In news from Japan that barely registered on the radar screen of the U.S. media, the Japanese defense minister was forced to resign after making a comment that could be interpreted as trivializing the impact of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
This was not big news anywhere but Japan, as politicians all over the world routinely put their feet in their mouths. It did prompt me to talk to my students about it. (I am an American English conversation teacher in Tokyo.)
I got mostly the reactions I expected, along the lines of “Because the bombs were uniquely destructive, and only Japan suffered their effects, Japanese people are sensitive about them, especially those who suffered or their relatives.” Definitely understandable, but it also reminded me of a sentiment I’ve heard a number of times, from English language teachers who’ve talked to their students about this topic: “Japanese tend to talk as if WWII started in August 1945,” referring of course to when the bombs fell and the war ended. In other words, Japanese focus on what their country suffered, not what their country did to others. It is the rare Japanese who brings up Pearl Harbor.
This is also understandable, yet ironic in its own way. For while Japanese understand their own sensitivity to the atomic bombings, their country utterly fails to understand the sensitivity of the countries upon whom they inflicted atrocities. Recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe retreated from his predecessors’ expressions of responsibility for Japan’s use of Southeast Asian women for sexual slavery during WWII, saying the military was not responsible, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Did he, or Japanese people, I wonder, consider how such actions would affect women who suffered such a horrific and shameful ordeal, or their relatives? Japan’s government continues their effort to whitewash history books, minimizing such atrocities as the Nanjing massacre in China. Many similar examples are available.
Yet, again, this is hardly unique. I wondered if I could come up with a similar situation in America, and it didn’t take long. 9/11 is still a very sensitive topic in America, and with good reason, of course. Any politician who was seen as trivializing it would find his career over instantly; even when libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul suggested in a debate that 9/11 didn’t happen in a vacuum and that we would do well to consider the consequences of U.S. actions overseas, he was pounced on by the other candidates, especially Rudy Giuliani, whose political raison d’etre is that he will protect the country from terrorism. Apparently, considering the causes of terrorism is not a possibility, and no doubt some 9/11 relatives would consider a discussion of the causes of terrorism to be tantamount to justifying the attacks.
The relatives were no doubt furious at seeing pictures in the media of some Palestinians joyfully celebrating in the streets upon hearing news of 9/11; that this is disgusting need not be said. But how many Americans have considered the perspective of a Palestinian -raised in a refugee camp, told many times about how the land their family had lived on for decades was stolen by the Jews, a relative or two killed, living their whole lives under foreign occupation. (I do not think that Israel has all the responsibility and the Palestinians none; this is just the perspective of a Palestinian.) To them, America is the country that supplies and arms their oppressor, and is its main defender and benefactor. Do we give them a second thought? Most of us, no. Should we be surprised when some of them celebrate that their oppressor’s benefactor was dealt a heavy blow? I wasn’t. Appalled, yes. Surprised, no.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the question “Why do they hate us?” was often heard; I couldn’t help but be sad that 9/11 was what it took to make people even care enough to ask the question. Culturally, America and Japan are very different countries, but they both focus on their own victimhood and refuse to deeply consider how their country’s actions might have affected others. Most people do this, either as a country or as individuals. Some situations give us the chance to notice and reflect on this. The more we do, the less fuel it will give to demagogues, and the wiser and stronger our country will be.