The Surprising Things My American Friends Told Me about End-of-War Memorial Day

What Do American Local Media Say?

If you’re Japanese, Aug. 15, the end-of-war memorial day, evokes strong emotions. Every year at the beginning of August, major American media also look back on World War II and report on Japan’s memorial services for those who died in the war.

This year a few articles popped up, such as “Why the U.S. Dropped Atomic Bombs on Japan,”* “How We Retain the Memory of Japan’s Atomic Bombings: Books” (both from The New York Times), and “Americans Insist the Atom Bomb Ended the War in Japan ― Ignoring Its Human Cost” (from The Washington Post). Even here, people saw those articles and reflected on the great war of the past.

You may also be wondering if they talk about dropping the atomic bomb and the end of the war in normal conversation; however, this hasn’t been much of a debate topic around me.

Just as the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 makes the news every year, even in Japan, Japanese people don’t talk about it in daily conversation. The same goes for the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s a delicate matter, so when it’s brought up as a subject of conversation, it needs to be treated with delicacy and caution like any other political problem.

The Ethics of Dropping the Bomb

I moved to the U.S. in early 2000 and just by chance, I got into a conversation about the Asia-Pacific War with an American friend. That friend had also lived in Japan for a few years, has many close friends, and is something of a Japanophile. However, something in their eyes changed when the subject turned to the Asia-Pacific War, and especially the dropping of the atomic bomb.

I’m from near Ogura in Fukuoka, one of the places that was originally under consideration to be a target for the atomic bomb. When I casually mentioned that I had been told by my parents that, had the bomb been dropped on Ogura, I probably wouldn’t be here today (of course not meaning to criticize anyone in the slightest), my friend, who usually is quite gentle by nature, said straight out: “Even though they were being pressed to surrender, Japan kept up the war. If the bomb hadn’t been dropped, the war would have dragged on for even longer, and that would have resulted in even more lives being lost — probably also my grandfather’s. I wouldn’t be here either.”

It might have just been a tit for tat, but it was an event that made me break into a cold sweat because I know them well. Since then, I have been very cautious — perhaps too much so — when bringing up the war in conversation (although I haven’t had many chances).

The view of whether dropping the atomic bomb was ethical or not differs dramatically in Japan and the U.S and is often the subject of debate.

“I can hardly tolerate another person saying to me — sometimes yelling at me — that ‘the bomb’ ended the war,” nonfiction writer Susan Southard, author of “Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War,” wrote in her aforementioned article published in The Washington Post. She writes that we need to listen to the voices of the hibakusha (survivors of the bomb who suffered radiation damage) and to never repeat the same tragedy. 

Furthermore, in his 2012 documentary, “The Untold History of the United States,” director Oliver Stone disagrees with those who say dropping the bomb was inevitable. However, those opinions are in the minority. The majority definitely have opinions like my friend, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that opinion is representative of the average American’s (meaning those who have relatives who survived World War II).

“What ‘Postwar’?”

This also happened. It was in a conversation with another (anti-war) American friend about “postwar.” “Postwar? What are you talking about?” they fairly snorted at me.

Aug. 14, 1945 (Aug. 15 for Japan), was the date when news came of Japan’s surrender. On that day, Times Square in New York City was full of cheer. It was the day Alfred Eisenstaedt took that world-famous photo “V-J Day in Times Square” depicting the passionate moment the sailor kissed the nurse. Just from that one photograph, it’s easy to imagine how happy the Americans were.

But I understood my friend’s confusion after I had it explained to me. They said that America is a country perpetually at war, so there’s no sense of “postwar.” Right. After Japan ended World War II in 1945, the U.S. went on to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War and many others, intervening in conflicts and civil wars in other countries.

Nevertheless, putting the spotlight back on World War II, for the U.S., the end of the war was identified as May 8, 1945 (V-E Day), when Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended. Sept. 2, 1945, or V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day), marks when Japan surrendered and accepted the Potsdam Declaration.

However, over half a century later, I don’t see anyone around me today celebrating it each year. First off, Labor Day (the first Monday in September) is an event that holds more weight and comes at the beginning of September. It’s a day for traditionally enjoying the end of summer with a big barbecue in the backyard surrounded by friends and family, marking the last weekend of summer break before the children go off to school again.

A Japanese American friend in their 60s told me this about V-J Day: “V-J Day may have been greatly significant for the generation of people in their 90s or older and who survived World War II, such as my husband’s parents (who are both white), but people in my generation and younger don’t know much about this day. The reason why people are less and less interested in V-J Day as the years go by is because this country has been involved in so many wars, not just World War II.”

I observe the 75th End-of-War Memorial Day quietly this year from New York City, USA, a distant country that was once our enemy. I’m in a country that doesn’t have a sense of “postwar,” but I fervently hope for world peace and for no more wars to start.

*Editor’s Note: Rather than an article, this appears as an NYT review of a book by that title.

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