Buddhistdoor View: Forgiveness and Repentance
There are many heartrending monuments at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, such as the Children’s Peace Monument dedicated to the children that perished from the atomic bomb that detonated over the city on 6 August 1945. One of the most affective memorials is the beautiful Figure of the Merciful Goddess of Peace, which stands to the northeast of the park, a short walk from the Atomic Bomb Dome and across Honkawa Bridge.
The statue, unveiled on 6 August 1956, is of Kannon, the Japanese manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. She is one of the many spiritual epicenters of the park because of her proximity to ground zero: on that terrible day, all the people and houses around her were reduced to ashes. Merciful Kannon remains a silent and dignified witness to the prolonged debate about repentance and forgiveness 70 years on from the Second World War.
In the lead-up to the anniversary on 14 August, the Japan Buddhist Federation, the largest pan-Buddhist organization in the country, issued a press release on 27 July expressing the need to reflect seriously on past Buddhist cooperation with Imperial Japan’s war effort (J.「ここに、追悼のまことを捧げ、仏教界が戦争に協力したという過去に反省とともに真摯に向きあい、殉難されたお一人おひとりの願いを受けとめて、二度と戦争をしない、させないという思いを強く、新たにするものであります」). To their immense credit, many Japanese Buddhists are regretful of their religion’s role in the war, when the majority of temples supported militarization, military commanders and Zen leaders taught meditation to soldiers, and kamikaze pilots visited monasteries before their suicidal missions. Japanese Buddhists have now also collaborated with various anti-war and anti-nuclear organizations to lobby for a safer world.
On 23 July, the Buddhist website Bukkyo-times reported that 300 Buddhists joined throngs of people, including Shinto practitioners and Christians, in protest against the unpopular security laws or “war bills” that aim to relax the pacifist restrictions of Article Nine (which prohibits the use of war as a means to settle international disputes) in Japan’s constitution. These were rammed through the Diet’s House of Representatives on 16 July by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (the BBC reports that an earlier protest on 15 July swelled to 100,000 and over half of Japanese people polled disapprove of the bills), which is only one of the many actions that have rendered Asian countries suspicious of the Abe government. On the anniversary of the end of the Second World War on 14 August, Mr. Abe issued a long-awaited public apology that can be read on the website of the prime minister and his cabinet. But he hobbled its reconciliatory power with the qualification that Japan must ensure “children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come” are not “predestined to apologise.”
This is a defensiveness that was not present in a seemingly far more contrite speech from Emperor Akihito, who spoke of a “deep and renewed sense of sorrow” and “deep remorse over the war.” Some commentators noted that the emperor’s speech could even be construed as an oblique rebuke. As the son of Emperor Hirohito, the current sovereign has a much clearer memory of the culpability of Japan’s ruling class in the crimes of Imperial Japan than Mr. Abe. Unlike most senior politicians (including Mr. Abe), the monarch has never visited the Yasakuni shrine, which includes in its commemoration 14 indicted war criminals.
Japanese politicians have made many apologies for the collective trauma inflicted on East Asia by the Japanese Empire. However, as Arthur Stockwin of Oxford University convincingly wrote in East Asia Forum on 1 August, “It has been a central goal of the Abe government to reverse previous war apology approaches. The gold standard for such apologies was the war apology made by the former Socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama on 15 August 1995, the 50th anniversary of the defeat. Murayama’s apology was a thoughtful reflection on the terrible events between the late 1930s and 1945, and contained key words that have stuck in the craw of conservatives ever since, including ‘mistaken national policy’, ‘colonial rule and aggression’ and ‘apology’ (o-wabi). . . . More generally, the government has sought to maintain previous war apologies formally, but attack their content in successive speeches so as to rob them of any real meaning and substance.”
These internal contradictions between goodwill and revisionist “patriotism” have led to Groundhog Days of Japanese apologies and dismissals of those apologies by Asian neighbors. Many have puzzled over why Japan couldn’t emulate the success with which Germany made a decisive break with its Nazi past. Going against the trend of criticizing Japan as uniquely unrepentant, Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College, as long ago as 2009, noted that Japan’s “dismal experience with contrition is neither surprising or unique.” Rather, Germany owes much to the “Konrad Adenauer model,” which combined sorrow over its Nazi past with an articulation of postwar Germany’s contributions to the global community.
This model has potential for Japan. It gives the country the space to cultivate a new kind of patriotism based neither on the nostalgia for the Meiji period nor on a rose-tinged narrative of its role in the Second World War, but rather on its considerable postwar achievements, including its rise as the world’s third-largest economy by GDP. The Japan Times highlights several academics (including Akiko Takenaka of the University of Kentucky, Akiko Hashimoto of the University of Pittsburgh, and Stockwin) arguing for the Abe government to stop the tacit support of nationalist revisionism that downplays or rewrites Japanese atrocities, and to promote peace education. Japan must leave its curious twilight zone between guilt and innocence and stop undermining its official apologies with comments that repudiate the remorse offered. A complete moral recovery will be made once Japan enjoys a new collective and political identity beyond its alliance with the US and shares—and acts on—a deep sense of unfulfilled justice with the victims of Imperial Japan.
An immensely difficult task has also fallen to the countries the Japanese Empire brutalized: forgiveness. In regions where the Buddhist values of kindness, tolerance, and compassion have touched so much of its history, forgiveness is an uncomfortable but crucial cross to bear. Forgiveness is the antidote to one of the three poisons, dvesha, which is translated as aversion, anger, or hatred. When sincere contrition is expressed (no matter how politically difficult it might have been to produce that penitence), an equally difficult task on the part of the wronged is to muster the strength to forgive and move on. The wrongdoer’s sincere repentance and reparations deserve no less a response.
Is it too idealistic to call for a spiritual transformation throughout East Asia? Perhaps—however, it must be remembered that during that dark period, humanity sunk to its lowest depths of depravity and violence. From a religious perspective, there seems no reason why it can’t rise to a more elevated, selfless, and noble state. People across Asia can only hope that Merciful Kannon will assist in this healing.
Press release on the 70th anniversary of the Second World War (Japanese only) (Japan Buddhist Federation)
Declaring “weapons useless,” 300 Buddhists gather to call for war bills to be scrapped in the Diet (Japanese only) (Bukkyo-times)
Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)
Japan’s lower house approves change to self-defence law (BBC News)
Japan emperor ‘remorseful’ over WW2, as 70th anniversary marked (BBC News)
Japan’s defence and diplomacy heading in the wrong direction (East Asia Forum)
The Perils of Apology: What Japan Shouldn’t Learn from Germany (Foreign Affairs)
The politics and pitfalls of war memory and apology (The Japan Times)