Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

The uses and abuses of history for both Japan’s government and atomic bomb survivors

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By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

久しぶり、日本。Japan, it has been a while. My seventh time returning to Japan has not rendered me immune to the excitement and anticipation, akin to a homecoming of sorts or reunion with an old friend. As I begin another chapter, comprised of almost a decade’s worth of work, I can’t help but be reminded of how fundamental socio-political and legal questions impacting Japan’s future have changed considerably since I began my undergraduate studies.

Some of my initial questions included: Will Japan reaffirm the US-Japan alliance treaty, or move past it towards a more autonomous security vision? Will Japan uphold or reinterpret Article 9 of its constitution (which renounces war as a sovereign right)? How will these decisions alter Japan’s dynamic with other Asian countries in the region? These question have been largely answered recently, setting the groundwork for historic changes. In July 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announced a “reinterpretation” of Article 9 to allow for military action with allies. This is a significant departure from the original pacifist meaning, popularly imbued in Article 9 of the 1947 Japanese Constitution, which took a more literal approach to the text’s pledge that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Public response was seen in extremes, with one man setting himself on fire in central Tokyo in protest. In May 2015, Prime Minister Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress. Together with President Obama, he announced a joint vision for security, trade and historical reconciliation between the two allies. New bilateral defense cooperation guidelines were announced, some of which were newly made possible due to the divisive reinterpretation of Article 9 the previous year.

Tangled up in this fundamental question of sovereign military might—an unquestioned afterthought in most developed nations—is Japan’s postwar legacy, which remains an ever present force in contemporary domestic and international politics. How Japan deals with its history, its complex relationship with America, and civilian experience of that lived history, is central to my current work in connection with the Nagasaki City Hall and the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace. Prior to law school, I received a Kathryn Davis Grant to document the lives and stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki as a project for peace. There, I interacted with and interviewed the Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings. Their stories and experiences are important components of Japanese history that are barely accessible in film and writing, let alone within the United States. More than ever, as the hibakusha pass away, I knew action was required to collect substantial video documentation of the stories of Nagasaki that barely exists.

This summer, I am building upon this work with a team of transcribers and translators that are combing through interviews and hours of footage and testimony. The translated testimonies are beginning to reveal the complexities of humanitarian downfalls in modern warfare and the difficulties of creating legal structures to address postwar civilian ailments. Historian John Dower documents in his book, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, that it was not until 1952, seven years after the atomic bombing and end of the war, that the Japanese government began to extend special assistance to bomb victims. This decision, he says, was due in part to censorship of Nagasaki photographs and testimony, sanitized reporting of the approximately 75,000 deaths in Nagasaki and a desire to move past a visible reminder of the horrors of war.

This delay in aid had terrible consequences. While reading interview transcripts this summer, I am sitting in Espresso D Works, a New York-style hipster café enclave, hidden in ex-pat haven Ebisu, Tokyo. As I continue to sift through my translations, I come across my interview with Sakue Shimohira, age ten at the time of the bombing. Ms. Shimohira has dedicated her life to sharing her story in hopes that future generations remember the past, deepen their empathy towards others, and work toward “the dream of peace.” Her interview breaks down the results of aid-delay in shockingly personal terms:

Before, those injured by the bomb would come together and ask for reparations to cover the medical expenses of their injuries, but they didn’t get any money, and all died. Many people couldn’t bear the pain, and committed suicide. My younger sister committed suicide. Her stomach was infested with maggots [a common side effect as the result of open wounds from exposure to the atomic blast]. At night, it was too dark in the room to remove them. In the morning, I told her to get up so that I could pluck out the maggots, but they were already deep in her flesh. They writhed and fell out in droves. My sister wanted me to commit suicide with her, but since I had been fortunate enough to survive the bomb, I said that I wanted to continue to live, on behalf of my mother and other deceased family. The Hisaisha Kyogikai was [later] established in 1956 for these atomic bomb survivors. With the establishment of the organization, we continued to appeal to the government for support, but they told us to be patient, and offered no help. A lot of people couldn’t afford to go to the hospital, and died.

My concentration is broken by a barista, who approaches and asks me in Japanese whether I like Nagasaki while pointing to a book sharing the same title at my side. I respond with a short explanation of why I am here in Japan and the work I am doing this summer. Surprised by my response, the barista thanks me and remarks that I am “so Japanese” for doing this. This is not an atypical response I receive from Japanese people, many who find it surprising an American would take interest in this history and become so involved. Nevertheless, I find it surprising given that the hibakusha experiences are not isolated, but rather a unique example in an array of cases in the developed world where governments struggle to develop legal structures for victim compensation (including the recent natural and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan).

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Jennifer Mason from the Brookings Institute predicts that Prime Minister Abe will be under added intense scrutiny from the United States and Japan’s Asian neighbors, as he prepares for his August 15 speech commemorating this historical landmark. During a tense and rapidly changing time of nationalism in Asia, the uses and abuses of history continue to pervade. However, as John Dower reflects—and I must agree—most of these particular historical considerations leave out the fate of the nuclear victims themselves and yet they are inseparable. I will be traveling to Nagasaki shortly to document these important memorial events as they unfold. Nagasaki City Hall has graciously granted me press access to document some of the key political and educational events surrounding this anniversary. With newfound political importance, I look forward to the historical and personal narratives that will be delivered in favor of reconciliation and memory of these events, as well as what this may mean for the near future.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is conducting an independent project documenting the stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, Japan with help from the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace and Nagasaki City Hall.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

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Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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