Global fashion icon Issey Miyake recently made headlines by divulging in a New York Times article he penned on July 13 that he is a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombings of Japan.
Only 7 when he witnessed the incineration of his hometown of Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 6, 1945, he recalled: “I still see things no one should ever experience: a bright red light, the black cloud soon after, people running in every direction trying desperately to escape — I remember it all. Within three years, my mother died from radiation exposure.”
Miyake had remained quiet all these years, not wanting to be defined by his past or to become known as the “hibakusha designer.” But he was inspired to speak out after an April 5 speech by U.S. President Barack Obama in Prague, in which he announced his intention to work toward abolishing nuclear weapons, declaring, ” . . . as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”
Miyake explained that he wants to support this process by reminding people of the nightmare he hopes nobody else ever endures. Like other hibakusha, he also hopes that during Obama’s first official visit to Japan, tentatively scheduled for November, the president will go to Hiroshima to jump-start his avowed quest for nuclear disarmament by viscerally reminding everyone of what is at stake.
On last Thursday’s 64th anniversary of the first atomic-bombing, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba lent his support, saying that most people in the world want the elimination of nuclear weapons. He declared: “We are the Obamajority. Together we can eliminate nuclear weapons. Yes we can.”
To this day, though, expert opinion remains divided between those who think the atomic bombs saved lives and caused the quick Japanese surrender that followed on Aug. 15, 1945, and those who challenge those claims and provide alternative explanations of why U.S. President Harry S. Truman used the bombs.
Nonetheless, since 1945 both the Japanese and U.S. governments have pushed the controversy off to the side in their shared focus on harmonious bilateral relations. For the Japanese government, too — relying as they do on the U.S. nuclear umbrella — the atomic bombings are an especially delicate issue.
Former Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma had to resign in 2007 after igniting a public outcry by suggesting that the U.S. decision “could not be helped.”
And just this week, Toshio Tamogami, the former Air Self-Defense Force chief ousted over his apologist views concerning Japan’s militarist past, sparked a furor and reopened wounds in his speech, “Casting Doubt on the Peace of Hiroshima,” delivered there on Aug. 6. He said, “As the only country to have experienced nuclear bombs, we should go nuclear to make sure we don’t suffer a third time.”
Across the once-wartorn Pacific, however, raising awareness in the United States about the devastation has been a dilemma because highlighting the suffering endured by the Japanese is sometimes perceived as a way of deflecting attention away from the torment Japan inflicted throughout the region.
Indeed, in 1995 the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. fueled controversy by planning an exhibition to present, and challenge, the case for Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. However, intense political pressures forced the axing from the exhibition of the revisionist critique of Truman’s decision.
In the wider world, meanwhile, ongoing nuclear weapons proliferation suggests that the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not as appreciated as they should be.
It is against this background that The Japan Times invited a writer from Pakistan and one from India to discuss the implications of proliferation, along with two Japanese academics asked to share their thoughts about the legacy of the atomic bombs.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan Campus in Tokyo.