Atomic Remembrance and Japan's Security Reform Debate
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Image Credit: Flickr/ Richard Cassan

Atomic Remembrance and Japan's Security Reform Debate


Last Thursday, Hiroshima commemorated the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing. Every August 6 is a somber day in Japan, but the outside world’s interest was particularly piqued this year. Foreign dignitaries from a record 100 countries participated in the ceremony – including representatives from countries that possess nuclear weapons: the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and France. Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, attended for the second consecutive year, and Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, attended for the first time.

Today, Nagasaki holds its own Peace Memorial Ceremony in remembrance of the August 9 atomic bombing, the second – and last – in history.

Though Japan’s nuclear allergy is historically rooted (stemming not only from the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also from the 1954 Lucky Dragon Incident), contemporary remembrance is intricately intertwined with antiwar politics and opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security reform legislation.

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Opponents of the security bills are using the anniversary of the bombing to push their agenda by trying to remind the Japanese people of the horrors of war – and suggesting that war is inevitable should Abe’s proposed defense reforms pass. Standing at the site of so much suffering and calling for pacifism is an undoubtedly effective appeal to pathos.

Opposition activities included a group of protesters marching through the park after the Hiroshima ceremony to oppose the security bills. Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan, also released the following statement on the same day: “Sadly, we are seeing this [pacifist] tradition in Japan being eroded by the Abe government as it begins to dismantle the so-called peace Constitution.”

Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui’s criticism in his speech was more oblique. He argued that “broadly versatile security systems that do not depend on military might” and continued promotion of the “pacifism of the Japanese Constitution” are vital to abolishing nuclear weapons.

Many hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors, are speaking up, demonstrating – yet again – that they are far from passive victims. Instead, they have been using their horrific and unique stories to actively push for world denuclearization.

Seven groups of hibakusha urged Abe after the ceremony in Hiroshima to withdraw his security bills, arguing that the legislation package is unconstitutional. Yukio Yoshioka (86), chief of a liaison council of hibakusha groups, was left feeling “disgusted” after the meeting with Abe. “The government’s current attitude is trampling hibakusha’s wishes and feelings,” he said. Invoking the lives lost, Yoshioka continued, “We must not repeat our mistakes and make Japan a country where those killed in the atomic bombings cannot rest in peace.”

During the annual speech at Hiroshima, Abe did not comment on the security bills currently being debated in the Upper House, though he did repeat Japan’s pledge to “eliminate nuclear weapons from the world” and pledged a greater effort at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly toward this goal.

However, to much criticism, Abe did not reaffirm Japan’s three nonnuclear principles in his speech. The nonnuclear principles, promulgated by Sato Eisaku in 1967, declare that Japan will not possess, produce, or introduce nuclear weapons. The reaction this year has been especially critical because Abe did reaffirm these principles in 2013 and 2014. Public speculation that the omission was intentional led to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga trying to put out the fire: “[Maintaining] the three nonnuclear principles is a matter of course. It’s unshaken.”

Realizing how bad the optics were (especially since on Wednesday Defense Minister Gen Nakatani commented that the new security laws could theoretically allow Japan to transport nuclear weapons to its allies), Abe promised on Friday to include the pledge to observe the three nonnuclear principles – which are not enshrined in law – in his speech at Nagasaki on Sunday.

Nagasaki has not become the bastion of peace activism that Hiroshima has, even though there is an annual commemoration ceremony there as well, at the Nagasaki Peace Park. One of the reasons is because of polarization in the community over the narrative about the suffering of the underprivileged, specifically minorities such as hidden Christians and burakumin. Furthermore, there is no immediately recognizable symbol such as Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome, which conveys the magnitude of suffering.

There is a popular expression in Japan about the differing reactions between victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings: “Ikari no Hiroshima, Inori no Nagasaki” (“Hiroshima rages, Nagasaki prays”).

On Thursday, we saw the rage against the futility of war, targeted against what opponents call Abe’s “war bills.” On Sunday, will we see prayers?

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