On the first VJ Day – August 14th, 1945 – my father was in France getting ready to go to the Pacific. A few days earlier his company was told, “Pack your bags; we’re going to the east!” and they all knew where they were going and dreaded it. After the grinding victory over Germany in Europe, these men wanted to go home, but there was still work to be done and there was no other choice.
Dad recalled hearing the news as he sat in a café in Paris with a friend. It had been broadcast on the radio and all the locals starting cheering. Dad and his friend switched from coffee to something stronger to toast themselves and all of America – the war was finally over.
However, as most people know, war is never over for those who serve and their families. The haunting memories lingered throughout my father’s life – including the thought of those buddies lost in combat. While war takes a toll on individuals, collectively nations bear the burden as well. America recently has dealt with 9-11 as an event that has shaken us and left resilient scars in the aftermath.
Such is the case with Japan as it marked the 70th anniversary of its defeat. Over the years Japanese leaders have issued various and velied apologies, but not so in 2015. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s remarks are reflective, noting past “apologies,” but never rising to the actual apology itself.
One can read the full text of the speech to keep things in context, but let us consider these particular words carefully:
On the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.
Yes, the words “Sorry” or “I apologize” are not here, but do they need to be? I have heard some pundits complaining about this, and even among my circle of friends and acquaintances there are mixed feelings. I wish my father were still with us in order to ask him how he felt about it.
On the other side of the world Germany, Japan’s former ally during World War II, has made great strides in not only apologizing but in attempting to right the so many wrongs committed by the Nazis. There is a necessary and compelling drive to continually set things right long after everything fell apart. During a visit to Japan earlier this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke again and again about Germany’s defeat not as a thing of shame but calling it “a day of liberation.”
More than anything Merkel strove to make clear that after the infinite pain and suffering her country inflicted, that after the war the Allies who defeated them made the difference in how Germany would move forward.
We Germans will never forget the hand of reconciliation that was extended to us after all the suffering that our country had brought to Europe and the world.
These remarks were made not just for the benefit of the journalists present, but seem clearly directed at Mr. Abe, whose country also committed so many atrocities during the war. Besides their imperialistic actions in neighboring countries, where the brutality of the occupation inflicted enormous physical and psychological damage, there was also the issue of the “comfort women” taken from those places and used to pleasure Japanese troops.
Do the Japanese view their war crimes as less atrocious than those of the Germans? Could that affect the way Japanese leaders face the issue of expressing sorrow while not directly apologizing? Of course, the Holocaust inflicted by Nazi Germany is one of the greatest crimes ever committed by a nation during wartime or any other time; however, the Japanese should not use that as an excuse of convenience.
How long does the memory of pain and suffering last? One could argue that it is until everyone who had been alive and suffered during the ordeal is gone. If that is the case something like Pearl Harbor could be rapidly reaching the point of being forgotten, with a day like September 11th to follow. The salient point is that people can never forget – things like the Holocaust, December 7th, 1941, and September 11, 2001, must live on in the collective memory of people who believe that great tragedies must be remembered in order that they are never repeated.
Earlier this year in his speech to the Congress of the United States, Mr. Abe tellingly said, “History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone.” This is a curious precursor to the statement issued on the 70th anniversary in Japan. In it Mr. Abe seems to be trying to move Japan forward by not looking back:
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.
While it’s understandable that the Japanese people have to move forward, there is the undeniable truth of what happened during a war started by the unprovoked Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
We have to teach our children about things that happened before they were born, and part of that is never shirking responsibility for actions taken by our nations in the past. Americans should never forget the barbaric treatment by our government of Native Americans, the despicable institution of slavery, the horrific Civil War that killed more Americans than any other conflict, and the ensuing disparity and inequity black Americans suffered that eventually was confronted by the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For us to try to forget any of this is an illusion – a dangerous attempt not at revising history but eliminating it.
Yes, Mr. Abe is correct that “history is harsh” but it needs to be. And yes, what is done can never be undone, but that doesn’t mean that we stop the conversation. In Germany there has been a concerted attempt to do that – to accept the emotional and physical liability for crimes committed. It is obvious that in her visit Mrs. Merkel was prodding Japan to do the same.
I will share one personal story. During my August 1995 visit to Japan – the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII – I attended a ceremony in Nagasaki and cried during it. When it was over and as I prepared to leave, an older Japanese woman in traditional dress saw my distress and handed me a flower saying in English, “Sorry.” I took the flower, smelled it, and said, “No, I am sorry” (thinking of the devastating bomb my country dropped on that city). Her smile in response to my words offered me hope that the world can be a better place if we make the effort.
There is a need to apologize, sometimes on all sides, and this anniversary is, if nothing else, a reminder that war’s horrors can never be forgotten or glossed over. It is our duty to teach our children well in order that they teach their children well and to have that continue in perpetuity. If we do not, we are not only ensuring things will be forgotten but that they will inevitably be repeated.
Photo credits: reuters, forbes[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1465436022]