As a believer in the strong US-Japan relationship, I was impressed and assured by Ms. Caroline Kennedy’s firm commitment to representing “the powerful bonds that unite our two democratic societies” during her confirmation hearing as the next Ambassador to Japan.
And as a believer in the Jewish saying, “In remembrance lie the roots of redemption,” I was also touched by Ms. Kennedy’s reference to her father’s participation in the Pacific War and her own visit to Hiroshima. Her willingness to carry on the legacy of the painful chapter of our two countries in order to deepen our friendship gives us hope while encouraging all of us to do the same.
With such an Ambassador representing the US in Tokyo, President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima or Nagasaki now seems more likely. The symbolism of such a visit is as compelling as it is obvious. Mr. Obama has consistently pursued the goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons. A visit to an atomic-bombed city would certainly provide a powerful historic and humanizing backdrop to such a sentiment, one shared by millions of people in Japan and the US and beyond. It can also send a dual message to Pyongyang that the United States stands firmly with its ally Japan even as Mr. Obama seeks to de-nuclearize this region.
However, before making any final decision, President Obama should signal that such a powerful gesture of a historic first visit of any US president to Hiroshima or Nagasaki should be accompanied by significant gestures by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
First, a clear commitment to Japan’s past apologies to the victims of the aggressive war that Imperial Japan waged. Given Prime Minister Abe’s reluctance to embrace his predecessors’ apologies offered to Asian victims, including former Comfort Women, and more recently Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s remarks that Japan should learn from the Nazi, reaffirming Japan’s clean break from the wartime past is a prerequisite for President Obama’s visit to pay homage to the civilian victims of Hiroshima.
Secondly, an opening of all WWII Japanese archives so that younger generations can begin the process of learning the full story of that era. Only through such learning will the foundation for true reconciliation between Japan and her former victims be established.
Thirdly, Prime Minister Abe should also encourage his country’s population to learn about the suffering of Americans at the hands of the Japanese military. In the early months of the Pacific War, approximately 27,000 US soldiers became POWs of the Japanese. They endured the infamous Bataan Death March and years of slave labor. Forty percent of them perished due to abuse and inhumane treatment. In 2010, Japanese Foreign Ministry started a program of inviting former American POWs of the Japanese. These former POWs said sharing their painful POW experience with today’s Japanese people helped them finally feel that their old wounds were healed. But many of the Japanese companies that actually abused them while forcing them to perform slave labor have not acknowledged it nor apologized. Prime Minster Abe can certainly encourage these companies to join the government’s effort for reconciliation.
For a quarter of century, Jewish human rights organization Simon Wiesenthal Center has been involved in Japan and I am particularly proud of the fact that our Japanese language exhibition, “Courage to Remember: Anne Frank and the Holocaust,” has been viewed by over a million Japanese.
The Center has also been supporting former American POWs of the Japanese in their effort to educate people on their history. Its Museum of Tolerance recently screened a documentary on their POW experiences.
A visit by president Obama represents a unique opportunity for two former foes
and long time democratic allies to open a chapter to the future based on mutual
trust and truth. I wish Ambassador Kennedy all the best in paving the way for
President Obama’s visit to Japan’s atomic ground zero. Her father would be proud
and his fellow Pacific War veterans will appreciate her effort to help younger
generations on both sides of the Pacific better understand the road that ran
between Pearl Harbor and Nagasaki.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
This article was originally published in Japanese by Mainichi Shimbun.