Hiroshima, Apologies, and American Exceptionalism

Tomorrow, Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. President to visit Hiroshima since the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped 64 kg of uranium-235 over that city, creating a blast equivalent to the detonation of 16 kilotons of TNT.

He is not expected to apologize.

Or, more specifically, he is expected not to apologize. The White House has openly said as much, instead describing how President Obama’s historic trip will “highlight his continued commitment to pursuing the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The political calculation of not formally apologizing is hardly surprising. On the one hand, the Japanese Times is reporting that most Japanese people don’t expect or need an apology. Whereas, here at home, the resistance against such an apology is clear.  As American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett said in a statement:

We are heartened that the White House promised today that President Obama will not apologize for the bombing of Hiroshima. We share his sorrow for the many innocent civilians who were lost that day. But we temper that sorrow with the joy for the many more American, Allied and Japanese lives that were saved because the war was finally brought to an end in the short aftermath that followed. 

And thus the visit will “honor the memory of all who lost their lives” during the war.

In a news segment the other day, I heard U.S. sentiment on this matter described as a bit of American exceptionalism – we made the best calculation we could and we stand by our decision and our right to have made it.

I rather expect we will never apologize.

As I’ve been thinking about President Obama’s visit this week, I was reminded Akiyuki Nosaka brilliant short story American Hijiki.

Nosaka, whose father died during the 1945 bombing of Kobe and whose sister died of malnutrition following the war’s devastation of Japanese fields and food supplies, wrote passionately about life in post-war Japan. His work captures the shock of defeat and highlights America’s constant, ill-conceived attempts to be good.

The whole story is really worth reading, but I including a notable excerpt below:

In the summer of 1946 we were living in Omiyamachi on the outskirts of Osaka, near a farm – which may have been why our food rations were often late or never came at all. More or less appointing herself to the duty, my sister would go several times a day to look at the blackboard outside the rice store and come back crushed when she found nothing posted. Once, we turned the house upside-down but found only rock salt and baking powder. We were so desperate we dissolved them in water and drank it, but this takes bad, no matter how hungry you are. Just then the barber’s wife, her big, bovine breasts hanging out, came to tell us, “There’s been a delivery. Seven days’ rations!” This was it! I grabbed the bean-paste strainer and started out.

…We all watched as the rice man split open a carton with a big kitchen knife and came out with these little packets wrapped in dazzling red-and-green paper. As if to keep our curiosity in check, he said, “A substitute rice ration – a seven-day supply of chewing gum. That’s what these cartons are.” He pulled out something like a jewel case. This was a three-days’ supply.

I carried off nine of these little boxes, each containing fifty five-stick packs, a week’s rations for the three of us. It was a good, heavy load that had the feel of luxury. “What is it? What is it?” My sister came flying at me and screeching for joy when she heard it was gum. My mother placed a box on the crude, little altar of plain wood. The local carpenter had made it in exchange for the fancy kimono my mother had taken with her when we evacuated the city. She dedicated the gum to my father’s spirit with a ding of the prayer bell, and out joyful little evening repast was under way, each of us peeling his gum wrappers and chewing in silence. At twenty-five sticks each per meal, it would have been exhausting to chew them one at a time. We would through in a new stick whenever the sweetness began to fade. Anyone who saw our mouths working would swear they were stuffed with doughy pastry. Then my sister, holding a brown lump of chewed gum in her fingertips, said, “I guess we have to spit this out when we’re through.” The second I answered, “Sure,” I realized we had to live for seven days on this gum, this stuff that made not the slightest dent in our hunger. Anything is better than nothing, they say, but this anything was our own saliva, and when the hunger pangs attacked again, my eyes filled with tears of anger and self-pity. In the end, I sold it on the black market – which was on the verge of being closed down – an bought some corn flour to keep us from starving. So I have no reason to be bitter. One thing is sure, though: you can’t get full on chewing gum.

American exceptionalism indeed.


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