Why Must Japan Apologize for War While the United States Has Not Apologized for the Atomic Bombing?: Reply to a Young Japanese 
TAKAHASHI Tetsuya, Associate Professor, The University of Tokyo.
Uploaded on 25 July 2001.



The Logic that halts the questioning of US responsibility
Perspective on the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
International Trends in Investigating War Responsibility


The Logic that halts the questioning of US responsibility

When the question "Why is Japan the only one that has to apologize?" is asked, often "apologizing to whom for what" is left ambiguous. First, we must make this point clear. 

From the close of the nineteenth century through the Second World War, Japan invaded Asian countries. It ruled over colonies. It committed a variety of inhumane acts. Now the apology that is demanded of Japan is mainly in reference to these wrongdoings. Besides, issues such as maltreatment of prisoners of war remain unsettled in Japan's relations with Great Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, and so forth. Whatever the case, a debate that does not clarify "responsibility to whom for what" merely leads to confusion. 

Now, questions such as the following are often asked: "If Europe and the United States have not apologized for colonial domination, why must Japan alone apologize for the colonial rule over Korea and Taiwan?" "If the military of all countries does more or less the same thing, why should Japan alone apologize for its behavior during war?" 

It is true that Japan was not the only one to invade, to colonize, and to commit war crimes. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unmistakably a war crime; and I believe the United States must bear the burden of responsibility. However, just because that is the case does not mean that Japan is exempt from responsibility for its war crimes. 

When people say, "Other countries did it, so why only Japan?" are they arguing that no country can evade responsibility for its colonial rule and war crimes, or do they mean, "Since other countries did it, there's no reason to investigate Japan's responsibility"? This is a crucial difference we ought to reflect on within ourselves first. If the latter is in fact what is meant, then we can no longer inquire into the responsibility of other countries for acts such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We would have to acknowledge that there is no need for America to apologize for the war crimes it committed. 

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait triggered off the Gulf War in 1991. In the face of criticism from international society, President Hussein argued, "Israel's occupation of Palestine is virtually accepted by most of the Western countries. Why are we the only ones criticized?" The Arab nations applauded loudly. There are reasons for the Arabs' anti-Israeli, anti-European, and anti-American sentiment, but it is clear that President Hussein's logic is faulty. In attempting to legitimize his own behavior through the example of Israel, President Hussein in effect gave legitimacy to Israel's actions. 

Similarly, people who say, "Britain, France and the Netherlands had colonies, so Japan's colonial rule should also be accepted," are in fact giving recognition to the British, French, and Dutch colonial empires. Obviously, there is a contradiction here because it is precisely such people who would want to assert that "The reason Japan fought was to curb European and American colonization of Asia." 

Colonial domination, whether British, French, Dutch or Japanese, is all unjust. As Japan's "army comfort women," the Nanking massacre, and Unit 731 which carried out bio-medical experiments on live subjects in China violated international law, so did America's dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What we really need is to construct a logical foundation on which to debate these issues critically.

Furthermore, it is sometimes said, "Instead of clinging forever to the past, we should proceed with an eye to the future." Yet it is because the problems of the past have not been resolved that we cannot turn towards a better future. If we simply brush aside the invasions, colonization and war crimes of the past without clearly establishing responsibility, we will be unable to hold aggressors accountable for similar crimes should they be repeated. Similarly, unless the United States is criticized for dropping the atomic bombs, the same sort of tragedy might happen again.

Thus, what is being asked here is actually "What sort of future will we choose?" If we say, "Well, everyone did it," without investigating who is responsible for aggression, colonization and war crimes, then, in the future, we will have a society that ends up accepting these sorts of acts. For this not to come true, we must make clear judgments that these past acts were wrong. We must clarify responsibility.

Perspective on the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The US dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a war crime. Unless we soundly denounce this act, we cannot aim for a world without nuclear weapons.

However, in thinking about this problem, there are four points we ought to bear in mind.

First, the war with the United States took place as a result of Japan's invasions of China, the Indochinese Peninsula, and elsewhere. Therefore, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was also a consequence of Japan's invasion of Asia. Unless we pursue Japan's responsibility for this aggression against Asia, Japanese people's cry for "No More Hiroshimas" has little persuasive power. 

