Father Bill Bichsel’s Journey of Repentance – an anti-war event in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – appears to be making a big splash in Japan.
A big enough splash that it brought the New York bureau chief of The Asahi Shimbun – Japan’s equivalent of the New York Times – to Tacoma yesterday to interview a supporter and an opponent of the event. Me as well.
Yamanaka Toshihiro, a lanky, soft-spoken man, wanted to talk about an editorial I’d written about the angry local reactions to the "journey" (which I uncharitably described as "moral preening"). The editorial neither defended nor attacked the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki all those years ago; I was attempting to place those bombings in the larger context of a war in which the mass killing of civilians became a deliberate strategy on both sides.
World War II – which left as many as 70 million people dead – was the worst thing that ever happened to humanity, at least in the space of so few years. (The smallpox vaccine might argue to the contrary, but it had centuries on its side.)
Yamanaka wanted to know why so many of our letter writers were upset about the Journey of Repentance. He said Bichsel and company would be received as celebrities in Japan, "like Michael Jackson."
Obviously, Americans and Japanese are going to have different takes on World War II, especially on the atomic bombings. The Japanese see the latter – quite accurately – as an unspeakable horror in which vast numbers of their countrymen (and women and children) were burned alive. Most Americans to this day tend to see the A-bomb as a brutal necessity that ultimately saved more lives than it destroyed by bringing the war to a quick end.
Still, many Americans have made gestures of sympathy to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in years past without stirring up the kind of reaction we saw this time.
I told Yamanaka that I thought part of the explanation lay in the words "repentance" and "apologize." (The group’s petition stated, "I apologize to the people of Japan for my country’s atomic bombing … and ask forgiveness for these atrocities.")
The problem with the term "Journey of Repentance" is that repenting can be done only by the person who committed the wrong in question. If Harry Truman was wrong to destroy those two cities, it was up to him to do the repenting. Same with War Secretary Henry Stimson or anyone else connected with that dread decision.
But when someone who had no connection to the decision claims to be repenting, it sounds very much as if he is trying to repent on behalf of other Americans. Same with apologizing. The people with the right to "repent," and apologize on behalf of the country, are all dead.
There are probably some World War II veterans still left in this area who feared they would have had to take part in an invasion of Japan had it not been for the use of the bombs. There are certainly plenty of children and grandchildren of such veterans. A lot more believe the bombings were simply justified under the war’s dire circumstances.
Few of them, probably, feel like apologizing or repenting, and they probably resent what looks like a group of pacifists trying to do it for them.
This isn’t a defense of the bombings. Only a psychopath could be indifferent to the incineration of so many human beings.
But the calculus of lives saved vs. lives destroyed – and the persistent arguments over whether Japan would have surrendered without those holocausts – make this an extremely complex moral question. Nobody should presume to answer it for anyone else.