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Continued: Calling America, from Asia: A dispatch from Japan

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 18, 2014 - 7:18 PM

“We have repeatedly expressed our feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apologies,” said Ishihara. It’s not only Japan that’s trying to close the reopened wounds. Obama hastily arranged a meeting between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the recent nuclear security summit at The Hague.

But Japanese feelings about the past are complex. Japan’s top box-office hit earlier this year was “The Eternal Zero,” a sympathetic portrait of a Kamikaze pilot. A more heated national conversation — and international condemnation — was sparked when Abe made a pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war dead, including 14 “Class-A war criminals,” are memorialized. Along with sharp rebukes from China, South Korea and other nations that suffered under Japan’s cruel occupation, the visit even drew criticism — or a frank exchange, in diplomatic parlance — from the United States.

Visiting on a drizzly day, I found the Shinto shrine more somber than martial — at least compared to the adjoining museum, which displayed a gleaming Zero among other Japanese military artifacts.

Regardless, Abe made a mistake with his visit, enflaming an already tense situation.

Self-described foreign-policy “realists” like Michishita thought it ill-advised, too. He describes two schools of thought in Japan over re-examining the nation’s role in the world.

One group, he says, wants a pacifist, even isolationist nation that focuses on economic revival. After all, most are still suffering from Japan’s so-called “lost decade” of deflation, described as “not so much an economic phenomenon as a psychological one” by Tomohiko Taniguchi, who advises Abe on economics as a member of the Cabinet Secretariat.

The other group urges a growing global role, Michishita said. But he added that a split within the latter cohort is crucial, with each subset favoring reinterpretation of the constitution, but for different reasons.

“Internationalists” want to see Japan become more of a full partner within the international community and multilateral institutions. “Nationalists” want a more assertive and less apologetic Japan, based on a more patriotic sentiment.

Abe, he believes, belongs to the second group.

Long view from Hiroshima

In Hiroshima, a different kind of shrine tells a different kind of war-era story. There, the iconic “Atomic Dome,” a U.N. World Heritage Site, is one of the few remaining structures from Aug. 6, 1945, bearing witness to the horrors of war gone nuclear. Under gray, solemn skies, the untouched rubble and naked steel girders are somber reminders of a war that still seems to be roiling the region. The dome, and Hiroshima itself, have become global symbols for the nonproliferation movement.

“Hiroshima is a city which has been pulling for the total abolition of nuclear weapons, which are an absolute evil,” said Kazumi Matsui, mayor of Hiroshima and president of Mayors for Peace, a global nonproliferation movement whose membership includes St. Paul and Minneapolis. Matsui’s a realist about the region and the global proliferation pressures. But he takes the long view — the really long view — when he says that the nuclear age “is such a short moment in the long history of human beings. When more policymakers can build a world on the foundation of mutual trust, then the world will move toward one without nuclear weapons.”

The beginning of this “brief moment” changed the long lives of survivors I spoke to. Each told harrowing stories about how as children or young adults they happened to survive a blast that killed most others, and how as adults they have dedicated their lives to abolishing nukes. Each seemed wary, and weary, about the region’s renewed bellicosity.

Sunao Tsuboi said that before the war he got “the wrong education” and was a “right-wing person who adored the emperor.” Now, the dignified Tsuboi is co-chair of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization. When asked about the constitutional issue, he said, “I want to say ‘wake up’ to the government.” On the region he added that, “Being nationalistic can be dangerous. Everyone has to think about borderless countries.”

Tsuboi isn’t alone in his idealism, at least in Hiroshima. As opposed to naiveté, it’s necessary for some confronted with so many daily reminders of nuclear war. Ironically, their sentiments could be a model for other Asian nations newly enraged over memories of Japan’s wartime misdeeds.

“This city was completely devastated,” said Mayor Matsui. “We had every right to hold a grudge and hate the ones who did this to us. However, we did not do it. We are showcasing how we can forgive the mistake and be friends. If we can do this, then everyone else can emulate us. It’s the mission of the city to keep saying this.”

Obama, for his part, will have many missions on this week’s trip. He’ll try to reassure allies, and to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation trade pact that’s viewed by many in Japan as not just economic policy, but foreign policy. But as he turns to Asia, Obama’s most important mission is to help stop the region from pivoting toward war once more.


  • related content

  • The East China Sea: A Chinese coast guard vessel, top, sailed along a Japanese coast guard ship near the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. It has been reported that the U.S. Navy believes China is preparing for a “short, sharp war.”

  • Hiroshima: The horrors of war are remembered tangibly. Here, a woman released a paper lantern near the “Atomic Dome,” one of the few remaining structures from Aug. 6, 1945.

  • Narushige Michishita: The director of an international studies program, he believes that the rise of China and relative decline of the U.S. and Japan contribute to tensions.

  • Sunao Tsuboi: A survivor on the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, he believes that “being nationalistic can be dangerous. Everyone has to think about borderless countries.”

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