Culpability and Responsibility in HiroshimaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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I stood in front of the cenotaph for the A-bomb victims (hibakusha) in the center of the Peace Memorial Park. The Fire of Peace was standing out in the dim background in which the A-bomb Dome cast its shadow. The night was falling. Some were going home and others were chatting on benches. Quietly I dropped my head and read the epitaph: “Let all the souls here rest in peace; For we shall not repeat the evil.” I finally witnessed the message, with my own eyes, that had inspired me to start studying politics of “responsibility” for civilian victims of wars. In a moment of silence, I repeated the epitaph in my mind, but one question was lingering and unsettling my prayer. That is, who are “we” in the inscription?
Back in August 1952, Radhabinod Pal, the Indian justice who had declared the eleven Japanese war criminals not guilty at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in 1949, visited the newly found cenotaph in the Peace Memorial Park. Standing in front of the cenotaph, he questioned whom “we” referred to. Although “we” seemed to designate the Japanese who had started the war, Pal maintained, it should also refer to the Americans who dropped the atomic bomb and killed thousands of civilians.
Here, Pal was reiterating his judgment that challenged the binary opposition; the Allied Powers equaled the good victor while Japan was the evil perpetrator, at the Tribunal three years back. The Western racism and imperialism against Asia was coterminous with the Japanese racism toward other Asians and the West. If the origins or sources of the war were to be interpreted in light of the complex chains of diplomatic and military actions unfolding in the international relations at the time, responsibility for the war could not but be shared (“proportionately” if not equally) by both sides.
Besides, Pal argued, if the atrocities committed by the Japanese government in the form of the military aggressions against the Allied Powers—the Tribunal did not deal with Japan‘s atrocities against Asian peoples—were to be judged according to the then existing international law of combat, the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be judged by the same rule. Unless both the accused and the plaintiffs were equally subjected to the law, “justice” could not be attained. Yet, the Allied Powers discarded the complexity inherent in morality of politics in favor of politics of morality, so that the same racism of the West that contributed to the birth of its Other, Imperial Japan, triumphed. What the Tribunal brought by exempting the plaintiffs from the law was therefore only victor‘s justice. Inflecting Pal‘s argument psychoanalytically, “the enemy, who we are certain is a despicable ‘other‘, is in fact endowed and littered with parts cast out from the self…. The ‘boundary‘ is thus a sacred illusion and delusion…. By directing all of our respective acuity outward, we can avoid the painful look inward.”
Thus, the post-colonial justice Pal ignited the Epitaph Dispute (hibun ronso); for the first time after the end of the U.S. Occupation, a public discourse on “responsibility” for the A-bomb victims emerged in Japan. The dominant Japanese response, led by the mayor of Hiroshima and the epitaph‘s author, to Pal‘s remark was, however, that “we” should be constituted by anybody praying in front of the monument and therefore by the whole of humanity, whether they were Japanese or American. That is, the majority of Japanese refused to taint “Hiroshima” with politics of nationalistic sentiments.
Of course, this universalistic aspiration for world peace was noble and admirable. Nonetheless, it had two unintended consequences. One was that its focus on the dead as precious sacrifice for peace rendered those who survived the tragedy—the unfinished tragedy—less visible, which consequently delayed the articulation of A-Bomb survivors‘ acute medical needs. Another was that the universality of “we” blurred and postponed the Japanese (and American?) state‘s “responsibility,” in the most concrete and mundane sense, for providing relief aids for the A-bomb survivors, during the historical period when the state—whether Japan or the U.S.—was a most viable political entity that could have provided for the survivors.
In addition, the Japanese collective memory of the A-bomb victims had been structured to exclude non-Japanese A-bomb victims and survivors, predominantly Koreans who were forced to work in Japan. Regrettably, non-Japanese A-bomb survivors had not been thematized until October 1968 when a Korean woman who illegally entered Japan to seek medical care for her A-bomb disease was arrested. Concomitantly, public and political discourses of “Hiroshima,” after the city was embraced as constitutive of Japan‘s postwar national identity in the mid-50s, operated to create an image of Japan as a victim of the Second World War and therefore to discount Japan‘s culpability and responsibility for the Asian countries it had invaded.
Undoubtedly, discourses through which traumatic historical events, which are often politically controversial, are understood and remembered influence not only domestic policies of one country but also international relations of that country with others. The Japanese public should continue its effort to exorcise nationalism from the collective memory of the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki vis-à-vis the war and the Japanese state should keep providing for the Japanese and non-Japanese A-bomb survivors alike.
Similarly, the exclusion of the suffering of the Other from collective memory has been never more relevant in the United States. American collective memories of wars institutionalized in the War Memorials and museums in Washington, D.C. tend to suppress the possibility of discursive space to imagine and reflect upon the suffering that the U.S. military have inflicted upon civilians in the “enemy” countries. Given yet another civilian suffering during the war against Iraq in 2003, the United States as a nation needs to realize how it is inextricably and inexorably implicated in politics of responsibility for civilian war victims and to probe the way it has been constructing its collective memory of wars.
Indeed, “culpability, Pal sought to argue in his Tokyo judgment, could never be divisible and responsibility, even when individual, could paradoxically be fully individual only when seen as collective and, in fact, global.” As the sixtieth anniversary of the Second World War, the biggest war in the last century, is approaching, wars, and the very real threat of war, continue to plague the world. Perhaps it is time for “us,” in this globalizing world of the twenty-first century, to take Pal‘s call seriously and strive toward a more relational conception of culpability and responsibility for wars and their often devastating consequences for which civilians, the most innocent, suffer.
Errata: The print version of this issue was incorrectly designated as Vol. 10, No. 4.
Hiro Saito is a Fellow in the Graduate Seminar on Global Transformations and a Ph.D. student is sociology.