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October 4, 2013 7:07 am

Strengthening the U.S.-Japanese Alliance

avatar by Abraham Cooper

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IDF aid delegation to Japan takes a quick break to entertain the local children, residents of Minamisanriku, who experienced deep losses from the 2011 tsunami and earthquake. Photo: Wiki Commons.

In remembrance of painful past lies the roots of redemption for the future

As a believer in the strong US-Japan relationship, I was impressed and assured by Ms. Caroline Kennedy’s firm commitment to representing “the powerful bonds that unite our two democratic societies” during her confirmation hearing as the next Ambassador to Japan.

And as a believer in the Jewish saying, “In remembrance lies the roots of redemption,” I was also touched by Ms. Kennedy’s reference to her father’s participation in the Pacific War and her own visit to Hiroshima. Her willingness to carry on the legacy of the painful chapter of our two countries in order to deepen our friendship gives us hope while encouraging all of us to do the same.

With such an Ambassador representing the US in Tokyo, President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima or Nagasaki now seems more likely. The symbolism of such a visit is as compelling as it is obvious. Mr. Obama has consistently pursued the goal of reducing and ultimately eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons. A visit to an atomic-bombed city would certainly provide a powerful historic and humanizing backdrop to such a sentiment, one shared by millions of people in Japan and the US and beyond. It can also send a dual message to Pyongyang that the United States stands firmly with its ally Japan even as Mr. Obama seeks to de-nuclearize this region.

However, before making any final decision, President Obama should signal that such a powerful gesture of a historic first visit of any US president to Hiroshima or Nagasaki should be accompanied bysignificant gestures by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

First, a clear commitment to Japan’s past apologies to the victims of the aggressive war that Imperial Japan waged.  Given Prime Minister Abe’s reluctance to embrace his predecessors’ apologies offered to Asian victims, including former Comfort Women, and more recently Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s remarks that Japan should learn from the Nazi, reaffirming Japan’s clean break from the wartime past is a prerequisite for President Obama’s visit to pay homage to the civilian victims of Hiroshima.

Secondly, an opening of all WWII Japanese archives so that younger generations can begin the process of learning the full story of that era. Only through such learning will the foundation for true reconciliation between Japan and her former victims be established.

Thirdly, Prime Minister Abe should also encourage his country’s population to learn about the suffering of Americans at the hands of the Japanese military.  In the early months of the Pacific War, approximately 27,000 US soldiers became POWs of the Japanese. They endured the infamous Bataan Death March and years of slave labor. Forty percent of them perished due to abuse and inhumane treatment. In 2010, Japanese Foreign Ministry started a program of inviting former American POWs of the Japanese. These former POWs said sharing their painful POW experience with today’s Japanese people helped them finally feel that their old wounds were healed. But many of the Japanese companies that actually abused them while forcing them to perform slave labor have not acknowledged it nor apologized. Prime Minster Abe can certainly encourage these companies to join the government’s effort for reconciliation.

For a quarter of century, Jewish human rights organization Simon Wiesenthal Center has been involved in Japan and I am particularly proud of the fact that our Japanese language exhibition, “Courage to Remember: Anne Frank and the Holocaust,” has been viewed by over a million Japanese.

The Center has also been supporting former American POWs of the Japanese in their effort to educate people on their history. Its Museum of Tolerance recently screened a documentary on their POW experiences.

A visit by president Obama represents a unique opportunity for two former foes and long time democratic allies to open a chapter to the future based on mutual trust and truth.  I wish Ambassador Kennedy all the best in paving the way for President Obama’s visit to Japan’s atomic ground zero. Her father would be proud and his fellow Pacific War veterans will appreciate her effort to help younger generations on both sides of the Pacific better understand the road that ran between Pearl Harbor and Nagasaki.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. This article was originally published by Mainichi Shimbun.

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  • Bolomen

    My father fought side by side with the Americans to gain freedom during WWII. Today, my US Army soldier son, is again fighting for freedom somewhere. I welcome strengthening of US-Japan relation but I take it with with sadness its move to apologize. Even if it were only rhetorical and being diplomatic, the fact remains that no one can alter or change history. And surely, your cruel history will also judge you.

    Or there must be a deeper reason why a US President is advocating CHANGE for this generation? Victims of WWII in the Philippines have perhaps forgiven Japan for its atrocities it committed, but we will never forget. And how could we?

    Will Obama also declares WWII Monuments and Markers as useless Military Shrines? Are we following a thread of reasoning why he closed down Gitmo Bay prison camp and sneers at military courts, now and before?

    Why was he pink and tender in dealing with Syria and the Benghazi incident. It is not a bump on the road, Mr Obama, but a bump on the American people as a whole.

  • This is exactly the reason why I started the Bataan Legacy project. Nowhere in the article is there any mention of the Filipinos, as if the fighting was only done by the Americans. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war against Japan, the war never reached the shores of the continental United States. It was mainly fought in the former colony of the Philippines. 7/8 of the main line of resistance on the battlefield of Bataan were held by the Filipinos and they died at a ratio of more than 10 to 1 compared to the Americans during the infamous death march. Manila was only second to Warsaw in terms of devastation and approximately 1 million Filipino civilians died during WW II. Now, how can you remember and strive for redemption when you are forgetting the majority of those who suffered?

  • Apologies for what? We as civilian prisoners lost everything including lives. We suffered enormous pain. We got no compensation? Not even a responsibility for our plight. We were cast aside like scum. I think this is up side down. We should hear apologies from the Japanese for the victims they compiled.

  • Lorie

    I do not agree with this. The President of the United States should NEVER EVER FOR WHAT EVER REASON APOLOGIZE to the Japanese for using nuclear weapons to end the war. We used them to save Allied service members lives. It was bad enough that the USA bowed to the Japanese about having an American postage stamp depict the use of the Atomic Bombs to end the War. Some people would disagree with me, but I them to think that if they had a direct relative that was in the service during World War II, that they might not be here now because that direct ancestor might have been killed in an invasion of Japan. Think About It. End of Subject, end of discussion.

    • Patrick

      I agree. My father WAS scheduled to invade Japan on November 1, 1945. A BAR man with the 151st Regimental Combat Team, he would have been in the thick of the fighting, and I may not exist had it not been for the dropping of two bombs. He had already been wounded twice in combat on Luzon. No apology is needed. We didn’t start that war; they did. My dad was not there for his amusement, he was forced there by Japanese aggression. No one ever apologized for Pear Harbor or Bataan or Nanking or Palawan or the Hell Ships, etc. Their “apologies” (if you listen) consist of phrases akin to “sorry it happened,” “it was most unfortunate,” and “that was a long time ago.” They put up “Peace Gardens” and memorials to their own dead but never admit that they were the cause. As a lying politician, MAYBE Kennedy would be proud of his daughter. As a former combatant, he would be embarrassed and ashamed.

  • Ozgreat

    Why mention just American P.O W’s?………

    What about Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and British P.O.W’s….?