Kerry in Landmark Hiroshima Visit: Lesson for China as US-Japan Relationship Shines

John Kerry has become the first US Secretary of State to visit the Hiroshima Peace Park memorial in Japan, which commemorates the approximately 140,000 people killed when the Enola Gay became the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb against a human target.

Hiroshima in ruins
Hiroshima in ruins

The decision of Harry Truman and his commanders to launch ‘Little Boy’ from the hold of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress on the 6th August 1945 has remained one of the most controversial turning points in history.  The Americans – and their allies – saw the deployment of the atomic weapon as the only way to force Tokyo to surrender, a concept completely anathema to Japanese culture.  Others decried the devastation of a city and the deaths of so many innocent civilians.

There has been an almost respectful quiet between Tokyo and Washington over the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which took place on the 9th August 1945 and resulted in some 50,000 civilian deaths – since WWII.  The Americans have been careful not to act in any way that would signal an apology for what they deemed a necessary, if tragic, act of war.  The Japanese, meanwhile, have generally not followed the Chinese example of demanding unending apologies for wartime aggression. 

The Eisenhowers welcome Crown Prince Akihito and his wife Michiko to the White House
The Eisenhowers welcome Crown Prince Akihito and his wife Michiko to the White House

Of course, Japan was heavily-reliant on the USA post-WWII for its reconstruction and economic redevelopment, as well as its security and reintegration into the international community. It has therefore not been in the interests of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – the almost perpetual rulers of post-War Japan – to antagonise the Americans by demanding an apology for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Rather, the spectre of the atomic bombings has created a positive bind in US-Japanese relations, whereby both countries are committed to preventing any similar event from occurring again.  Indeed, Japan is probably the staunchest non-proliferation state in the world, and the USA has made it a primary focus of its foreign policy to prevent nuclear proliferation, particularly with regards to so-called ‘rogue states’ such as Iran and North Korea.

Kerry’s visit is therefore unlikely to have any significant impact on policy, and is rather just another symbolic gesture proffered by the Obama administration during its final days in office.  Indeed, reports suggest that the President himself may visit Hiroshima next month.

Whereas the legacy of WWII has created an almost impenetrable barrier for normalising Sino-Japanese relations, it has ironically served as a platform for creating the most enduring alliance in the Asia-Pacific; the Japan-US relationship.  Despite fighting some of the most bloody battles in modern history and wreaking almost untold devastation on each other, Tokyo and Washington have adopted a pragmatic approach to reconciliation that is a testament to their responsible, global leadership. Mr Kerry’s visit will only serve to reinforce this view.

Japan was forced into a humiliating surrender after the atomic bombings, yet this has not prevented the development of positive contemporary alliance with the USA
Japan was forced into a humiliating surrender after the atomic bombings, yet this has not prevented the development of positive contemporary alliance with the USA

Whilst the atrocities of the past should never be overlooked – and Japan has apologised for the behaviour of its troops in China between 1937 and 1945 whatever Beijing might say – China needs to be similarly mature if it is to equate its economic might with diplomatic ascendancy, thereby elevating itself to become a true ‘global leader’, which at the moment it cannot be considered.

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Warship Unveiled: Changing Japan in Rare Show of Military Prestige

Yesterday, Japan unveiled its largest warship since WWII, the 250m long destroyerIzumo. Capable of carrying nine helicopters, it is at the forefront of global naval capability and yet it can only be deployed in a ‘defensive’ capacity.

Decked in the colour's of Japan's defence forces, the Izumo is a mighty specimen
Decked in the colour’s of Japan’s defence forces, the Izumo is a mighty specimen

That is because, due to Article 9 of its post-WWII constitution, Japan is forbade from developing offensive military capabilities. This was designed to prevent a repeat of the ferocious imperialism that led Japanese forces to rampage across the Pacific in a bid for regional hegemony during WWII.

Indeed, it is the aptly-titled Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) that forms the country’s sole military firepower. Despite its nominally defensive nature, the potential of the JSDF is nevertheless devastating and there are increasing calls from within Japan, and amongst Shinzo Abe’s LDP government, to think about revising the restrictive constitution.

Japan's unique peace clause
Japan’s unique peace clause

These calls are increasing primarily because of the assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy in recent months, particularly with regards to disputed islands in the East China Sea. Senkaku to Japan, Diaoyu to China, the islands are controlled by the Japanese but have been subjected to frequent sovereign incursions by Chinese maritime forces keen to show that they have not given up on possession of the territory. The fact that the islands supposedly surround a resource-rich ocean adds to the tension.

Last year, it was China that caught international headlines with the unveiling of its first aircraft carrier, the Soviet-upgraded Liaoning. Martial pomp from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is far more common than with its Japanese counterparts, yet the floating of the Liaoning was undoubtedly a major signal of Chinese intentions and power-projection capabilities.

The Liaoning is a major statement of Chinese power
The Liaoning is a major statement of Chinese power

It seems little coincidence that the unveiling of the Izumo coincided with the 68th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, which effectively sealed Japan’s fate in WWII, ending imperialist nationalism and ushering in a period of enforced pacifism.

The choice of the date to show the Izumo to the world is pertinent. It could easily be interpreted as a statement by Japan’s government that the era of restraint is over. China’s incisions into Japanese territory have convinced the LDP that the Izumo can be legitimately deployed for ‘defensive’ operations, yet some argue that it has the potential to be converted into an aircraft carrier capable of supporting far-flung offensive military ventures.

China is likely to regard the Izumo with suspicion given its subjection in the past to the worst facets of Japanese imperialism.

If ‘Abenomics’-inspired economic recovery continues, and the Japanese Prime Minister proceeds to foster the nationalism he is renowned for, we may become used to seeing more displays of Japan’s naval potential.

It will be on the day that the constitution is amended, however, and Article 9 revoked for good, that Japan’s regional neighbours will start to panic.