The 70th anniversary of the end of WWII yielded many symbolic, even cathartic moments. There were aging Holocaust survivors crossing one last time the gates of hell that was Auschwitz. There was the parade in Moscow which saluted the last of a generation that defeated the Nazis and stormed Hitler’s Berlin bunker.
There was the momentous visit by President Obama to ground zero at Hiroshima, a gesture deeply appreciated by Japan, now the strongest democracy in Asia and our key ally in region.
On this December 7th, remaining survivors of that “day of infamy,” recalled the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, a pivotal event that roused America from its isolationist stupor to take on the Axis Powers.
And now, Japanese Prime Minister Abe will visit Pearl Harbor, but Japanese officials hastened to add that he will not offer an apology.
Many in Japan today still believe that Imperial Japan was the victim, not the initiator of war. From Okinawa to Hiroshima, the historic narrative always seems to begin with the very real suffering of innocent civilians, rarely with the surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and so many other unsuspecting Asian nations that December, 70 years ago.
That’s a shame. While such a gesture would enrage many of Abe’s core constituency, it would have helped many people who suffered the consequences of Imperial Japan’s launching the Asia-Pacific war, find closure for the past and hope for the future.
Chief among those who deserve the bow and apology are former American servicemen and women who witnessed the deaths of their comrades in Pearl Harbor and on forgotten beaches that dot the Pacific, along with the handful of former American POWs and slave laborers still alive today.
And Yoshiko Shimabukoru and her classmates also deserve an apology.
I met 88-year-old Yoshiko at the opening of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Courage to Remember exhibition in Okinawa. She guided me through the Himeyuri Peace Museum located near the site of one of the most vicious and deadly battles of WWII.
Yoshiko is not an ordinary guide. She is a survivor and eyewitness to an all- but- forgotten chapter of history. With great dignity and piercing honesty, Yoshiko described how she and her teenage Okinawan classmates were pressed into service as nurses by the Japanese Imperial Army. Soldiers were under orders to fight against US forces to the last man—and civilian. When it finally ended, more than 12,000 American troops had been killed—the largest single US casualty count in the Pacific Theater and over 70,000 Japanese soldiers died.
142,000 Okinawan civilians perished.
The Japanese military was determined to slow America’s march towards the home islands, whatever the human toll. Ironically, it was their scorched earth policy, the fanaticism of their soldiers, the use of civilians as human shields, and the resulting massive US casualties that in the end, actually hastened the defeat of Japan.
Okinawa proved to American leaders that a head-on invasion of Japan proper would be disastrous. Japanese soldiers and civilians, including women and children could be expected to defend their homeland such fanaticism that it was projected that an invasion could cost 1 million Americans killed and wounded.
Without question, Okinawa influenced President Truman’s decision not to put American boots on Japanese soil, but instead drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But back then, teenage Yoshiko and her classmates knew nothing about the geo-politics, only that they were trapped in a war that they were taught Japan would never lose.
At the Peace Museum I walked with Yoshiko amidst smiling pictures, that in peacetime would have been in her high school yearbook, but here served to put a human face on friends who never had a chance.
Yoshiko paused at many a photograph, recalling the circumstances of each life cut short. She also stopped at two tablets that had no pictures—only names. It was as if she wanted to ensure that these faceless victims of war would still be remembered, if only for another day…
Before leaving that day, I asked, “Yoshiko, it is 70 years later, what is the most important lesson that you have learned?”
Without hesitation she sighed: “We knew nothing about the outside world…I look back now and realize they lied to us. Our education was a lie...”
But many in Japan today still believe that Imperial Japan was the victim, not the initiator of war. From Okinawa to Hiroshima, the historic narrative always seems to begin with the very real suffering of innocent civilians, rarely with the surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and so many other unsuspecting Asian nations that December, 70 years ago.
Does memory of past man-made disasters really make a difference?
It does, if humankind wants to avoid repeating the past.
It is safe to assume that the Japanese Prime Minister won’t apologize at Pearl Harbor. Pity. Pretty soon the world won’t have any survivors to apologize to.
But we can still hope that today’s leaders and younger generations will ponder echoes of the past etched in this poem at Okinawa’s Peace Memorial:
We went on the battlefield without knowing the truth.
War kills everything --
the life of every single being
therefore our story continues
We will speak the truth of war, brutality, pain, engraved in our bodies and memories.