A-bomb victims forsaken in Japan’s push toward militarization

On 70th anniversary of bombings, Prime Minister Abe defies history and opposition to nuclear power and armed conflict

Sumiteru Taniguchi, who survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, has made peace activism his life's work. He has also come to oppose nuclear energy.
Vaughn Wallace / Al Jazeera America

This is the third in a series of stories by Al Jazeera America commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

TOKYO — Momoko Matsumoto held her sign high: “Take Down the Abe Government!” At a demonstration outside the parliament, or Diet, in late June, on what would have been the last day of the legislative session, she stood with 30,000 fellow citizens against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the lawmakers that so often do his bidding. The reason for their protest: security bills at the heart of the conservative administration’s agenda.

Abe’s extension of the lawmakers' calendar would ultimately work in his favor. Unfortunately for 27-year-old Matsumoto and the 80 percent of Japanese opposing the prime minister's bills, the lower house passed them on July 15, thereby endorsing the unconstitutional use of troops in foreign conflicts.

“I fear for my life because this government has no respect for our lives,” said 27-year-old Matsumoto, referring not only to the security law but the March 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima as well. She drew a triangle between Japan’s poor record of nuclear safety, the U.S. atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and what she perceives to be Abe’s anti-historical march toward militarization. World War II may be an abstraction for Matsumoto and her peers, but based on her grandmother’s stories and her favorite “manga,” or Japanese comic, Message to Adolf by Osamu Tezuka, she said: “This is what it must have felt like before the war."

A protester holds a young portrait of her father from World War II. "The remains of my father are still in Burma," she said. "My war is not finished yet."
Masaya Noda for Al Jazeera America

This August is the 70th anniversary of the nuclear bombings that killed more than 210,000 people and injured countless others. Many historians believe that these actions had no military justification, but they did seal Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II in the Pacific.  

The rallying cry of “hibakusha,” or A-bomb survivors — “Never again; no more Hiroshimas, no more Nagasakis” — was generalized to postwar Japan. The nation’s new, pacifist constitution, imposed by Western Allies, renounced war and forbade the buildup of troops beyond what was necessary for “self-defense.” As a result, not one Japanese soldier has killed or been killed in the past 70 years, according to the defense ministry.

Even so, the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has long opposed this institutionalized pacifism — and refused to contend with Japan’s history of colonization, forced labor, sexual slavery and violence in the early to mid-20th century. Abe, an LDP member, has proved especially recalcitrant: Since becoming prime minister in 2012, he has denied Japanese war crimesapproved whitewashed history textbooks, fought to retain the U.S. military base on Okinawa and tried to eliminate Article 9, the pacifist clause of the constitution. In the name of national security, and with U.S. support, he has also advocated for the resumption of nuclear power, despite massive protests since the 3-11 disaster in Fukushima. Many believe that Abe, in his rush to remilitarize Japan, has ignored the suffering of A-bomb victims.

Messages from the past

In 1989, the national association of hibakusha published a four-volume record of survivors’ testimonies. Each story follows a ghastly pattern: the liquidation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the anguish, illness and stigma of ensuing decades. An unnamed woman from Nagasaki, 19 at the time of the bombing, described a neighbor who “must have been preparing lunch in the kitchen. I saw her skeleton standing there … I saw people burning the bodies of the dead by the side of the streets … those ivory-white bones scattered here and there.”

The 193,000 living hibakusha possess incomparable moral authority on matters of war and peace. Yet their message, routinized since World War II, is not heard as explicitly political. “Ordinary Japanese people don’t consider the A-bomb survivors a threat to the current agenda of militarization or nationalism, because they see their movement as a humanitarian one,” said Dr. Yoshitaka Tsubono, an epidemiologist who has helped survivors obtain long-term compensation and health care.

There are exceptions, of course. Last August, at an annual ceremony commemorating the atomic bombings, Nagasaki hibakusha Miyako Jodai criticized the Abe administration for pursuing nuclear power and a security agenda she called “an outrage against Japan’s pacifist constitution.” Hiroshi Shimizu, secretary-general of Hiroshima Hidankyo, an organization of hibakusha, echoes this sentiment today: “It is becoming an extremely dangerous time,” he said. “The atmosphere in Japan right now reminds us of the 10 ‘silent’ years after the war, when the state secrecy law was in effect and the U.S. withheld records and even the existence of hibakusha.”

