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


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Reflecting on Japan’s pacifism and the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings

By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

On Sept. 17, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial security bill passed, marking the biggest shift in Japan’s defense policy in half a century, despite months of protest nationwide. These protests have distressed many within the country who are despondent at the divisive polarization of opinions on whether Japan should be able to intervene militarily overseas to aid allies. Mass scale protests themselves are generally uncharacteristic for Japan, however, this issue has inspired aggressive opposition for the security bill within parliament itself. Scenes from the night of the vote were broadcast on national television, including opposition politicians piled on top of the committee chairman, wrestling away his microphone to prevent the voting process. Meanwhile, lawmakers from Prime Minister Abe’s party pulled them away and formed a physical barricade around the podium.

The debate surrounding the constitutionality of affording Japan’s defense forces a larger role overseas continues to obscure the larger underlying question: how will this symbolic shift play out practically? Japan’s self defense force has already been recognized as one of the strongest military forces in the world, with technologically advance air, sea and land capabilities. The extent to which Japan will change practically has yet to be seen, but the public response to the bills’ passing alone has been substantial.

The passage of the security bill effectively reinterprets Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, a pacifist provision stating that Japan “forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation.” At the very least, it represents a symbolic shift towards a more hawkish Japan. Domestic opinions on this bill are often polarized, including some people favoring Japan becoming a “normal nation,” while others fear that this change will enable Japan to help the United State wage “an illegal war” in the Middle East.

Much of my work towards the end of this summer focused on speaking with individuals, in both Nagasaki and Tokyo, about their reaction to these historic changes during the 70th anniversary memorial ceremony for the atomic bombing and end of the Pacific War. Japan’s defense policy is inextricably linked to collective war memory, which has added fuel to public polarization on the topic and entrenched the media in a partisan framework.

Both Nagasaki and Tokyo’s memorial ceremonies are rooted in commemorating the past, and both used the same history to advocate for or against increased defense forces, ultimately cautioning against repeating the mistakes of the past. Whereas Nagasaki’s pacifist message for peace has usually focused on the abolition of nuclear weapons in order to ensure a peaceful future, this year marked a shift towards eliminating all forms of war, including even the potential for war. Prior to the security bill controversy, much of the protests in Tokyo focused on decommissioning Japan’s nuclear power plants and speaking out against the human rights problems in Fukushima, following the historic Great East Japan Earthquake in March of 2011. Tokyo’s memorial ceremony was not known for massive protest turnouts, but the introduction of the security bill set the stage for pacifists and hawkish nationalists to have something to rally around or against.

Some American press omitted exploring the relevance of these important memorials in contemporary politics. The New York Times described Hiroshima’s ceremony in detail, briefly touching on the city’s skepticism towards the authenticity of Prime Minister Abe’s declaration for peace. Conversely, for Nagasaki’s memorial, the Times opted to leave out any discussion of the ceremony altogether in favor of reopening the tired debate of whether it was right or not to have used the atomic bomb.

To address the deficit in content covering the nationwide protests, I’ve included below two videos that capture the concern and energy of the protests on both sides of the debate in two cities that represent its extremes, Nagasaki and Tokyo. Although the security bill has passed, the diversity in emotional response has not, and thus, a reflection on public reaction remains relevant. I intentionally left both clips as raw as possible to invite reflection, not political imposition, on viewers to experience viscerally the unfolding historic political protests within Japanese society. What is lacking in domestic debate and discussion is a safe space and public forum for compromise and discussion between both sides. Many historians and political theorists have debated the pros and cons of Japan’s militarization, as well as the relevant implications. In order for Japan to move forward in a rights-respecting way, all of these considerations should be publicly aired.

Nagasaki City, Japan (August 2-9, 2015)

Compared to five years ago, Nagasaki City’s peace events felt different. The city’s rhetoric and messages during the official peace ceremony subtly shifted away from nuclear weapons and towards war as the primary anathema. The city’s Peace Park, always decorated in symbolic crane offerings for peace, included illustrations and posters villainizing the security bill. Many communities from around Japan, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hometown, travelled to the city to distribute flyers in protest of the security bill and in solidarity with Nagasaki, one of two cities martyred in collective Pacifist memory as a symbol for eternal peace.