Second, the dropping of atomic bombs is an extreme form of indiscriminate strategic bombing; but in the history of indiscriminate bombing, it is Japan which bears a weighty responsibility. It is true that indiscriminate bombing began with the Nazis' air raids in 1937 on Guernica, Spain, yet the first to conduct long-term indiscriminate strategic bombing of the capital of an enemy country was Japan, namely, Japan's attacks on Zhongqing, China, since 1939. 

Third, the victims of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki include over twenty different nationalities. In particular, there were tens of thousands of people from the Korean peninsula, many of whom were forcibly brought to Japan. Since the war ended, Japan has said, "We are the only nation in the world that has ever been the victim of atomic bombing." But the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is hardly something that can be "nationalized" in this way.

Fourth, if Japan had immediately accepted the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered in July 1945, there would have been no atomic bombing. Already by February 1945, former Prime Minister KONOYE Fumimaro advised Emperor Hirohito that "Soon defeat will be unavoidable, so we should quickly begin negotiations to end the war." However, Emperor Hirohito avoided doing this on the grounds that there was no guarantee of "protection of the national polity," meaning it was not certain that the Emperor system would be preserved. The following March brought the widespread bombing of Tokyo, followed by the bombing of cities throughout Japan, including Osaka and Nagoya. In April, the Battle of Okinawa began, and in August the atomic bombs were dropped. Moreover, people in Manchuria were victimized as the Soviet Union advanced against Japan, and the prolonged detention of Japanese POWs in Siberia ensued. 

In short, one could say that the major war damages Japanese citizens suffered were a result of the emperor's "belated holy decision" to end the war. From the perspective not only of the peoples of Asia, but from that of the Japanese who suffered, it can be said that the emperor's responsibility for the war is unmistakably heavy.

Should the Japanese people fail to take these four points into consideration, there is little persuasive power in saying that "The Japanese are the only nation that has ever been the victim of atomic bombing. Apologize!" It is said that when the atomic bombs were dropped, the peoples of Asia joyfully shouted, "Now we will be freed from Japanese rule!" In order to gain the understanding of these peoples, Japan must properly take responsibility for its own actions. I think that only once this is done will Japan be able persuasively to raise the question of US responsibility for dropping the atomic bombs.

International Trends in Investigating War Responsibility

There are Japanese who, half-disgustedly, say, "Those 'comfort women' have spent the past fifty years since the war doggedly pursuing Japan's responsibility." This is mistaken.

Truly, the post-war period began with the investigation of responsibility for war in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial and the BC-class trials. Yet, as the East-West Cold War intensified, the moves to investigate Japan's war responsibility rapidly retreated. The United States began to treat Japan as a fortress against communism. It shifted in the direction of exempting those anti-communists who had supported Japan's prewar and wartime regime from war responsibility. While the Cold War structure was firmly in place, Japan escaped direct questioning of its responsibility for war from the real victims of the war it waged, the people of Asian nations.

In the 1980s, however, as Asian countries advanced towards democracy, the Cold War structure collapsed and the memories of war that had been suppressed were resuscitated in East Asia. Only in the '90s were deeply-wounded Asians, starting with former 'comfort women,' first able as named individuals to pursue Japan's responsibility for its war crimes.

Further, this is not limited to East Asia: it is a worldwide phenomenon. The Federal Republic of Germany has been recognized for doing more than Japan in offering reparations to victims of the Nazis and for punishing those Germans who had been in responsible positions during the Nazi era. 

But nothing in the way of recompense had reached victims in Eastern European countries. As soon as the Cold War had ended and Germany had been reunified, Germans established a fund for reconciliation with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and other nations. In the year 2000, they created a foundation called "Memory, Responsibility, and the Future" which will finally bring into realization the compensation of victims of forced relocation and forced labor.

In addition, French President Chirac acknowledged for the first time France's responsibility for the persecution of Jews under the wartime Vichy government. Maurice Papon, a civil servant in the Vichy administration, was indicted for crimes against humanity.

These are merely a few examples. The problem of responsibility for past wars, previously frozen under the Cold War structure, has risen in salience throughout the world. Problems related to Japan are located within that larger current. This background explains why media all over the world paid great attention to the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal, held December 2000 in Tokyo. In order for Japan to regain the trust of East Asian peoples, it is important for it to make clear its responsibility for the past, so that it can actively fulfill its role in the construction of international order based on just peace.

SEKAI, vol. 687 (April 2001), translated by Lorinda Kiyama.