While the prime minister has said, “Japan must never wage a war again,” he has made no secret of his desire to remilitarize the country. Last year, the Abe government lifted the ban on arms exports, hosted a trade show on military defense systems (a first in postwar Japan) and began the process of revising the pacifist constitution — with the purported aim of allowing the country to join international efforts in support of the U.S. and other allies. Yet the obvious focus is East Asia: “We need to be able to exercise the right to collective defense to respond to any attack from neighboring countries,” Japan’s Cabinet Office stated in a telephone interview.

Photos: A protest for peace

In June, Abe extended the parliamentary session to attempt a repeal of the constitution’s pacifist Article 9, but the testimony was largely disapproving. Legal experts recommended by both the ruling LDP and smaller political parties called Abe’s security legislation “unconstitutional.” “This is a step toward dictatorship,” said Setsu Kobayashi, a professor at Keiko University. Even former military personnel (from Japan’s constitutionally permissible self-defense forces) have opposed the LDP agenda, fearing that the country’s limited troops — just 225,000 men, most lacking combat training — would be plunged into armed conflict.

Opinion polls vacillate on questions of militarization, but “I don’t think the Japanese people are right-wing overall,” said Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, “but people are generally disengaged. It’s extremely difficult to mobilize them.”

Mass protests have been rare in Japan since 1960, when leftists and student activists unsuccessfully opposed revisions to the U.S.-Japan security accord and the Americans’ continued military presence. Yet in the summer of 2012, some 200,000 people demonstrated against nuclear power in Tokyo. Their anger was set off by the disaster in Fukushima: not only the actual explosion in March 2011, but also the lack of accountability and unremitting influence of Japan’s “nuclear village,” which Kingston describes as a pro-nuclear, public-private cartel

Nuclear, then and now

Before the 3-11 meltdown, hibakusha advocacy groups had little to say about nuclear energy. “Unfortunately, we called for the suspension and decommissioning of all nuclear plants for the first time in July 2011,” said Shimizu, the Hidankyo leader. “I now tell school children that A-bombs and nuclear plants are both created by the same radioactive material, and that our prime minister is trying to sell [this technology] to other countries.” 

Two hibakusha, 86-year-old Sumiteru Taniguchi and 71-year-old Toshiki Fujimori, traveled to New York in late August, to attend the United Nations’ review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Though member states had agreed upon disarmament as a goal in 2010, the U.S., China, Russia and France have shown little interest in surrendering their nuclear weapons. As for Japan, Abe issued a bland, joint statement with President Barack Obama: “In this 70th year since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we are reminded of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons use.”

There was no mention of Fukushima or the thin line separating energy from arsenal. “Abe says it’s necessary to restart the [nuclear power] plants. But he wants to create plutonium as a deterrent to Japan’s neighbors,” said Fujimori, who, as a baby, was injured in the Hiroshima blast. In a 2011 television interview, LDP policy council chairman and former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba voiced this logic of deterrence.

Survivors like Fujimori share an imperfect solidarity with victims of the Fukushima disaster. “On the surface, of course, both are related to radiation,” said Dr. Tsubono, “but at the movement level, there are not strong organizational ties. The average age of [A-bomb] survivors is now 80. They are too old to organize a new movement to fight nuclear energy.”

Chart: A-bomb deaths

Sources: Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization and Hiroshima Peace Media Center, based on 1976 studies conducted by Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reported to the United Nations; Dr. Yoshitaka Tsubono
Chart by Lam Thuy Vo / Al Jazeera America

What they have fought for successfully, despite being nearly omitted from the historical narrative, is recognition, monetary compensation and health care from the Japanese government. But this took time: Not until 1957, 12 years after the end of the war, did the hibakusha win a dedicated medical program. And litigation over evidentiary standards and rejected claims continues to this day.

Tsubono believes that the systems developed for survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki “will be passed on” to victims of the Fukushima disaster. Because nuclear exposure remains a source of shame (think comic book mutants), however, those affected now and in the future — by latent health conditions such as cancer and reproductive disorders — may hesitate to make themselves known.

By giving testimony and making known their experiences of war, hibakusha transmit history in an ahistorical era. At the protest before the Diet in late June, university students Ryota Suda and Shuto Nishinohara drew a connection between Abe’s hawkish policies and the vanishing annals of 20th-century Japan. As the first prime minister born after World War II, they said, he does not understand the threat of war.

“I fear that he is going to put us in danger,” said Nishinohara. “I often wonder if Prime Minister Abe thinks at all about us, the citizens of his country.”

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