Forgiving Japan


Daily Mail article The Nightmare ReturnsThe disasters in Japan early this year dredged up some awkward and uncomfortable issues that stand between our two nations.

Despite being Australia's top trading partner for much of post-war history, our relationship with Japan has never redressed the deep divisions that remain from our challenging wartime experiences. Australian experiences of Japanese cruelty have not been forgotten, and Japan's apparent reluctance to fully own up to its wartime atrocities has remained an issue of some contention.

But the problems are not all on the Japanese side.

When the tsunami receded, it left in its wake scenes of destruction reminiscent of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A Daily Mail report made the parallels explicit, matching images from the tsunami's aftermath to historic photographs from the sites of the two atomic bombings under the headline: 'The nightmare returns'.

Our sympathy for Japan could not help but conflict with our moral complicity in that original nightmare 66 years ago. Australia, along with other allied nations, would rather forget the atrocities committed for the sake of our victory, yet at the time, the public welcomed and approved of them.

When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 85 per cent of Americans registered their approval, while only 10 per cent disapproved. Percentages for Britain were recorded at 72 per cent and 21 per cent respectively, and for Canada 77 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. (Percentages for Australia are unknown but presumed to be similar.)

A separate poll in December 1945 recorded the disturbing result that 22.7 per cent of Americans believed 'We should have quickly used many more of [the bombs] before Japan had a chance to surrender'. As of 2009, 61 per cent of Americans still believed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right thing to do, while 22 per cent disagreed.

To this day, many Westerners defend the bombings as a 'necessary' action within the context of a fanatically hostile Japanese civilian and military population.The suicidal ferocity and stubbornness of the Japanese military was well known, and the invasion of Okinawa demonstrated that the Japanese military could coerce civilian populations into mass suicide.

Necessary evils have never been a part of Western ethical tradition, nor has the deliberate killing of enemy non-combatants ever been an accepted military tactic. Yet while the narrative of Japanese fanaticism is upheld, the majority of Westerners seem willing to make an exception.

Whether there were reasonable alternatives to bombing and invasion is a separate subject. For now, we must recognise that allied nations which benefited from and approved of the bombings retain a vested interest in the narrative of Japanese fanaticism.

We are reluctant to try to understand the reasons for Japanese wartime behaviour, because understanding the Japanese wartime experience would humanise the Japanese people and rob us of our primary justification for dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

Why is it that we understand so well the rise of Nazism in Germany, but remain illiterate in the form and structure of the Japanese wartime experience? We are willing and able to distinguish between 'Nazism' and 'Germany', even to identify with ordinary German people as they succumbed to the allure and the power of a totalitarian regime. But what about Japan?

For us it has always been 'the Japanese', with no convenient ideological scapegoat to blame. We allow the narrative of homogenous Japanese fanaticism to persist, because a more complex narrative would force us to identify painfully with the civilians killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Instead, our failure to understand the causes and conditions of the Japanese wartime experience imparts to the Japanese people a sense of 'otherness' that substitutes for real understanding.

The traces of 'otherness' are still apparent in the ease with which many in the West leapt to positive generalisations about Japanese character in the aftermath of the tsunami. The order and calm demonstrated in the wake of such a momentous disaster seemed, to us, unusual.

Yet surely such positive behaviours merit greater study than the simplistic references to Japanese politeness, orderliness, stoicism? Such generalisations may seem benign, but they encourage the same sense of intrinsic difference that underpins our view of Japanese wartime fanaticism.

The positive and the negative are related, and we should be willing to understand them both in the light of our common human nature, and our shared tragic history.

Zac AlstinZac Alstin is a research officer for Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide. He has an honours degree in philosophy, a graduate certificate in applied linguistics, and an amateur interest in Chinese philosophy. 

Topic tags: Zac Alstin, Japan, Workd War II, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, atomic bomb, tsunami, earthquake



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Weary Dunlop showed privately and publicly how we should relate to Japanese people, students studying here, business and political reps for many years after the war until his death despite his (and Aussie POWs') treatment by the Japanese captors.
How do we learn more discernment and separate the issues as we have in general for Germany's attacks in WW1 and WW11?

