Looking backwards at the savagery, at the irrational and disgusting business of industrial murder which was World War Two, it seems a fool’s errand to sort out the matter of guilt and innocence in any manner which nicely assigns positive moral value to what happened between the years 1939-1945. There is never an honourable soldier and never a good war: war is a positive evil which makes everyone, and everything, dirty. So surely the legacy of the August 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ought to be universal commitment to the denuclearization of our world.
The call for an American apology for these acts of mass killing may seem on its surface reasonable enough, but to apologize would be to engage in hypocrisy and would misrepresent both history and current attitudes in the United States. Many of the Americans who would have been there far from feeling apologetic after the war were thankful. (A good and representative example is Paul Fussell’s essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”) The simple fact of the August 6 and 9 murders is that the war was brought to an immediate end, preventing the certain deaths of many hundreds of thousands who would have been compelled to fight on land in a gruesome and bloodied exercise of attrition. Nor should we forget by whom they would have been compelled — specifically, the Emperor Showa, who, claiming himself to be an arahitogami (god), lived in extreme comfort on his massive conclave-estate while forcefully urging upon his subjects the honour of suicide. His defeat and displacement made possible a democratic and prosperous Japan, and though it is not today fashionable to say so, often only violence (or the credible threat of violence) can accomplish the fascism-to-democracy transformation. If you wish to blame someone for the death and misery which follow from this vile truism, let me recommend the fascists.
In my opinion it is one of the principal shames of the post-war period that the Emperor was allowed to keep his material possessions and to avoid facing prosecution as a war criminal, particularly for his sanctioning of the 1937 invasion of China and the depravity which thereby ensued. General MacArthur appears to have thought him useful as a stabilizing presence during the post-war occupation, and it may be that the Allies wished to avoid imposing the humiliating terms of the previous war, resentments over which abetted the successes of militarist regimes. The Emperor appears in retrospect to have cultivated the notion that decisions were made by the gozen kaigi, or Imperial Conference, and that he himself was a mere figurehead — a fiction which would perhaps have been credible.
This is speculation. What is certain is that the Emperor Showa exploited all the Twentieth Century signature barbarisms, which is to say fascism, religious fanaticism, and militaristic nationalism. A self-aggrandizing god when it suited him, or a mere mortal figurehead on a walkabout with foreign heads of state — when that had become the ticket — the man for many years was as deadly for the Japanese as any bomb. Yet he was allowed to enjoy a long and privileged life, during which no apology ever came from his lips.