Seventy years after Japan surrendered in the bloodiest war in the world has ever known, Japanese still debate not only its causes but why it came to an abrupt end days after the United State dropped atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Portrayed in the West as a war caused by a militaristic Japan that was brought to its knees by the dual bombings that killed tens of thousands and virtually wiped two Japanese cities from the map, World War II is seen in more nuanced terms in Japan.
“The atomic bombing didn’t have any effect whatsoever on the decision of ending the war by the Emperor,” says Hiroyuki Fujita, a Japanese journalist and member of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, a nationalist group. “The Emperor had already made up his mind to end the war.”
Fujita’s views represent a growing trend in Japan toward a revision of generally accepted positions on the war by most historians – a trend that that is constantly criticized by neighboring countries.
In his speech commemorating the surrender Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe struck many of those themes, acknowledging Japan’s role, but asserting that the guilt should not be passed on without end.
“Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war,” Abe said, recalling what he called “the histories of suffering” of Japan’s neighbors. He pledged Japan would continue to promote “peace and prosperity of the region.”
But he also noted that 80 percent of Japanese today were born after World War II. “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”
For the 20 percent born before the war ended, it’s difficult to overstate the change it brought.
When Japan’s national radio broadcast a recording of Emperor Hirohito calling for his country to surrender to allied forces, it was the first time most had heard the emperor’s voice. “We have ordered our government to communicate to the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration” that called for Japan’s unconditional surrender, he said in a tone so soft it seemed out of character for a man who’d had been considered a god until that moment.
Despite Fujita’s skepticism that the atomic bombs had influenced the emperor, Hirohito made it clear that the threat displayed with the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was driving his decision.
“Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization,” he said.
By the end of the war, most Japanese cities had been burned to the ground in fire bombings. Hundreds of thousands of civilians had died. The nation was on the brink of starvation. Hirohito called on his people to be prepared for “enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable” in hopes that peace could return.
The pacifist constitution that the United States imposed on Japan still finds resonance among most Japanese.
“Japan lost the last war, so that meant the end of Japanese militarism. I think that was actually good for Japan.” said Masamichi Kira, owner of Nisshoku Garden, a plant nursery that got its start shortly after the war. Japan has been lucky not to have seen a war since, he said.
Kira remembers the years after the war as difficult – “In terms of food,” he recalled, “we didn’t have so much.” But his family, like most of Japan, would eventually prosper. Japan at one point grew to become the world’s second largest economy, until it was displaced in recent years by China.
Abe recently has pushed legislation that would allow Japan to engage in combat for the first time in decades, and many Japanese worry that history could repeat itself.
Abe tried Friday to dispel that notion, even as he sounded some themes popular with nationalists – that Japan was struggling against an unfair world order when it engaged in war.
“Japan,” he said, “will continue to firmly uphold the principle that any disputes must be settled peacefully and diplomatically based on the respect for the rule of law and not through the use of force, and to reach out to other countries in the world to do the same.”
Siegel is a McClatchy special correspondent.