The city also seemed less concerned with international response. Whereas five years ago, I was chased down by Japanese journalists for interviews on my thoughts on the lack of American diplomatic presence at the peace ceremony, this year, the media and public shifted focus towards domestic targets and, arguably, persona non grata, Prime Minister Abe.

Nagasaki City Hall commemorated the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing by inviting hundreds of international boy and girl scouts from over ninety countries to an International Youth Peace Conference. At the conference, a boy scout from Okinawa, a city rife with controversy over the American military presence, asked the keynote speaker, an atomic bomb survivor, what his views were on the security bill. This was not the typical nuclear weapons-related fare. His response was that only two good things that came out of the war: (1) he appreciated his family infinitely more, and (2) Japan adopted Article 9 of the Constitution as a commitment to never wage war again. In addition to participation at the conference, British, French, and even Iraqi global citizens roamed the peace park and city in observance of this special anniversary and its significance in a greater collective wish for peace.

The Peace Ceremony itself was split along partisan lines, and the audience was not afraid to chime with applause and verbal attacks depending on the speaker. Despite the unbearable heat, seating was filled to maximum capacity one hour prior to the opening remarks. Prime Minister Abe remained silent on general security matters, but restated Japan’s commitment to uphold the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” and to continue to provide support for aging atomic bomb survivors through the 20-year-old Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law. An angry voice in the audience yelled out during the Prime Minister’s speech, but was overpowered by the consistent wave of cicadas chiming before he was pulled away by security. When Sumiteru Taniguchi spoke on behalf of Nagasaki’s atomic bomb survivors, he described the security bill as “a return to wartime era” and that it “will lead to war.” He further described it as “an attempt to overturn the nuclear abolition activities and wishes held and carried out by the hibakusha and those multitudes of people who desire peace,” which drew a round of applause. Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue directed his speech towards the Prime Minister and Diet, urging them to listen to the voices of unease and concern regarding the destruction of the pacifist ideology “engraved in our hearts 70 years ago.” More applause from the crowd ensued, changing the tone of the ceremony from memorial to impassioned debate forum.

Tokyo, Chiyoda Ward, Japan (August 15, 2015)

Every year on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese Emperor and Prime Minister deliver memorial speeches from central Tokyo (Chiyoda Ward) to the nation, amongst invitation-only members of government and surviving family of wartime victims. Near Nihon Budokkan, the indoor arena typically used for this official speech, is the controversial Yasukini Shrine, which has been internationally and “indelibly associated with unrepentant historical revisionism, and a resurgent ethnic nationalism,” according to Christopher Pokarier, a professor of business and governance at Waseda University in Tokyo. In plain terms, it is a shrine to commemorate soldiers and other military officials fallen in war. It is central to the way many honor those who have passed in service, sometimes family, during the Pacific War. Pokarier, writing for Australia’s The Independent, notes that “right-wing groups, militaria aficionados and very many ‘ordinary’ Japanese, visit the shrine. Their motives are as diverse as their social identities, and belie simple generalizations about the meaning of Yasukuni.”

While this memorial has always been normatively divisive, this year, people in favor or against a militarily stronger Japan were faced with contemplating how society may soon be affected. One woman expressed support for the security bill on paper, but was concerned about its execution, specifically the potential for future political abuse, which could result in the unnecessary deaths of many Japanese citizens.

While it is typical to see a diverse crowd of nationalists, military-garbed hawks, ordinary citizens and fringe minority groups around Chiyoda during the commemoration ceremony, the main drag turned into ground zero for marches in support of the security bill by late afternoon this past year. Once more, the heated debate was taken to the streets, literally, as thousands of citizens marched with Japanese flags shouting “頑張ろう日本” or “Try your best/you can do it Japan.” Some citizens stood on street corners with microphones imploring passersby to “get worried” and “to think of the children because China is coming.”As I found myself on the corner of the main intersection, I filmed and watched for about two hours as thousands of people passed by, repeating these messages as others applauded.

Eventually, at least fifty police, in full body armor and helmets, blocked off the street, set up barricades right in front of where I was standing and proceeded to stop traffic by driving their squad buses into the center of the street. While at first it was unclear to me who needed protecting, the group around me suddenly turned sour and began angrily yelling at a group marching through the center of the street. It turned out to be pacifists making their way through the area, sharing their own views on the security bill.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She conducted 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.

Video and Photo credits: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe


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

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