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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Gesture of Respect Helps Bury Historical Enmity: the case of the Okinawa flag

An 87-year-old former US serviceman, with help from his tenacious granddaughter, has returned an annotated Japanese flag to the son of its original owner who died during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Fought between the 1st April and the 22nd June 1945, the Battle of Okinawa effectively served as the final stand by Japan’s imperial forces against the advancing US Army, which had swept across the Pacific during the previous three years. The brutality of the fighting on Okinawa cemented in legend the refusal of Japanese troops to surrender in the face of almost certain defeat and helped encourage the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to draw the war to a swift conclusion.

A massive American invasion force was required to uproot the Japanese from Okinawa
A massive American invasion force was required to uproot the Japanese from Okinawa

Atrocities committed by both Japanese and American forces on Okinawa have been widely-reported in history books and realised in brutal clarity in many war movies. Fighting in often humid conditions across difficult terrain, the battle for survival was immense and resulted in approximately 95,000 Japanese deaths and over 10,000 American fatalities.

Given such a brutal confrontation, it could be expected that a lasting enmity would exist between American and Japanese people. However, this has not generally been the case and the efforts of the former serviceman to return the Okinawa flag to Japan is a testament to the spirit of reconciliation that has developed between the two countries.

The Okinawa Flag Source: Asahi Shimbun
The Okinawa Flag
Source: Asahi Shimbun

In 1995, the Cornerstone of Peace monument was built on Okinawa at Itoman and it commemorates the lives of over 240,000 people who perished during the brutal battle, irrespective of their nationality, military rank or social assignation. When one compares these attempts to bury the hatchet over the past – whilst learning from the mistakes made – with Japan’s lack of progress in reconciling its wartime actions with its East Asian neighbours, the difference could not be more stark.

American and Japanese politicians and people have a more or less shared understanding of their wartime conflict, from the attacks on Pearl Harbour to the dropping of the devastating atomic bombs. This understanding has no doubt been fostered by America’s integral role in rebuilding and “westernising” Japan in the immediate post-WWII period.

When it comes to China, South Korea, or any other Asian country occupied by Japanese forces during WWII, however, such a level of mutual agreement on what happened is sorely missing. The result of this inability to confront the past with honesty and sincerity is a persisting mistrust between Japan and East Asia which hinders regional interdependence and cooperation.

Such a simple gesture as returning a long-forgotten flag helps reconcile the past for former enemies and their descendants. Similar sentiments between Japan and its neighbours remain disappointingly absent.