On the International Day of Peace 2015 (September 21), I spoke at the First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway, a New Jersey Peace Action recognized Peace Site, about being a local peacemaker and working to create a culture of peace. I welcomed the opportunity, having recently returned from a two-week trip to Japan, representing Peace Action and New Jersey Peace Action (NJPA) as a guest of the New Japan Women’s Association (Shinfujin). From August 1st through August 13th, I participated in an International Meeting for Peace, the 60th World Conference for A-Bomb and H-Bomb Survivors and ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I gave my presentation just two days after the Upper House of the Japanese Diet passed extremely controversial and hotly contested “Security Rules” pushed by Prime Minister Abe and supported by President Obama. These rules violate Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, adopted post-World War II, by allowing Japanese soldiers to deploy overseas in support of their American allies, ending Japan’s 70 year commitment to pacifism. I read Article 9 out loud:
(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
I emphasized the words that I thought elected officials in the U.S. should hear, describing behaviors the U.S. seems to have abandoned years ago. I praised the Japanese commitment to these words and their ongoing desire to preserve their culture of peace, following Japan’s experiences in World War II as both an imperialist nation and the victim of two atomic bombs.
A Japanese woman activist who attended the program said afterward, “I was devastated when the Diet approved the new rules, but it wasn’t until I heard you, an American, read Article 9 to a multi-faith audience that my tears first began to flow.”
Why would my reading these words have such an effect? Could it be because the history of Japan-American relations since 1940 hasn’t been easy — beginning with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1944 and continuing with U.S. internment camps for Japanese, the U.S. firebombing of 67 Japanese cities and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The U.S. used the military base at Okinawa as a launch pad during the Vietnam War and today wants to expand that base, despite tremendous local opposition. President Obama pressured Prime Minister Abe to abandon a 70-year commitment to pacifism over tremendous objections in order to support the U.S. military agenda in the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. To hear an American read Article 9 with such reverence and respect and then talk about how the U.S. could learn from these words must be part of the reason it was so moving and meaningful.
While in Japan, I saw firsthand just how determined the majority of Japanese are to abolish nuclear weapons and put an end to war. At the end of every plenary session at the World Conference in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hundreds of people nearly ran onto the stage carrying colorful banners, some in English, others in Japanese and many in both languages, decrying nuclear weapons, calling for “Peace Not War” and protesting against efforts to undermine their constitution’s Article 9.
On August 30th, in the largest demonstration in decades, approximately 120,000 Japanese gathered at the Diet Building in Tokyo to protest the passage of these new rules. Organizers reported 200 protest rallies held throughout the country.
High school students are leading this effort. I heard several young Japanese people say that they don’t want to fight in an overseas war. They don’t understand why differences can’t be resolved peacefully. I found myself imagining what it would be like to live in a country where for more than three generations, no Japanese man or woman has been killed in a war and no Japanese man or woman has killed anyone in another country during a war. I wished that the same dilemma faced high school students in the U.S., but since the U.S. has been at war for 213 years of our 239-year existence, we have become numb to the prospect of yet another war.
On September 10th, in anticipation of the upcoming vote in the Diet, the Japanese NO WAR Network held a press conference to express its opposition to the “War Rules.” 103 Japanese organizations were joined by 228 foreign NGOs, including New Jersey Peace Action, in criticizing Prime Minister Abe’s proposed rule changes as both unconstitutional and against the interests of peace and security. Many statements implored Japan to remain a pacifist nation and a role model for other nations, instead of succumbing to pressure from the U.S. to become more militaristic.
Unfortunately, in the early morning of September 19th, the Upper House of the Japanese Diet voted to approve Prime Minister Abe’s new “Security Rules” while thousands of people protested outside. Inside, it was chaos, a result of intense differences of opinion about these new rules.
The majority of the population were disappointed but vowed to continue their fight. A newly formed student organization SEALDs is calling on all peace organizations to look ahead to next summer’s elections and work to replace anyone who voted for the rule changes with pro-Article 9 legislators.
I believe we can learn a lot from the Japanese. The leaders of the global anti-war movement and the movement to abolish nuclear weapons come from Japan. The Japanese have apologized for their own imperialism and many have vowed that Japan will never again be that imperialistic nation.
The Japanese have also suffered the worst of war – the tremendous devastation from the U.S. firebombing of 67 cities and the dropping of two atomic bombs. Many military experts determined that dropping the atomic bombs was not necessary to force the Japanese to surrender, since it appeared likely that the Emperor of Japan was ready to surrender, if only the U.S. would allow him to “save face.” However, the U.S. military wanted to show off its new prize, the atomic bomb, both to Russia and to the rest of the world. For the U.S., the loss of 210,000 lives was a small price to pay for the opportunity to “flex its muscle.”
Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have emotional, psychological and physical scars to prove the dangers of war and nuclear weapons. The average age of the Hibakusha is now over 80, making it more important than ever for youth to become involved, both in the effort to prevent war and to hear and learn the stories of those who survived the atomic bombs.
One such Hibakusha, Taniguchi Sumiteru, is 87-years-old. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki burned his back so badly that he spent the next 45 months lying on his stomach in a hospital bed. Years later when he met his surgeon, Taniguchi Sumiteru didn’t recognize him because he was never physically able to look him in the eyes. His surgeon said that he couldn’t believe Taniguchi Sumiteru survived so long. What moved me most of all was Taniguchi Sumiteru apologizing to the thousands gathered at the conferences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for not doing enough to abolish nuclear weapons. Burned and mangled though he had been, he still expected more of himself.
He wasn’t the only Hibakusha to apologize and expect more from himself. I met another survivor, aged 81, who said he walks five miles every day and eats the most healthy food he can find because he owes it to his children to speak out for as long as possible against nuclear weapons and war.
The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the most extreme and dangerous example of the logic of war. In order to wage war, one side has to demonize and dehumanize the other. Once that fatal step has been taken, the magnitude of destruction no longer becomes an issue. What does it matter whether the military uses a conventional weapon, a nuclear weapon or an atomic bomb?
The Japanese are also in the forefront of the movement against nuclear power, due to the catastrophic effects of the radiation leaks at Fukushima. Today, three years later, 100,000 evacuees are still unable to return to their homes in Fukushima, due to excessive levels of radiation.
It is my fervent hope that Abe’s “War Rules” won’t remain in effect for very long. Grass roots activism is spreading throughout Japan and is the best way to fight back against increased militarism.
We need to spend as much time thinking about creating a culture of peace as we do on waging war, in order to tame the military-industrial complex and change our nation’s and then the world’s spending priorities. We have to resist letting fear and greed dominate our thinking about resolving disputes between nations. It is tragic that the grassroots peace movement in the U.S. had to work so hard to protect a diplomatic agreement negotiated over 22 months between the P5+1 and Iran. The rhetoric of opponents and even many proponents of the deal showed how deeply the “culture of war” is engrained in the U.S.
The motto of the Japanese activists I met was “Never Give Up!” And those of us here in the U.S. who promote and value a culture of peace, won’t give up either.