Last week some of Barack Obama's critics were upset that he ducked a question in Japan about whether he approved of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I cannot begin to say how short-sighted that criticism is.
When I lived in Japan for several years in the 1980s, I learned about the various realms of the things you could say in public (tatemae) and things you actually believed ( honne). Although not strictly a matter of tatemae/honne, the atomic bomb decision is a particularly thorny and awkward one for Americans to discuss with Japanese. The normal way to consider the topic in Japan involves the country's status as the only object of an atomic attack in history, the suffering its people underwent, and the status it therefore possesses to talk about the importance of avoiding any such event again -- all of which is understandable. There is a lot of history the prevailing Japanese account leaves out, but that is a point better raised in internal Japanese debate than by American officials. Americans may believe that Harry Truman saved both Japanese and Allied lives by this decision. But there really is no mileage in a U.S. official saying that to people in Japan. Probably the worst thing I did in my time there was to propose that argument to a man who had been a doctor in Hiroshima in 1945. The conversation came to an abrupt and hostile end. And I was just a reporter, not the American president who has the power to order nuclear weapons used again.
Here's the best analogy I can think of: suppose you were a sheriff who had gunned down a group of terrorists who were threatening to blow up a town. In the crossfire, some innocent children were killed. If you run into their parents long afterwards, do you say: "Tough luck, it was in a good cause! And I'd do just the same thing again!" Or do you recognize their great sorrow and loss and do everything possible to avoid rubbing it in?
In avoiding a direct answer to the question from a Japanese reporter about whether the bombing was justified, Obama did what any American president or diplomat should do when this topic is raised in Japan. There is no answer that would have worked out better for him than his not answering at all.
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