Thursday will be 70 years since the U.S. struck Hiroshima with an atomic bomb. Three days later, a second nuclear weapon was dropped on Nagasaki. World War Two ended a week later, when Japan surrendered.
Despite the decades that have passed, memories of atrocities and war crimes linger. Examples include the Rape of Nanjing and the use of South Korean women as sexual slaves for Japanese troops. And the use of atomic weapons at the end of the war continues to resonate today as the world tries to curb nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea.
These issues were the focus of Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment “The Week Ahead.”
While some of the physical damage and scars have healed, emotions run high every year on the anniversary of the surrender. Japanese prime ministers traditionally mark the occasion with a speech, and anticipation of what current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will say in this year's address is creating tension between Japan, China and South Korea.
“Aug. 15 will be a big day for the Japanese to think about their past,” says Sheila A. Smith, author of “Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics & a Rising China.” Abe has said he agrees with previous official Japanese statements of contrition over World War II — but he does not believe Japan should keep apologizing for events of the past.
“Japan's neighbors are kind of scrutinizing the public statement by Japan's Prime Minister,” says Smith.
The deep historical wounds are feeding into current tensions between Japan and China over disputed and increasingly militarized territories in the East and South China Sea. “Clearly,” Smith says, “the rise of China is being felt most keenly by Japan.”
The war ended after the atomic bombs were dropped but Japan had more than the bombs to worry about when it surrendered.
“Although the bombings may have shortened the war, the Japanese already saw the handwriting on the wall." says Paul Carroll, a former official at the U.S. Department of Energy who is now program director at the Ploughshares Fund. "They were already decimated in terms of their military strength, and they were already looking at a Soviet Union, that rather than staying out of the war against them, was leaning towards joining it."
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. and Japan have reconciled their differences, and the two countries have moved on to cooperate on major issues, along with other countries in the region.
“I think that relationship comes out of World War II itself, and the post-war settlement happened during the Cold War,” says Zack Cooper, a fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “There was the Soviet threat, and it made it necessary for the U.S. and Japan to work together to counter that threat. That’s why I think the United States looks back at the 70 years as being celebration of good history, rather than focusing on what happened in the 1930s and 1940s.”
Cooper adds that the U.S. has strong allies in Asia, including Japan and South Korea. “It’s critical for Washington to get Japan and South Korea to work together, because of a number of important challenges from North Korea to China.”