Kevin O'Flaherty | 23 June 2011  

An interesting article for me as I am currently in Japan on holiday. We stayed with some Japanese friends in Tokyo a few days ago and I had a conversation about the Japanese attitudes Zac mentioned and which were so much spoken about in the Western press in the aftermath of the tsunami.

My friend explained that from Elementary school (and presumably from birth via their parents), Japanese children learn that society comes first and the individual last. I paraphrased that as "putting yourself in the others' shoes" to which my friend agreed. He was proud of the fact that young women could travel safely home at night (even fall asleep on the train without worrying) and that generally you could leave your house unlocked without concern.

It is truly enviable and is so noticeable as we travel around.

And yet it is not hard to see how this could be used by unscrupulous leaders who could claim that Japan needed to respond to perceived American aggression and bomb Pearl Harbour, demanding that the Japanese people place their country before themselves.

Even admirable traits can be a burden?

ErikH | 23 June 2011  

A small point in this big issue is the fact that the bomber pilot could not find Nagasaki harbour because of cloud cover, so he dropped his bomb through a hole in the cloud where he could see streets beneath. It was right over the Nagasaki cathedral, which was surrounded by a largely Christian (Catholic) suburb.

Michael Grounds | 23 June 2011  

Zac Alstin raises valid questions.

The fundamental problem is one of ignorance.

1. Every Australian, I think, can appreciate that, say, Sara Palin, represents just one political point of view, and would not take her views as representing all Americans. On the other hand, if any Japanese politician -- say Shintaro Ishihara -- disputes Japan's war responsibility, this is taken as proof that all Japanese are unrepentant.

2. Australians confuse two issues: how Japanese feel about atrocities committed by its military and what they think about the larger question of war responsibility. From my experience, there is a strong revulsion in Japan at the cruelty of war and sincere regret for the wrongs its own people committed. (Only a couple of month ago, the Foreign Minister again apologised to a group of Australian ex-POWs for their treatment during the war.) On the other hand, many Japanese resent the victors' perspective that all the wrong was on one side or that Japan alone was responsible for the push towards war in Asia in the 1930s.

3. Australians almost demand that their media work within stereotypes and are impatient with unfamiliar images and ideas about Japan. I have read and seen many stories about Japanese stoicism in face of the Tohoku disasters. I know how resolute and disciplined they can be in times of trouble -- I saw it after the Kobe earthquake in 1995. What has struck me as interesting this time, however, is just how much public emotion has been on display. Weeping, anger, resentment, rallying cries for recovery... Sure, there is a strong cultural predisposition to self-control, but that's the default position. When other behaviour is exhibited, I think that's more worthy of comment.

4. The exceptionality of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has served to distort perspectives of the war on both sides. Many Japanese see their nuclear holocaust as proof of the inhumanity of the enemy and their own victimhood. Some Australians, Americans et cetera, refuse to acknowledge these as inhumane acts of war, but represent them instead as war-ending, life-saving acts. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have done a better job of forestalling future nuclear annihilation than providing a common basis for understanding history.

I might add that as many Japanese civilians died in the carpet-bombing of 64 other cities as died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the oft-repeated claim that one million Allied troops would have died in a conventional invasion of Japan's main islands was debunked by the U.S. military as early as 1945-46.

w. hamilton | 23 June 2011  

What a strange piece of logic. Apparrently it is different to drop an atomic and a conventional bomb. The pictures of London, Cologne Darwin or any of the other cities leveled by "conventional "bombing are not atrocities, just the only two cities to be smashed in Japan .Would it have been better to have spent 6 months leveling Tokyo with conventional weapons ,lots more dead but better for the conscience of westerners 65 years on .Another million or so dead ,more people like my dad in war zones for another year or so and the survivors of the railway and others probably not making it at all .Try selling this logic to the people of Nanjing and others occupied .Having dealt with the japanese most of my working life I have no doubt how the disipline ,sence of society greater that self and followers of process made them such a deadly fighting machine , I love the people of Japan but it is very hard to forgive a culture that does not want forgiveness .

john crew | 23 June 2011  

The problem is ignorance. 1. While we can appreciate that a plurality of views exists in American politics, if any Japanese politician disputes Japan's war responsibility this is taken as proof that the whole country is unrepentant. 2. Australians confuse how Japanese feel about atrocities committed by its military and what they think about war responsibility. I can tell you there is strong revulsion at the cruelty of war, including the wrongs committed by its own people. (Recently the Foreign Minister again apologised to Australian ex-POWs for their treatment.) But Japanese resent the victors' perspective that all the wrong was on one side or that Japan alone was responsible for the push towards war. 3. Australians are impatient with unfamiliar images and ideas about Japan. I have seen the many stories about Japanese stoicism. What has struck me as noteworthy, however, is just how much public emotion has been on display: weeping, anger, resentment, rallying cries for recovery... 4. The exceptionality of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has distorted perspectives on both sides. Many Japanese see them as proof of the inhumanity of the enemy and their victimhood. Many Australians prefer to represent them as war-ending, life-saving acts.

w. hamilton | 23 June 2011  


Though you may have had to balance word count and maintaining reader interest, I think you could have summarised the 'Daily Mail' report in greater detail. As it is, your article may be construed as tangential, rather than as a true response.

While your article and (Mr Hamilton's) comments raise the very interesting point of Japanese being exceptionally 'tarred with the same brush', no answers are offered as to why. Some conjecture would be entertaining.

Necessary evils and the military killing of civilians may not have been part of Western ethical tradition, but it is certainly part of Western mythical tradition. The Trojan war and the Old Testament (Joshua 6:21) (for non-Crusades examples) come to mind. Perhaps it is the struggle between heroic myth and ethics that forces the recasting of necessary evils into grandiose goods.

You may wish to note that while Japanese media draws parallels between Chernobyl, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, and the current crisis at Fukushima, they do not compare the destructive scales of the tsunami and the atomic bombings. Then again, [cheekily] this omission could be construed as confirming national war denial.

Thank you for this provocative article.

Derikko | 23 June 2011  

Hi Kevin,

I think the only way to gain discernment is to read into Japanese history. One student told me "imagine if the Nazi party had been in power in Germany for 70 years leading up to WWII." In other words, the Japanese people had already endured the kind of propaganda and ideology that we associate with a fascist regime for more than one generation before war broke out. There's more to it, of course, but the more I read, the more inadequate my prior knowledge seems!

Zac Alstin | 23 June 2011  

Hi Erikh,

That's an interesting explanation from your Japanese friends. We could probably do with a better balance of social vs individual interest here in Australia. You are right, though, that there is a fine line between a positive civic education and more malicious forms of propaganda.

Zac Alstin | 23 June 2011  

Hi Michael,

Indeed, there's a very sombre photograph of a man standing in the ruins of that cathedral.

Zac Alstin | 23 June 2011  

Hi W. Hamilton,

You've raised some good points, which I can only agree with. My first published article was on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think it has shaped the West in ways we do not realise. Here is the URL if you're interested:

Zac Alstin | 23 June 2011  

In response to Mr W. Hamilton’s statement "I might add that as many Japanese civilians died in the carpet-bombing of 64 other cities as died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the oft-repeated claim that one million Allied troops would have died in a conventional invasion of Japan's main islands was debunked by the U.S. military as early as 1945-46."

While it is true that a fatality rate of over one million is false, the casualty rate was at the time and is today placed at roughly one million. And this does not include Russian casualties which would have been considerable, nor other nations.

Much worse however are the estimated casualties, which are believed to be almost the entire Japanese army/navy/air force as well as civilian casualties that have been put as high as nine million. Also inherent in such an invasion would be massive destruction of industry and infrastructure. Even ignoring costs to the allies these facts are rather damning.

Further it is widely held that Japan probably would have been split between the US and USSR in occupation, which probably would have gone something like it did in Korea or Germany.

And your claim that the nuclear attacks killed more people than the conventional attacks is simply false, in terms of within-the-decade deaths, in which conventional and firebombing almost double that of the nuclear attacks.

L. O'Brien | 23 June 2011  

Hi John,

Unfortunately, the limitations of pieces such as these do not allow writers to pre-empt many (sometimes any) objections.
With regard to your objection: since I am dealing with broad cultural impressions, the special significance of the atomic bombings is that everyone knows about them, and the majority of people feel compelled to affirm them (for the sake of victory etc).

Hardly anyone I talk to seems to know about the fire-bombing of Tokyo, for example. For other cases such as the bombing of Dresden, I think people are able to remain 'agnostic' about it, because it is not credited with ending the war.

The atomic bombings are unique, not because they are atrocities, but because they are famous, widely endorsed ones. This is what counts most when we are discussing broad social/cultural attitudes.

On the issue of whether it is good to kill civilians for the sake of shortening a war, you're welcome to read my thoughts on the matter:

Kind regards,


Zac Alstin | 23 June 2011  

Hi Derikko,

I like your point about mythic may well play a hand in our view of the war with Japan.

Thank you also for the information about domestic Japanese opinion not making the same link between the bombings and the tsunami as Western media has.

With regard to why Japanese have been 'tarred with the same brush', I think it is due to our ignorance (historical illiteracy), which I argue is perpetuated by - in essence - a guilty conscience. We have an incentive to not dig deeper into Japanese history, because it will rob us of the convenient excuse that Japanese civilians were irredeemably fanatical.

Zac Alstin | 23 June 2011  

Hi L. O'Brien, Forgive me for interjecting, but your comments bring to mind a related ethical issue: given the anticipated casualties, was invasion an ethically permissible response? Proportionality is an important aspect of the ethics of warfare...something that we all seem to acknowledge was abandoned in such cases as the WWI battles of Western Europe. I wonder if the same case might have been put for the invasion of Japan? At the moment we are all caught in the dichotomy of invasion vs bombing. Perhaps blockade of the Japanese islands may have been the most ethical option after all? It would be far from ideal...but in terms of achieving the objective of self-defence, surely a feasible solution?

Zac Alstin | 23 June 2011  

And? The author has successfully pointed out why we are wary of the Japanese i e lack of real penitence for the wartime atrocities, though he doesn't mention the rather sordid whaling saga, nor the exploitation of many pacific nations amongst others. What's the conclusion?

We needn't feel sorry about the atomic bombs: if the Japanese had had them we would have copped it. War is awful but it happens and every nation has the right to defend itself which Australia did at great cost and no benefit.

Nowadays I often hear young people use the phrase 'very zen'. It wasn't very zen when thousands of our men were worked and tortured to death in the jungles of S E Asia not to mention crucifixions and beheadings.

For myself, the jury is still out on Japan.

Jim Williams | 23 June 2011  

Hi Jim,

There are plenty of people who still believe that the bombings were justified. However, it is by no means clear that the bombings were strategically necessary.

Regardless, the intentional killing of civilian non-combatants is expressly against the rules of war, and more importantly the Just War tradition of Western ethics.

If you can justify killing more than a hundred thousand civilians as a means to an end, what can you *not* justify? Abandoning ethics isn't akin to taking off the kid gloves - it's losing our ability to distinguish between good and evil.

Find out why it was wrong for the Japanese Imperial Army to slaughter, rape, and maim its way across Asia; or why it was wrong for their soldiers to brutally torture and kill Australian POW's. Then you might understand why it was wrong to drop atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Japanese cities...not to mention the other punitive strikes against Japanese and German civilian targets.

Zac Alstin | 24 June 2011  

this is my pick of all your articles Zac. Quite an original stand. Well done, it's exceptional!

Peach | 24 June 2011  

"Perhaps blockade ... feasible solution?" Hey Zac, In this quote I am unsure as to whether you mean this in the sense of the more traditional proposal for a blockade, which is essentially to use starvation, or the less often mentioned idea of simply isolating Japan. I will address each in turn. The idea of Starving out the Japanese would have worked, but based on Japans way of dealing with the shortages they were already suffering (this being to place the military's needs above the peoples, the people would be allowed to starve to death before the military went hungry) and their other attitude to the war in general many many civilians would have died before the Japanese surrender (anywhere from a few hundred thousand to millions depending on how willing the generals would be to override the emperor’s wishes). This idea would probably be preferable to invasion though. As to the second option, this would have worked frankly, but there is no way the American people, let alone the Russians (who were very keen to invade so that they could claim more of china, Korea and parts of japan, and in revenge for the Sino-Japanese war). The war also would have dragged on for quite a while.

L. O'Brien | 26 June 2011  

Hi L. O'Brien, thanks for your reply.

From a self-defence perspective, I think the latter option you mention would be sufficient. (I think the starvation option is morally questionable.) It's not an ideal situation, but at least we are not responsible for intentionally killing civilians, nor for sending our own soldiers to an unnecessary death.

I don't know how much credit to give to the reports that Japan may have been willing to surrender even before the bombs were dropped...But I think it is enough to offer hope that the Japanese would eventually have capitulated under the pressure of a military blockade.

However, I fear you are correct about the general unwillingness of the allied powers to accept such an option.

Zac Alstin | 27 June 2011  

Hey Zac,

As to the idea that they were ready to surrender before the nukes, the US government was in communication with them after the use of the first nuke and they said they would not surrender, so it is highly unlikely that they were considering it beforehand.

So if you were there and had three choices:
Naval blockade (starvation) as well as continued bombing (and probably escalated)
Would have killed easily six hundred thousand people (absolute minimum) and likely well into the millions, millions of people would also be made homeless and industry + infrastructure would be destroyed on a massive scale.

Invasion (done with both blockade and bombing):
One million casualties of your own, over five million (minimum) Japanese civilians killed as well as virtually their entire armed forces, most cities damaged at least as much as berline (more probably due to Japanese tactics), industry, agriculture and infrastructure wiped out, nation split between U.S and U.S.S.R (Russian side democracy wiped out and economy further dismantled).

Nuclear weapon:
Two cities wiped out, less than five hundred thousand die (and we must keep in mind that the science of radiations affect was almost unknown). Your intelligence estimates (for casualties) substantially lower, you believe the city's to be occupied by at least %30 military.

I am not saying that the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not tragic, but I know what I would chose.

L. O'Brien | 27 June 2011  

Hi L. O'Brien

I can't verify the original document, but articles such as this report on alleged Japanese peace overtures in early 1945:

It's sufficient to make me wary of presuming that the Japanese would not have surrendered given the right conditions.

From a Just War perspective, we may not intentionally kill innocent civilians regardless of how worthy the goal may seem (ie. sparing greater death and destruction).

It's right to speculate on the possible consequences of all possible options, but we cannot allow consequences alone to determine our course of conduct.

For example, if, in the course of national self-defense, we had continued to strike military targets without invading Japan, wouldn't we have successfully defended against the threat they posed to us? The result might be a de facto blockade...but it would then be the responsibility of Japan to decide how to respond, either with peace negotiations or stubborn resistance at a cost to their own people.

The allies knew the effect of bombing civilian targets with high explosives, incendiaries, or atomic weapons alike. By contrast, we can only speculate on the Japanese response to a defensive blockade.

Zac Alstin | 27 June 2011  

Hey Zac,

I've done a fair bit of looking into the concept of Japanese willingness to surrender before the bombs and it is simply untrue. The only possibility for it is if there was significant disunity within Japan (as in some were trying for peace while others weren’t) and while this is possible it goes against the evidence we have, our knowledge of the situation in Japan and Japanese culture and there is a lack of evidence for it.

For me the fact they rejected an approach by the US in-between bombings is enough evidence of their unwillingness.

As to your second point, I'm sorry for failing to classify this. I would definitely agree with the concept of a defensive blockade, and I think it would have been the most ethical solution, however it would not have been accepted, not by the American, not by the Russian, not by the British nor the Australian governments. Indeed it would have been utterly rejected by the people of these nations even more so perhaps then by their governments (each nation had a burning hatred of the Japanese by this point).

So in light of the impossibility of this great alternative we must consider that the planers at the time had only three real options (the ones I have discussed) and of those three I personally believe that the use nuclear weapons was by far the lesser evil.

L. O'Brien | 28 June 2011  

Hi L. O'Brien, Yes, my understanding is that there was some degree of disagreement within the Japanese leadership, but it was superceded by the Emperor's decision to surrender after Nagasaki and hence did not eventuate. For my purposes, it is sufficient to note that we cannot presume Japan would refuse to negotiate or surrender, if my 'defensive blockade' suggestion had been implemented. Otherwise, I agree that any imminent surrender by Japan was extremely unlikely. Continued military action was necessary. I am not convinced that the defensive blockade solution should be considered impossible. Of course, we can agree that the Allies were unwilling to adopt it, but that shouldn't stop us from concluding that it was the most ethical option. Besides, such a blockade could be achieved simply by forestalling the invasion. For the public, it would appear to be just a protracted preparation for Operation Downfall. I can sympathise with your conclusion, but in our ethical tradition it is never permissible to choose a 'lesser evil'. We cannot 'do evil that good may come'. Thanks.

Zac Alstin | 28 June 2011  

The difference between our view of German and Japanese guilt for World War 2 is interesting. I would suggest that at least one dimension to the problem comes from the fact that the fight between Nazism and the liberal democracies can easily be understood as a good v evil narrative. The fight against Japan was much more like the first world war, in that it is best understood as competition between imperialists.

As in Europe, the war in Asia had its roots in the Treaty of Versailles after WW1. It punished Germany by insisting that German taxpayers pay for the cost of the war, to the extent that the German economy could not have recovered until the 1950s. The nazis merely exploited the resulting misery.

It is less often noted that the Japanese, with had fought on the side of the allies in WW1, came to Versailles expecting to be treated as an equal by the other victorious imperial powers. But it quickly became apparent that they were still little yellow men, of no account. They would not get colonies in Asia, like the British or French. They would not be allowed to deal with European powers on an equal basis. They were not equal.

The lesson the Japanese learned at Versailles was that the only way to be treated as a major power was to act like one -- to seize colonies and exploit their inhabitants, and to build a military machine capable of doing so.
The problem was, of course, that this would sooner or later bring them into conflict with the other imperial powers. The final flashpoint was Indonesian oil. The US threatened to cut trade routes between Indonesia and Japan, thus paralysing the Japanese economy. Japan's generals argued that their best option was a lightening strike at Hawaii that would drive the US back across the Pacific.

Thus, WWII in Asia was mostly real politic. None of it fits into a good v evil story. Japanese militarism was pure evil, of course, but neither Australians or Americans are in a position to point a finger at the Japanese.

jon fairall | 30 June 2011  

Good points, Jon.
Of course, political considerations do not justify Japan's entry into the war, but it is helpful to be reminded of the context.
I think it is admirable to be able to recognise the evil of the Japanese military, while also admitting our own shortcomings. Likewise, we can acknowledge that ours was a just war, while still addressing the atrocities committed by our side.

Zac Alstin | 03 July 2011  

Zac During 16 years living in western Japan I pondered deeply, read widely on the topic, visited key sites and discussed with many the subject on which you have written so well. An original home stay family in Yamaguchi-ken looked after a number of children from the Chernobyl disaster - in Japan to have treatment in Hiroshima. An elderly Australian kinsman who was part of the early brigade of Australian BCOF forces in Hiroshima-ken had stories to add - including of a young woman he met while recuperating from New Guinea contracted malaria on Miyajima. I found that woman (of my mother's vintage) and my wife and I regularly visited her all our subsequent years in Japan until her death in early 2003 - as a consequence of internal cancers she had been suffering for a quarter of a century - directly attributable to the A-Bomb dropped ion Hiroshima as she headed to school from the central railway station on August 6th, 1945. She was gone some 14 years before the average age of death of Japanese women! Her grand-children lost their grand-mother early as the consequence of an inhuman act - of racist underpinning there can be no doubt - and as part of which the official US position remains a lie. We may well take our model for response to the war from figures such as "Weary" DUNLOP, Tom UREN - and of the reconciliation work and efforts from saints such as the Tony GLYNN SM and his brother Paul GLYNN SM.

Jim KABLE | 20 February 2012  

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