What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it's been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.
This post isn't, however, about whether or not the atomic bomb was necessary. We'll never know. We'll never know if the Japanese invasion forces would have lost steam on their own or if they would have maintained their attack until they had terrorized every country within their reach. There's no point in arguing about what the right course of military action was because there wasn't one. This post is about the fact that the Japanese people around me are progressing, learning from the disaster, while I stand still, horrified and unable to move on. I feel an intense, uncomfortable guilt for a war that I wasn't even alive to witness.
The Japanese textbook companies like to put stories about the war in their English textbooks. None of the Japanese teachers I've discussed this with understand why it makes me uncomfortable, and maybe you don't either--who knows. One of my favorites is a story about three elephants named John, Tonky and Wanly who lived at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo during the war. If you want the whole story, as printed in my students' English textbooks (without the accompanying pictures, unfortunately) click here, but the gist is this: the army was worried that the bombings in Tokyo would hit the zoo and the animals would escape to cause further harm to the city. They ordered the zoo to kill all the potentially dangerous animals. The only method the zoo had of killing the elephants was starvation, so they stopped feeding them and watched them slowly starve to death.
This is apparently a true story that Japanese people really like. I'm not sure why. It's pretty horrific, and presumably the army had guns they could have used to put the animals out of their misery a bit sooner, but regardless it's in the ninth-grade English textbook. This is what I mean when I say that I can't avoid the war. I am teaching these children stories of the horrors my country committed, and I'm teaching them in the language of the country that committed them--a language that is slowly phasing out their own. My students don't see it that way, but I do.
The play has only two actors and one set--the father, the daughter, and the house. I couldn't understand most of the dialogue because the script was written in an old type of Japanese and spoken in Hiroshima dialect, but one of the teachers translated for me. Seeing this play, no matter how well-done it may have been, was intensely uncomfortable for me. My country had done this. My country did it for a reason--to stop the agenda of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere--but this girl and her dead friends weren't the ones who'd been terrorizing East Asia. This girl who was too ridden with guilt to allow herself a happy life was nothing but an innocent victim. It's a play, but I have no doubt that many such situations existed in the years following the war. People suffered from the effects of World War II for many, many years. As I said, we still feel the aftershocks today.
This is probably not a mindset that every American visiting Japan will have, but I've spent so long steeped in the academic study of Japan that I'm aware of things some people aren't. It would be interesting to know if other people have similar thoughts, similar feelings, or if this cultural guilt is something I feel on my own. Do you have any related thoughts or experiences you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them.