Tokyo Notes

Are A-Bomb Jokes OK?

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Tokyo Notes

Are A-Bomb Jokes OK?

Quiz show QI caused controversy after jokes about a survivor of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima attacks. Did it go too far?

By now, there can be few people here who don’t know the name Tsutomu Yamaguchi. Japan’s first registered ‘double hibakusha,’ Yamaguchi suffered horrific injuries but survived the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima before returning home to Nagasaki and enduring the same hell three days later. ‘I thought the mushroom cloud had followed me home,’ he once famously said.

A modest man who declined to talk about what happened to him for decades, Yamaguchi quietly raised his family after the war and shunned the anti-bomb movement because, in his daughter Toshiko’s words, ‘he was so healthy, he thought it would have been unfair to people who were really sick.’ So he would surely have been astonished to find himself posthumously the subject of a global debate, after panelists on the BBC show QI last December asked whether Yamaguchi was the unluckiest or luckiest man on the planet.

Was it funny for the show’s panelists to joke about radioactivity, and that the bomb had ‘landed on Yamaguchi and bounced off,’ or to express amazement that the trains had kept running, despite the blasts? They’d surely find it much more difficult to laugh about, say, the victims of IRA or al-Qaeda underground bombings in Britain. But as one commentator said, humour, often puzzling and complicated, can't be understood outside of its cultural and social context.

British comedians sometimes feel free to trade jokes about the agonies of wartime Japan thanks partly to the deep national consensus that Britain was on the right side, fighting a good war against worldwide fascism. The education system and media there has helped several generations of its citizens overlook the fact that at the time, Britain ran a vast global empire, maintained at great cost in blood and suffering.

There’s hardly any need to point out, by the way, how offensive some Europeans occasionally find Japanese humour, which also feels free to joke about topics considered taboo elsewhere. It took retailer Don Quijote seven years and an angry letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to realize that a party outfit featuring a black jacket, a swastika armband in a package adorned with the phrase ‘Heil Hitler’ might not be that funny.

The US-based human rights group criticised Japan again this week, after pop band Kishidan donned Nazi uniforms for a jaunty February appearance on MTV Japan. ‘Such garb…is never tolerated in the mainstream of any civilised country outside of Japan,’ thundered the group’s associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper.

That perception of double standards is one reason perhaps why so few people outside Japan seem stirred by protests about the BBC programme. Another is because they think Japan has done such a poor job of facing up to its own wartime past. But what does that have to do with Yamaguchi, a man who endured the cancer-related death of his son and wife, and the lifelong illnesses of his two daughters Naoko and Toshiko before dying of cancer himself last year? In the documentary Nijuuhibaku (Twice Bombed, Twice Survived), he’s finally able to weep, in his 80s, as he recalls watching bloated corpses floating in the city's rivers and encountering the walking dead of Hiroshima, whose melting flesh hung like ‘giant gloves.’

Unfortunately, it’s bureaucrats and politicians who write the national narratives of the war and its aftermath, not men like Yamaguchi. Last week, I interviewed Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara who’s not only one of Japan’s best-known historical revisionists, but also a keen supporter of a nuclear-armed Japan. ‘The fact is that diplomatic bargaining power means nuclear weapons,’ he said. ‘We could build one in a year.’

As he recalled, even as then-Prime Minister Eisaku Sato committed Japan to its so-called non-nuclear principles—formally adopted by the Diet in 1971 (principles that commit Japan to never produce, possess or allow the entry of nuclear weapons into the country)—Sato was undermining them by allowing the United States to ferry nuclear weapons in and out of Japan.

According to Ishihara, Sato approached the Americans, then the Germans, for help in developing the bomb, but was rebuked. ‘If the Sato administration had unilaterally developed weapons then, for a start, North Korea wouldn’t have kidnapped so many of our citizens,’ said the governor. Prime Minister Sato of course went on to win the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘opposition to any plans for a Japanese nuclear-weapons programme.’

Some things, it seems, really are beyond a joke.