Commentary: The South-East Asian “Hibakusha”

The Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima. | Image Credit: Sad Juno

August 6th, 1945, 08:16am, Shima Surgical Clinic, Hiroshima.

Little Boy marked its arrival on Japanese soil in a large way. The American atomic bomb, the world’s first ever, decimated everything in its path, a radius of 1.6 kilometres. About 80,000 people were killed on impact, and another 35,000 were injured.

August 9th, 1945, 11:02am, a tennis court, Nagasaki.

Three days later, Little Boy’s larger and more devastating brother, Fat Man, exploded in the city of Nagasaki, also leaving behind a 1.6-kilometre radius of total destruction, killing 35,000 people and injuring 60,000 others.

It was later noted that the more fortunate victims were the ones close enough to the point of impact to be vapourised instantly. A horrific concoction of serious burns and/or radiation poisoning —the latter would eventually lead to a host of cancers— awaits the survivors, numbering about 650,000, of which about 165,000 still live. They are known as hibakusha (被爆者).

The hibakusha are unique in that they are living relics and testaments of what is arguably Japan’s darkest hour. There can be no better way for subsequent generations to be made aware of the consequences of a nuclear attack than to listen to living stories that vividly describe the ensuing devastation, word by poignant word.

On the surface, the hibakusha’s passionate plea for a denuclearised world is inspiring to say the least, and a cause any sensible human being who cares about the world we live in can stand behind. Deservedly, the hibakusha has gained traction in recent years, making their voices heard, and appropriately so, as North Korea and the United States continue to inch ever closer towards a nuclear conflict, with both nations threatening to press the metaphorical red button. Amidst all the tension, the hibakusha serve to remind the world of the grim events that unfolded across those four fateful days.

Beyond that agenda, however, is where idealism stops and a reality check is needed. On top of the overriding objective, the hibakusha have also hinted at the need for the United States to apologise to them for the atomic bombings. In President Obama’s final year at the office, he made an unprecedented visit to Hiroshima, a step no other American president has made. In spite of that, the hibakusha felt that more should be done to help them move on. To reinforce their stance, they argue that Japan was already losing the war even before the atomic bombings, making it unnecessary; that it was inhumane to casually decide to take the lives of the inhabitants of both cities just to force a surrender they believed would have been inevitable with or without the bombings.

As much as I have been a strong admirer of Japan and all the rich culture and tradition it embodies, its stubborn selective memory remains a sticking point.

Whilst the hibakusha continue to demand an apology on the pretext of innocence, they must remember a few things:

The longer the war, the greater the casualties.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, Japan, in its campaign to expand beyond its borders, committed atrocious war crimes amounting to about 4 million deaths, in what some historians describe as the Asian Holocaust. With an enormous death toll on the cards, even a single day could have resulted in numerous casualties. Japan, even in its crippled state towards the end of the war, refused to surrender after the Hiroshima bombing; it took the fall of Nagasaki to finally convince the Japanese to concede defeat. I cannot begin to imagine how many more innocent lives would have been lost under the Japanese Occupation — lives that were, mind you, no less innocent than that of the hibakusha’s. This brings us to the next point.

Who is going to apologise for:
The Nanking Massacre, where Japanese soldiers looted and raped Chinese civilians in the city of Nanjing, resulting in an estimated 300,000 deaths;

The illicit use of comfort women in Japanese-occupied countries by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II, where tens of thousands (a figure that is still being debated on today) of women were forced into prostitution;

Closer to home, the Japanese occupation of Singapore, or Syonan-to, as they conveniently renamed us, where anti-Chinese operations like Sook Ching had taken place;

A whole list of war crimes, ranging from human experimentation to starvation.

Japan complains about statues of comfort women, yet honours Class A war criminals inside the Yasukuni Shrine amongst the rest of the Japanese war dead, where current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was seen praying at. Moreover, Japan, as the aggressor, does not have the right to dictate how victimised nations under its rule during the war choose to remember those years of oppression.

That Japan today enjoys close relations with the rest of the world is a testament to its reconciliation efforts, and that willingness to move forward is to Japan’s huge credit and cannot be overlooked. So too, is the common goal that the we and the hibakusha share. This much is clear. But, if they want us to embrace, acknowledge, or to even consider apologising for the years of suffering that they have gone through, they too must first embrace what Japan’s victims have endured.


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