‘As President of the United States of America, I express my profound apologies for the sufferings inflicted on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bombings’. These, of course, are the words that we are not going to hear Barack Obama speak in Hiroshima on 27 May, when he becomes the first sitting US president to visit the city since the atomic bombings in August 1945. It is sad that we will not hear at least a version of these words. A simple but sincere apology might bring some peace of mind to the survivors and their families, and could have a profound effect on Japanese society.
The forces that shaped Japan’s postwar history created a situation where the United States has never apologised, and the Japanese government has been ambivalent about memorialising the atomic bombings. This uneasy relationship with the memory of the bombings is surely one reason why Japan has such difficulty in apologising sincerely for its own past aggression. The deep sense of unassuaged victimhood left by the bombings feeds a reluctance among many (though not all) Japanese to acknowledge their country’s own role as an aggressor. An apology from the US president might help to dissolve that feeling of victimhood. It could also provide a model for reconciliation between Japan and its neighbours.
But Obama has already stated that he will not apologise. Political resistance in the United States is too strong. Many still accept the story that the atomic bombings saved hundreds of thousands of lives by shortening the war, despite powerful arguments for taking a different view of history. The Soviet declaration of war on Japan was almost certainly as important a factor as the atomic bombings in pushing Japan into surrender. There is also a credible argument that Japan would have surrendered without Hiroshima and Nagasaki if the Japanese government had felt assured that the emperor would be retained after Japan’s defeat. Since the United States in any case intended to retain the Japanese emperor in a symbolic position, this places a huge question mark over attempts to justify the mass suffering caused by the atomic bombs.
But the absence of an apology is not only a result of US decisions. There is little evidence that the Japanese government wants the United States to say sorry. Among documents released by Wikileaks in 2011 is a secret cable quoting a leading Japanese diplomat as arguing against a US apology. It seems that the Japanese government fears that an apology might promote anti-nuclear sentiments in Japan, and is all too aware that it could be put on the spot by a sincere act of repentance from the US leader.
If Obama does not apologise, what will he do instead? Can his visit have any meaning without an apology? Can gestures speak louder than words? When, in 1970, the then West German chancellor Willy Brandt fell on his knees before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto, his silent act probably did more than any spoken apology could have done to express remorse for the wrongs of the Holocaust. Brandt’s gesture was powerful, though, not just because of its visible sincerity, but above all because of the Chancellor’s own personal history as a man who had resisted Nazism. The Brandt ‘kniefall’ spoke loudly because there was never any doubt of Brandt’s willingness to also put an apology into words.
Hiroshima is not the Warsaw Ghetto, and Obama is not Willy Brandt. Yet his actions in Hiroshima will matter. Though verbally apologising is an essential part of ongoing processes of reconciliation, listening is also vital. The resentment towards the Japanese government felt by the victims of Japanese wartime aggression arises not just from its recent non-apologies, but from its refusal to listen and learn from their stories. Even if he does not say the word ‘sorry’, the sincerity with which Obama listens to the stories of the victims will be a touchstone of the meaning of his visit.
He needs to listen to the silences too. I will never forget hearing a friend who survived the bombing of Hiroshima describing the event. Half way through the story, his words faltered and then stopped. More than 60 years on, his experiences of that day in August 1945 were still unspeakable. If Obama can listen intently to the silences that still haunt Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps his visit can bring us closer to the moment when the United States and its allies can finally speak the three words that still need to be said: we are sorry.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University. This article was first published in the East Asia Forum on 24 May 2016.