In recent days, the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have mourned the victims of the atomic bombings in 1945. The ceremonies called to mind the tragic waste of innocent lives amid warfare.
The sufferings of those lost or injured in the bombing hold important memories and lessons not just for Japan but for the whole world. The memorials are important to preserving some perspective on the human costs of all warfare, and especially of atomic war, with its total inability to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
Next week, Japan’s prime minister, who spoke at the Hiroshima memorial Monday, will have a chance to show whether he learned anything from his presence in the first city to suffer atomic attack. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said he will visit a Tokyo war shrine on Wednesday, the 56th anniversary of the war’s end.
The Yasukuni shrine honors not just the dead young soldiers who were conscripted into battle by the government under the late Emperor Hirohito but also many of the highest officers who directed Japan’s military aggression against their neighbors, the United States and the Allies. Since 1978, Yasukuni has enshrined 1,000 top war criminals.
Some of the so-called Class A war criminals, convicted in questionable trials, may deserve respectful memory. As a group, though, they did much to foster and direct an aggressive militarism. Many committed horrific crimes. Their actions helped bring ruin to their own country and levels of suffering among their victims that Japan’s governments have never properly acknowledged.
Many in Japan are willing to take difficult steps toward facing the past. Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba has actively called on the Japanese to accept responsibility for the medical care of foreign victims of the bombing, some of whom were being forced to work for Japan’s war effort. He has sharply criticized the government’s appeal of a court decision that would extend medical benefits.
Neighboring governments, including China, have called on Koizumi to cancel his visit to the Yasukuni shrine. More importantly, bombing survivors in Hiroshima have lent their moral weight to the effort to block the Yasukuni visit.
Koizumi appears interested in strengthening Japan’s military, a step that could meet strong opposition at home and in Asia generally. Whatever course Japan chooses, it – like other countries – ought to act with as much honesty as possible about the inerasable evils of war. The victims of war deserve that.