Wednesday 10 August 2011

Hiroshima, Fukushima

Last Saturday, 6th August, was the 66th anniversary of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and today, Tuesday 9th, of Nagasaki. It's a time of remembrance in Japan. It was particularly poignant this year because of the earthquake and the accident here in Fukushima. Actually I found it unsettling to hear the dignitaries speak of Hiroshima and Fukushima in the same breath and for Hiroshima victims to identify with us and sympathise with us for being discriminated against. Certainly in the first few weeks you heard of people who thought they might 'catch' radiation, but I haven't heard anything like that recently although this whole 'fuhyo higai' business, lack of consumer confidence, is a kind of discrimination I suppose.

I used to think the war was nothing to do with me. When I was in high school I was looking for a new language to learn, a difficult language. China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution so not a place you might like to visit. A family friend who taught at SOAS University of London (where I ended up) thought Japan was 'up and coming' and I might be able to get a job in commerce in future! A few eyebrows were raised when I started to learn Japanese (after all it was only 25 years after the end of the war) but I thought that didn't concern me.

Emperor Showa, Hirohito, visited London in 1971 (when I was a student) and former prisoners-of-war lined the Mall and turned their backs when the Emperor passed. When I came to work in Japan a few years later, people would often start a sentence with 'After we lost the war,' (senso makete kara  戦争負けてから). It made me feel awkward but it was just part of normal speech. No one says it these days. Around Ueno and places like that there were always amputees wearing white clothes and army caps playing the accordion or begging. And they were still finding soldiers in the jungle who didn't know the war had ended. But apart from that - silence. No one talked about the war. It was shoved under the carpet. Japan wouldn't face up to its past the way Germany did.

Back in England in the 90s when I was working for the Japan Festival Fund I was privelged to get to know the old timers of the Burma Campaign Fellowship Group, a  remarkable group of men who sought out their Japanese counterparts in Burma, and organised visits and exchanges in a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

I've been back in Japan now for five years and one of the most satisfying things about living here is to see the sea-change in attitudes to the war, an opening up at last. For the past year or more NHK has been showing an irregular programme called Project Japan which, instead of the 'Japan as victim' line prevalent until recently, looks at 150 years of history specifically to answer the question, why Japan went to war.
NHK have also started a project of recollections, oral history:
Some of things coming out are the stuff of nightmares and you can kind of understand why people maintained silence up until now. Uunspeakable things - literally.

So this time of year brings the usual crop of programmes on TV about the suffering of  war. But even here, a difference. Men who'd been working in intelligence (in their 90s now but youngsters then) said that Japan had intelligence of a B29 on an unusual route but that their leaders didn't act on the information (they were more concerned about whether to surrender to Russia at the time). There wasn't even an air raid warning issued in Hiroshima. One woman said she was working for the army and in an underground shelter when the bomb hit and was unharmed but her colleagues were out in the yard doing their morning exercises (the bomb hit at 8.15 am) and were all killed. Likewise, the authorities had 5 hours warning from intelligence about the bomb heading for Nagasaki but again did nothing. So the scale of the disaster was exacerbated by the indecision of Japan's own leaders.

Another documentary on next week is by Ken Watanabe. Apparently he got interested in the subject of war when filming Letters from Iwojima and had lots of discussions with Clint Eastwood, first about the character he was playing, General Kuribayashi, who interestingly had lived in the States, but also about war itself. The documentary looks at the Pacific War and 9.11, comparing the backlash against  Japanese living in the US (who were detained under harsh conditions) and the backlash against Islam after 9.11. 

The nearest we get these days to sacrifices to the Emperor are annual gifts of fruit. It is hot and  Fukushima peaches are in season. The Akatsuki (Dawn) variety is at its height, large white peaches with deep-pink skin. A hundred and twenty of the biggest and best have been selected and will be presented as usual to the Emperor. Now all we need is a picture of their imperial highnessess tucking into Fukushima peaches to dispel doubts about their safety. Unlikely, as they're very juicy and probably impossible to eat in a regal manner!
P.S. London buses on fire is top news here. But turns out to be a peg to show the current dire situation in the world economy.

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