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Talking repentance and Hiroshima on Japanese TV

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 30, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
May 1, 2010 12:57 pm

“The “Journey of Repentance” – a Tacoma peace group’s apology tour of Hiroshima and Nagasaki last summer – seems all but forgotten here, but it’s apparently still echoing in Japan.

A crew from one of Japan’s leading media companies, the Tokyo Broadcasting System was in Tacoma this week putting together a documentary on the Journey, including interviews with its organizers and a profile of this area.

Oddly – to me – some Japanese journalists have linked me with the Journey of Repentance, which was warmly received in Japan.

After The News Tribune first reported the plans for the Journey, we were deluged with letters to the editor. Some of our readers defended the trip, but most were incensed by it.

We printed many of the letters (here’s a sampling), and I wrote an editorial in which I tried to place the atomic bombings in the context of the massive attacks on civilian populations that happened throughout the war. (A single non-atomic bombing of Tokyo killed 100,000 people, but few living non-veterans have heard of it, as far as I can tell.)

Somebody in Japan saw my editorial and decided I might make a good interview. Maybe they thought I would be enthusiastic about the bombings, which I am not, or in a good position to gauge local reaction to the Journey, which I may be.

Anyway, I was interviewed in early August by the New York bureau chief of Asahi Shimbun, a huge, national Japanese newspaper. Then – just yesterday morning – I was interviewed by the TBS crew for the better part of an hour.

It was fascinating to talk (on camera, unfortunately) with my two Japanese interviewers about my country’s nuclear attack on their country. Sixty-five years later, it was clear that feelings on both sides of the Pacific still run high.

At least three times, producer Kentaro Aragaki and correspondent Takahiro Matsuda steered me around to explaining why the Journey of Repentance provoked so much anger here.

Their hypothesis seemed to be that this was a “very conservative” (their words) area with a lot of military-minded people. (The unspoken premise was that we were fairly indifferent to the deaths of so many enemy civilians.)

I don’t see it that way at all. Pacifists and anti-nuclear activists had previously made pilgrimages to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to express remorse for the bombings. We’d hear an occasional grumbling about Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March, but nothing like the uproar over the Journey of Repentance.

My belief – backed up by the comments I saw – was that poorly chosen or deliberately provocative words ignited the backlash. “Repentance” – a word heavily freighted with religious meaning – is something you do for your own sins. Likewise, you “apologize” for wrongs you did to someone.

When activists who had nothing to do with the decision to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima talk of repentance and apologies, it sounds a lot like they are presuming to repent and apologize for someone else’s actions. Who would that someone else be if not America itself?

The fact is, neither they nor I nor any other private citizen has standing to repent on behalf of other Americans or the country as a whole. Express remorse or sorrow, yes. Repent, no.

The Journey’s local critics included people whose relatives had suffered terribly at the hands of the Japanese and at least one veteran who believes he escaped death through the post-nuclear surrender of Japan. They seemed mostly upset that the peace group sounded as if it were trying to speak for them.

Kentaro and Takahiro appeared to struggle with the logic. Takahiro said that individual Chinese are constantly asking individual Japanese to personally apologize for Japan’s atrocities in China in World War II. To me, that suggests some assumption of collective guilt that Americans don’t share.

I’m not sure these very smart journalists quite grasped the idea that, in the English language, an individual has no business apologizing on behalf of someone who doesn’t feel like apologizing.

I concluded that there was a language gap, pure and simple. However “repentance” translates into Japanese, the word doesn’t seem to carry the English connotation of “something I can do only for myself.”

Kentaro, Takahiro and I did agree on one thing: Nuclear weapons must never, ever, be used again.

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