, “Japan caused enormous sufferings and sorrows among people in Asia-Pacific through its colonial rule and war. We are sorry for it (moushiwakenaku omou).”4 In his 1991 peace declaration, Motoshima went further to commemorate Japan’s past wrongdoings in greater detail: “Our country had forcefully annexed Korea, waged the Fifteen-Year War in China, and fought the Pacific War that led to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and, eventually, Japan’s defeat. We must reflect on these wars with the feeling of remorse from the bottom of our heart. We must also pray for both Japanese and foreign victims and think about how we can offer atonement.”5
Importantly, it was not only the critically minded mayors, Hiraoka and Motoshima, who transformed the official commemoration of the atomic bombings. The transformation was also prompted by residents in the two cities that had participated in the transnational network to demand that the Japanese government commemorate South Korean and Chinese victims. Such demand was intensifying as the fiftieth anniversary of the Asia-Pacific War’s end approached. For example, NGOs supporting A-bomb victims organized multiple symposiums on Japan’s past wrongdoings in Hiroshima in summer 1990, one year after the emperor’s death. One of the symposiums was hosted by the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs (Gensuikin) affiliated with the JSP. At the symposium, Iwamatsu Shigetoshi, a Japanese A-bomb victim from Nagasaki, bowed his head and offered a “deep apology”
(fukai owabi) to foreign victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings. He explained that he had come to realize that “without thorough self-criticism of Japan’s atrocious crime, the invasion of the Asia-Pacific, our antinuclear movement would be a sham.”6
The death of the emperor thus reinforced the commemorations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that tried to atone for Japan’s past wrongdoings. At the same time, these cosmopolitan commemorations of foreign victims were stimulated by the end of the Cold War that created the optimistic atmosphere for greater international cooperation as well as complicated Japan’s relations with South Korea and China.
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