Friday, August 06, 2010

Hiroshima Trip, Post 4: Awakening the Sleeping Colonizer

The week during which the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings fall is a time during which the battle over Japanese national identity reaches its peak. For it is during this time that the discourse on Japan being a victim from World War II is thickest and most vibrant.

As the stories of hundreds of thousands who died in the atomic blasts are recounted, it is very easy to forget the prologue to that moment, where Japan had spent decades sometimes violently building an empire, which at its peak, during World War II consisted of colonies in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam and Guam. As Japan is utterly defeated and destroyed by the United States after World War II (and bares the radiation scars to prove it) and forced to unconditionally surrender and accept numerous US military bases there as part of their new relationship, it emerges as newly humbled, bearing the shameful mark of defeat. As the nation seeks to move on, it resorts to victimization in order to accomplish that feat.

The sadness and tragedy of the attacks, instead of becoming things which most would rather forget, become cornerstones to postwar Japanese national identity. What is forgotten instead is the aggression of before World War II, where Japan sought to acquire its own empire similar to what European countries and the United States had accumulated. The fact that Japan is forced to shoulder the ultimate atrocity (the nuclear one), helps the country to forget its own atrocities, most importantly those committed against the peoples of China and Korea.

The progressive strain of this discourse is an interesting one, since while it accepts Japan as a victim which suffered greatly because of the nuclear attacks, it does not attempt to deny or cover over Japan’s previous aggression. Instead, the nuclear attacks are the moral of the story, a lesson learned, by a country which sought to make an empire and learned the hard way that it should not seek to dominate others. Interestingly enough, this progressive dimension has helped to create a strong culture of peace and anti-nuclear war in Japan, and give it an incredible power in terms of helping build a different world, hopefully based on peace and not war.

On the second day of the 2010 World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, after dozens of speakers had taken turns expressing their condolences to the victims of the nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a different type of speaker came to podium. Several different victims of Japanese colonialism had already spoken at that point, but none (myself included) had mentioned much about that fact, as we instead focuses on the various issues of the present, in which we found Japan and its progressive community helpful allies.

Mr. Hur Jong Wha spoke, representing the Korean Atomic Bomb Casualty Association, gave in his speech a short history of Japanese colonialism in Korea. In his written remarks he went several centuries back in details, but in his speech itself, he focuses on 20th century atrocities.

On August 29, 1910, Japan forcibly annexed Korea and imposed a repressive rule that would last 35 years. Japan deprived Korean people of their language and freedom of religion. We were also forced to give up our Korean names and take Japanese ones. Japan committed unforgiveable crimes: it sent Korea people to the battlefield, made them work in coalmines and shipyards against their will, and forced young Korean women to serve as comfort women for Japanese soldiers.
As a result, when the bombs were dropped in Nagasaki and Hiroshima there were many Koreans who were killed and thousands more who survived and were later allowed to return to Korea after the war was over. As Mr. Eur Jong Wha spoke he shook constantly, his arms twitching as he clutched the over-sized papers his speech was printed on. It wasn’t clear why he was shaking so much, if it was because of the intensity of the topic, or simply a matter of old age, or perhaps he was feeling the unspoken pressure which no one wanted to address, but which at the same time no one would condemn as well. He had broken the silence on this issue, and been the one to awake the sleeping colonizer that Japan is today, and so part of me was sure that his shaking was because of his taking on that necessary, but unenviable task.

His speech ended up leaving a question in the air which no one wanted to address. For all the talk of Japanese hibakusha, US imperialism and aggression, where were we to position the hibakusha who were affected by radiation because of Japanese imperialism?

Japan invaded Korea, China and Indochina and went on to attack the US which resulted in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US. I can guess how bitter innocent Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki felt then. But the feeling of resentment of those Korean sufferers who had been displaced by Japanese aggression and forcibly taken to Japan was much stronger. 65 years have passed since then, with no one understanding our suffering and pain, with no one caring about us…If Japan really seeks to establish a “peaceful world without atomic and hydrogen bombs,” it should at first sincerely apologize for what it had done to neighboring countries and victims there, in a way that is acceptable to them.

The speaker was tortured by the lack of recognition of Korean hibakusha, and how that lack of attention stems from centuries of racism between these two countries. By elevating the suffering of Japanese hibakusha and completely ignoring the plight of their Korean counterparts, it was just another way that the legacy of Japanese oppression lived on. Mr. Eur Jong Wha called on Japan to undertake the helping of Korean hibakusha with the same urgency and care that they did for Japanese hibakusha. He pleaded that they not look at this issue through the racism which led to them subjugating the Korean people, but to take responsibility for what it had done so that Japan can truly be the leader for peace in the world that it can be.

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