Understanding Japan's collective trauma

The Japanese have been bound together by a collective experience of horror since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an experience reawakened by the impact of the Fukushima disaster.

Giorgio Shani
18 August 2015

Nagasaki, approx. 1300 metres from epicentre. 10 August 1945. Recuerdos de Pandora/Flickr. Some rights reserved.A quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, the spectre of a nuclear Armageddon continues to haunt mankind. The detonation of the world’s first atom bomb over Hiroshima 70 years ago not only brought the Second World War to a swift conclusion but ushered in a nuclear age. Japan was further reminded of the dangers of nuclear power ­– even when used for peaceful purposes – by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after the tragic events of 11 March 11 2011 (hereafter known as 3/11). Although the damage from the earthquake and tsunami was largely confined to the Tohoku coastline in the north-east of Japan, the nuclear crisis precipitated by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant invoked comparisons with Hiroshima.

3/11 soon became, along with 6 August 1945, Japan’s collective trauma; an event around which a narrative of a ‘resilient’ nation was constructed. Both Hiroshima and Fukushima left their indelible mark on the Japanese collective psyche, changing national identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.



US and Japan join forces to respond to disaster. Sara Csurilla/Flickr. Some rights reserved.National identity in contemporary Japan is best exemplified by the term 'kizuna' which interpellates the Japanese as a resilient people who have continually adapted to the challenges thrown at them. Translated as ‘bonds’, the term 'kizuna' was invoked by the government and civil society groups alike to emphasize the solidarity with the victims of the ‘triple disasters’ in Tohoku. Deployed as such, it was not an explicitly nationalist slogan and was primarily associated with volunteerism and citizen activism often mediated through information technology.

Indeed, a short-lived centre-left Kizuna party was formed from defectors of the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) unhappy at the direction of the party under former Prime Minister Noda. However, 'kizuna' had originally been used specifically in local settings to emphasize the often nostalgic and romanticized bonds which tied people to their 'furosato' or ‘hometown,’ which was contrasted with 'aikokushin' or patriotism.

After 3/11, however, the 'kizuna' were nationalized, and even acquired an international dimension. This is best exemplified by the then Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, in his editorial in the International Herald Tribune. In response to the global outpouring of support and solidarity after 3/11, Kan wrote that the “Japanese people deeply appreciate the 'kizuna' (‘bonds of friendship’) that have been shown to us” before invoking the memory of the post-war reconstruction. “The Japanese people”, he continues, “rose from the ashes of the Second World War using our fundamental strength to secure a remarkable recovery and the country’s present prosperity”.

Implicit in Kan’s comparison of the devastation wrought by the triple disasters and the Second World War is a naturalization of the latter. Although Kan has been at pains to emphasize the ‘man-made’ nature of the nuclear disaster and notwithstanding the criminal complicity of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) as proved by the publication of the findings of the Official Report of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), the immediate catalysts for Fukushima were the powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami which ravaged Tohoku.

This contrasts with the genocidal devastation unleashed upon Japan in 1945 through the firebombing of civilian population centres and the spectacular violence of the detonation of the atomic bombs. In Hiroshima, approximately 80,000 people were incinerated on impact and a further 100,000 died of injuries sustained by the attack. Irrespective of the reasons given for the detonation of the atomic bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would collectively constitute today ‘war crimes’ in that the violence unleashed (particularly on civilian populations) was not commensurate with the political objective (surrender).

'Embrace defeat'


Emperor Akihito Visits Soma, Fukushima. Issei Kato/Reuters/Flickr. Some rights reserved.However, the violence of the atomic bombs was functional in that it not only precipitated the eventual capitulation of the regime, aided by the Soviet declaration of war, but also led the Japanese to ‘embrace defeat'. The cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy remains the Japan-US security alliance whereby the United States provides ‘security’ from external threat by stationing its own troops on Japanese soil. For Gavan McCormack, Japan remains a ‘client state’ of the US enjoying the formal trappings of sovereignty and internalizing the requirement to prioritize the interests of the US in international relations.

This was demonstrated in Japan’s support for the invasion of Iraq despite the war’s questionable legality and considerable domestic opposition. Arguably, the defeated and exhausted populace felt they had no choice but to accept vassal status after World War II and democracy from above. However, much to the consternation of the current Abe administration and their masters in Washington, a majority of Japanese people still support Article 9 of the Constitution under which Japan forever “renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes”.

Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, the American occupation and the integration of the Japanese market into the world economy radically transformed Japanese identity in the post-war period but, as I argued in my recent book Religion, Identity and Human Security, left the ‘ethnic core’ of the nation intact. Under the new Constitution, the 'Shōwa Tennō' was no more a deity governing a vast multi-national empire, but only a human being symbolically embodying the Japanese nation-state. The Emperor, in short, was secularized; stripped of his divinity. He presided over a secular, modern state as a constitutional monarch and added much needed legitimacy to the American occupation and fledgling post-war ‘democracy’ characterized by one-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Whereas 'Yasukuni' Shrine was left as a contested space around which a religiously-defined Japanese nationalism could still be imagined, the 'kōseki' (household registration) system whereby births and deaths were entered on family registers continued to define the criteria for inclusion in and exclusion from the Japanese ‘nation.’ Colonial minorities from Korea and China resident in Japan who were not registered on the 'kōseki' system were denied citizenship and the majority repatriated soon after independence, including 'hibakusha' (those who had survived the atomic explosions).

Post-war Japan


Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Flickr. Some rights reserved.As the post-war Japanese economy recovered and started (during the heady years of the bubble economy) to challenge the hegemony of the US within the global economy, a more assertive conception of Japanese identity was needed that could both facilitate cross-cultural understanding and reflect growing confidence among business elites to counter the ‘emptiness of affluence’. The 'Nihonjinron' or ‘the discourses on the Japanese’ produced by scholars and business elites were crucial to the imagination of the post-war Japanese nation-state. The 'Nihonjinron' interpellate an understanding of the Japanese nation as based on ethnic homogeneity. Japanese economic success is attributable to the 'kizuna' which tie the people together. If, following Benedict Anderson, the nation is ‘imagined,’ then Japan is imagined as a homogenous ethnic community where the bonds between citizens are rooted in a shared culture, language, territory, religion and myths of common ancestry.

Although the suffering and devastation wrought by the triple disasters was largely confined to the Tohoku area, the use of the term 'kizuna' transformed it into a national tragedy and catastrophe; a collective trauma which bound the Japanese people together. Only by sticking together could, it was argued, the Japanese rebuild their society from ‘ashes’ as they had after Hiroshima and the Second World War.

Thus the boundaries of the nation, between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ ('uchi' and 'soto') are reinforced and individual altruism and creativity sacrificed at the altar of collective conformism, paving the way for the articulation of a more assertive nationalism under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData