Japan, the United States, and Public Memory

The Blurred Lines Between Victims and Perpetrators

U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Hiroshima, May 2016. CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS

Seventy-five years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the countries that were involved in World War II’s Pacific theater are still struggling to construct a historical memory of the war that acknowledges combatant nations’ roles as both perpetrators and victims.

For example, in May, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. Before the visit, the media obsessed over whether he would apologize for the U.S. government’s direct role in killing or injuring some 135,000 Japanese civilians. In the end, he did not take the opportunity to incorporate Japan’s Hiroshima narrative into American collective memory. But neither did he use the visit to reiterate the United States’ image of itself as a victim of Japanese aggression. Rather, Obama wanted to tap into the history of the world’s first deployed atomic bomb to share his vision of a future without nuclear weapons.

Next month’s anniversary of Pearl Harbor likewise holds particular significance. It marks 75 years since the attack left over 2,000 Americans dead and transformed a formerly conflict-averse United States into a resolute war machine. And the iconic date of infamy is only a small chapter in Japan’s brutal, militaristic phase, which stretched from the 1930s into the 1940s. From the massacre of villagers in occupied Myanmar to the systematic rapes and murders committed in the Chinese city of Nanjing, Japan’s crimes are a laundry list of some of the war’s most hellish moments, and the countries involved in these horrific events have yet to agree on a proper way to remember these crimes, honor victims, and condemn perpetrators. 

The crux of the matter is that it’s no easy task to settle on one internationally acceptable way to remember, or forget, so much loss and terror, something Japan and the United States—both victims and victimizers—demonstrate.

A U.S. Navy seaman plays taps at Pearl Harbor,

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