On Japan, Nuclear Warfare, and International Perspectives

Earlier in the summer, I had the great privilege and honor to travel to Japan, touring the atomic bombing sites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a representative of Global Zero, a chartered club on campus that meets weekly, bringing action to the international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Illustrated by Annie Broutman
Illustrated by Annie Broutman

Before going to Japan, I had a my own perception of what Japan’s national feelings might be about the bombing. I assumed that the past destruction would be obvious in both cities’ current environments. I imagined I should be careful to show my American accent at the Peace Ceremony for fear of antagonism or blame directed at me. I thought, at the very least, that my experience would be earth-shattering. I was right.

Understanding the effect of the bombings is, for all intents and purposes, limited to the textbook blurb in U.S. History in most American high school classrooms. The narrative blasted out to the American youth is that the bombs were heroic and unprecedented, necessary, war-ending, and life saving.

I suggest, to those who consider such utter violence ever necessary, to visit the sites themselves. Hear hibukushas speak of the ghost processions of melted people they saw as children and the silence every one of them can recount settling in those two cities. I thought I grasped the inhumane action of the U.S. from my own critical personal studies of World War II and my rambunctious policy debate days in high school. And then I went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the door was blown wide open on the reality of 70 years ago.

I do not mean to seem angry solely at United States history lessons. On this trip, we were with college students from all over Japan who study at a university in Kyoto. They were similarly addressing, along with us, another nationalist revised history of events from Japan’s side of the world.

For some context, Japan’s current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is leading the charge for Japan to remilitarize for defensive purposes. This breaks a key peace clause in their constitution, adopted as part of WWII surrender terms, which states Japan will never support and maintain a military force again. Japan’s schools teach an interesting narrative of history as well. Japanese education leaves out the bloody imperialistic campaign that Japan was engaging starting in 1931, wrought with violence and human rights violations against Koreans and Chinese as well. Claiming innocence, and that it was the U.S. that victimized Japan.

The narrative of Japan leaves out their own devastating effect. They teach that Japan was a victim; the first victim of atomic violence. They utilize this pain to counteract their history as well. The U.S. is far away from these sites; temporally and geographically. Nuclear weapons are joked about these days. It’s easy to push this aside and make it unrecognizable to American history. Similarly, Japan feels outweighed, entitled to overlook actions that many people find problematic, independent of their victimization under the bomb.

If no one ever wants to admit any wrongdoing, especially in this absolutely key historical event of the 20th century, where does that leave reconciliation for the angry generation of today? I have always felt angry about the nuclear attack, as a millennial. I have always despised imperialism. But on this trip, I felt encompassed by sadness for the first time, as a member of the human race.

It is crazy to me today, even 70 years later, to hear misshapen versions of events on both sides of the world for bitter pride and justifying lustful violence. I bring this disparity of history up today to get to the question of peace: achieving it and keeping it.

Everyone speaks of world peace. What does that look like? I see peace not at the messy hands of nuclear-armed generals from every corner of the world, with nations too afraid to move for fear of setting someone off. Peace is relinquishing total conquest; conquest in the forms of forced economic interference and interdependence, conquest in language and cultural assimilation, conquest in domestic and international position, and constantly checking, rhetoric, education, military arms necessity.

Aimed at not just the U.S. and Japan, this is a plea for the world. Do not take lightly the significance peace can have and the real attainability with real work that could be possible.

Elissa Karim, Staff Writer