Japan in Their Own Words: A Proposal for Final Reconciliation of World War II

Matsuo Fumio

Fumio Matsuo in Tokyo

Cultural News, 2010 March

The following text was published at website column “Japan in Their Own Words” by the English-Speaking Union of Japan on November 12, 2009. www.esuj.gr.jp

By Fumio Matsuo in Tokyo

The Japanese people’s decision in September 2009 to elect the DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) into government has opened up significant possibilities for Japan’s foreign policy. It is possible to contemplate a grand undertaking that will bring closure to the long-festering issue of history by realizing, all at once, historical reconciliation with the United States as well as with China, Korea and other neighbors. Unlike Germany, Japan has yet to achieve such reconciliation 64 years after its defeat in the Second World War.

As the first step and cornerstone towards that goal, Japan and the United States should agree that Prime Minister Hatoyama will first visit the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor to lay a wreath, to be followed by President Obama visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and laying a wreath at the Memorial Cenotaph.

This diplomatic initiative should be extended beyond Japan and the United States, so that the circle of mutual wreath-laying ceremonies for the repose of the soul will encompass Japan’s neighbors — not only China and the Republic of Korea, but also North Korea and Russia, and eventually all the Asian Pacific countries whose people had fallen victim to that tragic war.

As the Hatoyama government sets about building a new Japan-U.S. partnership, this final reconciliation with the United States, linked to the realization of historical reconciliation with East Asia as a whole, will provide a most stable framework for the “equal Japan-U.S. alliance” espoused by the DPJ.

Placing my hopes on Hatoyama’s diplomacy, I propose the enactment of this scenario for mutual wreath-laying diplomacy, primarily because I am worried about the gap that exists between the expectations for President Obama’s visit to the atomic bombing sites that are rising in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and elsewhere in Japan, and the harsh realities that constrain President Obama in America.

Since last August, greater than anticipated difficulties have bedeviled President Obama. The Health Insurance Reform Bill, touted as the centerpiece of American recovery, has been stalled due to the unexpectedly strong surge of resistance by the conservatives. Added to this was his ill-conceived involvement in Chicago’s failed bid for the Olympics, and his approval rating has suffered.

Further, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has driven him to the brink of making the difficult decision whether or not to send more troops there. As is abundantly clear from the cool reaction of the American public to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, his call for “A World without Nuclear Weapons” is far from gaining resonance widely in the United States. We should be mindful of such a difference in “temperature” between Japan and the United States.

To bring this proposal into reality, we need to clear the following hurdles.

Firstly, as the United States and Japan contemplate their future-oriented partnership, they should not let themselves be caught up in the question of “apology”. They should learn from the wisdom of the “Dresden Reconciliation”, which skillfully managed to subsume the theme of “apology”.

The brutal Allied firebombing of the city of Dresden led by the United States and Britain later became known as “Germany’s Hiroshima”. In his remembrance speech in Dresden on the evening of 13 February 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombing, Roman Herzog, then the second President of the reunified Germany, forthrightly stated “One cannot offset life against life”, implying that the United States and Britain had been responsible for killing non-combatant civilians.

He declared that the United States, Britain and Germany were together there “to mourn, to lament the dead – an expression of human emotion dating back to the beginnings of civilization”, and called on the former allies and enemies to “learn to live with one another peacefully and in a spirit of trust”. This was a dignified message of Germany’s reconciliation with the former Allied powers, with no mention of the word “apology”.

Secondly, we should have a good understanding of the tension that exists between President Obama, who has committed himself so deeply to the goal of “A World without Nuclear Weapons”, and the conservatives in the United States. Japan, for its part, should make clear its intention to cooperate with President Obama, through its diplomatic efforts, to facilitate the fulfillment of his initiatives towards nuclear disarmament.

Thirdly, the Hatoyama government should be attentive to President Obama’s anguish and do what it can to promote nuclear disarmament and realize the cause of grand reconciliation with the United States and with East Asia as a whole. To this end, Prime Minister Hatoyama should first lay a wreath at the Arizona Memorial, thus making it easier for President Obama to visit Hiroshima.

Fourthly, we should not forget that we may get a “cold look” from China and Korea. Their fear is that the wreath-laying by an American President in Hiroshima might erase the memories of Japan’s past actions such as aggression to China and colonization of Korea. The wreath-laying diplomacy between Japan and the United States can only be viable if it is pursued in tandem with Japan’s wreath laying diplomacy, namely, efforts for reconciliation with China, the Republic of Korea and other East Asian neighbors.

We have one year to go before the APEC Leaders’ Meeting that will take place in Yokohama on 13 and 14 November 2010. The significance of the “Hiroshima wreath” and the “Pearl Harbor wreath” should be thoroughly thrashed out in both Japan and the United States, so that we can arrive at the maximum possible consensus.

Fumio Matsuo is former Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief of Kyodo News. This is a summary of an article that first appeared in the December 2009 edition of Chuo-Koron with the headline: Prime Minister Hatoyama should first lay a wreath at Pearl Harbor.