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

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