As Obama visits Hiroshima, don’t give Japan a free pass on its wartime record

Click photo to download. Caption: In December 1941, the USS Arizona burns after being hit by a bomb in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.
Click photo to download. Caption: In December 1941, the USS Arizona burns after being hit by a bomb in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

By Ben Cohen/

Despite leaving the world an unsafer place than when he found it, President Barack Obama isn’t shying away from busting those foreign policy taboos. The president who brought us a nuclear deal with the Iranian mullahs, and who gave Cuba’s fossilized communist regime a new lease on life, is about to fly to Japan. Once there, he will highlight the grave dangers of nuclear war in the city that has become a synonym for Armageddon: Hiroshima.

On May 27, Obama will become the first president to visit Hiroshima since the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city on Aug. 6, 1945, claiming up to 150,000 lives. On Aug. 9, a second bomb hit Nagasaki, killing up to 80,000 people. As a result, the war in the Pacific against the Japanese Empire ended with Tokyo’s full surrender just six days later.

The human toll was dreadful and the attacks on Japan remain the only concrete example we have of the kinds of horrors that are visited by nuclear weapons. In that sense, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings urge both grief and moral reflection.

It’s expected that Obama will use his trip to Hiroshima to repeat the recent call of his secretary of state, John Kerry, “to create and pursue a world free from nuclear weapons,” issued during Kerry’s own visit to the Japanese city last month. There has been much debate over whether Obama will offer an explicit apology for Hiroshima. For whatever it’s worth, the White House is currently denying that the president will do so.

Yet the very prospect of Obama’s presence in Hiroshima is troubling, because of the enormous distance he has put between his own foreign policy and that of many of his predecessors. Several commentators have correctly pointed out the rich irony of an American president presenting a chastened account of America’s wartime actions when, in our own time, Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons and North Korea already has them. Not to mention that the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and East Asia looms larger now than ever before.

On top of the burdens of the present, though, there are the burdens of the past. The problem with turning Hiroshima into a universal symbol is that the historical context around the tragedy is removed. We have to remember that Japan was still fighting fiercely in August 1945, after its Nazi German ally had been defeated, and was prepared to sacrifice its entire population to counter the Allies. A land invasion in this environment would have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops. That was a key consideration behind the decision to end the war by dropping the bomb.

Nobody should celebrate that decision. But it is reasonable to say that any contrition on the part of America and its Western allies should be matched by equal, if not greater, contrition by the government of Japan. After all, Japan launched the war on America in 1941. Its subsequent treatment of the peoples in Japanese occupied territories as well as Allied prisoners of war is, alongside the Holocaust, one of the darkest chapters in the history of World War II.

But post-war Germany has faced up to its past, has paid reparations to survivors, and continues to memorialize the 6 million Jews and millions of others murdered by the Nazis. Nothing remotely similar has taken place in Japan.

The catalogue of Japanese atrocities is long and grim. There was the massacre in the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, in which up to 300,000 died. That was part of a reign of terror in China in which civilians were turned into slave laborers and poison gas was used by the Japanese military to quell resistance. Thousands of women in Japanese occupied territories from Korea to the Philippines were used as sexual slaves by Japanese officers, who referred to them insultingly as “comfort women.” Around 13,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 local slave laborers died during the construction of the “death railway” connecting Burma with Thailand, or Siam as it was then known. Thousands of American and Filipino POWs lost their lives during the infamous Bataan “death march” that ended at Japanese prison camps. And that is only a partial list.

Japan never paid meaningful reparations to the survivors of the imperial atrocities—a marked contrast not just in relation to Germany, but also to America that, under the Ronald Reagan administration, paid out $20,000 to the families of Japanese Americans unjustly interned during the Second World War. In 1998, when Emperor Akihito visited London, surviving British POWs used the occasion to point out that they had received a paltry $200 as compensation for the torture and incarceration they endured at the hands of the Japanese. Thousands more victims in Asia received exactly nothing—no recognition, no compensation, and no apology.

Just last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received harsh criticism for sending a ritual offering to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where some of Japan’s worst war criminals are honored. Abe’s spokesman defended his boss by saying that he had used his own funds for the offering, rather than public money, but when you consider who is commemorated at the shrine, you have to ask whether Japan’s elected leader really grasps the nature of his country’s wartime atrocities.

Those commemorated at Yasukuni include 14 “Class A” war criminals convicted by the International Tribunal after the war. Among them you will find Heitaro Kimura, who bore prime responsibility for the “death railway,” Seishiro Itagaki, who commanded Japanese troops in China at the end of the 1930s, and Akira Muto, a former military attache to Nazi Germany who oversaw the Nanking massacre. Hearing the names of these men should arouse the same kind of revulsion we feel when we hear the names of Nazis like Eichmann or Goebbels. But it seems that we have largely forgotten their Japanese counterparts and their appalling crimes.

As of this writing, President Obama has not yet departed for Japan, and his Hiroshima remarks are, presumably, still to be written. If he does decide, in the end, to offer an apology for the nuclear strike on Hiroshima, perhaps he might also have the courage to demand that Japan’s present leaders engage similarly with their country’s own gruesome record.


Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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