This week, I spent my time in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, attending a week-long conference under the Asian Public Intellectual project. The conference brought together 25 Asian Public intellectuals from various fields to present their research, to discuss common concerns in the region, and to exchange views on topics that affect the livelihood of their communities.
The A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
Aside from the conference, participants had a chance to visit the Peace Memorial Museum of Hiroshima. I have visited this museum several times. But always, my impression of this museum had always been one-dimensional. That is, this is the story of atrocities against Japan.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the world’s first victims of atomic bombs dropped by the US Air Forces during the Second World War, on the 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively. The attacks against Japan with atomic bombs quickly led to the end of the world. Japan was forced to surrender. Its military leaders were prosecuted. The Japanese Emperor was stripped of power. Japan had to rewrite its constitution to reflect its peaceful agenda. Japan’s once dominant army was transformed into mere self-defense forces.
But the realities on the ground were more daunting. The devastation caused by atomic bombings saw the loss of almost 150,000 lives. Half of these numbers were killed instantly on the first day. The only half died from effect of burns, radiation sickness and malnutrition. Buildings were reduced to rubbles. The beautiful European building, then serving as Hiroshima Prefecture Commercial Exhibition, was badly damaged by the bomb, leaving only a naked dome with a ruined structure.
Stepping inside the Peace Memorial Museum, visitors will learn from the cruelties generated by the atomic bombings. The display of images, objects, and visual presentations of the devastating impacts of the atomic bombs could shed someone’s tears. This was a moving experience, which has remained traumatic in the minds of many Japanese and visitors to the museum. Many have heard the plea that no more atomic bombs should be used against nations. Peace must be given its chance.
But the other reality is equally haunting despite the fact that the war had ended for almost 70 years. In my discussions with friends from Southeast Asia, particularly those from countries where Japanese troops had occupied during the war, such reality has powerful vivid. Japan was able to conquer and dominate several countries in this part of the world. And under the Japanese occupation, abuses, tortures and executions became tools against citizens of Southeast Asia. Many in the region have not forgotten what happened to them and their parents during the war.
Although Japan had apologized in the past for its brutality against Southeast Asian neighbours, history can never be buried. Decades in the post-war era witnessed Japan’s attempts to cultivate trust with Southeast Asia. Generous aids and technological transfers were made parts of Japanese diplomacy to move forward into the future with Southeast Asia with a sense of positivity. To a great extent, Japan had been successful in rebuilding such trust. Japan’s upholding to its non-military constitution seems to serve as a pillar in its dealing with Southeast Asia.
Occasionally however, bitter history and dark memories were refreshed for the political purposes. Japanese politicians continue to play a nationalistic card to gain political scores. They paid their visit to Yasukuni Shrine, in the heart of Tokyo, to honour Japanese soldiers who supposedly sacrificed their lives in the war. Yet, they were perceived differently by Japan’s neighbours. To them, these soldiers were war criminals.
Thus, going back to the Peace Memorial Museum of Hiroshima, while the destruction of the atomic bombs appealed so many regarding how Japan emerged as the victim of modern warfare, little has been said about why the bombs were dropped in Japan in the first place. This question is not meant to underline that Japan deserved to be punished with atomic bombs. Rather, it raises a question of how history must be told in a way that it emphasizes forgiveness, as much as remembering.
I noticed that, inside the Peace Memorial Museum, almost all explanations of the atomic bombings event were written in a passive voice. This may be because they were meant to reveal the “passivity” of Japan during the war. In other words, Japan was “attacked” brutally. And possibly for the diplomatic objective, Japan avoided mentioning the “subject”. Rather than pinpointing that the United States used the atomic bombs to attack Japan, the messages were intentionally ambiguous.
My Japanese friend also told me that the name Hiroshima is often written in Hirakana, rather than in Kanji. This is arguably to separate the city from its horrific past, and to recreate a new nuance for the city. It is a constructive thought. But at the same time, it conceals an important historical aspect of the city, something that Japanese and Southeast Asians have shared in the past seven decades.
So my journey to Hiroshima this time and the Peace Memorial Museum offered me an opportunity to look back at the history. As a Thai, I might feel little about Japan’s wartime policy vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, possibly because Thailand was a friendly ally of the Japanese government, and may be because I am too young to relate myself to such terrible incident.
But as a political scientist, I recognize the need to make a balanced view on history. The presentations at the Peace Memorial Museum should be done in a multi-dimensional manner. Japan might not be able to erase what it did during the war, but it can do many more today to strengthen a long-lasting relationship with Southeast Asia. And one of the first things is to start telling the entire truth about the war.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.