Japan is this month marking the anniversaries of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed more than 200,000 people and brought an end to World War II. But even as Japan’s prime minister pledged to work toward world peace, the government announced plans for a ‘drastic’ increase in defense spending driven by the threat from China, breaking a decades-long taboo over the build-up of Japan’s armed forces following its defeat in 1945.
U.S. forces dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945, killing an estimated 140,000 people. Thousands more died in the following months and years from radiation sickness. Three days later, U.S. forces dropped a second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, killing an estimated 75,000 people. The United States says that the bombings were necessary to bring an end to the war, as many more people would have died in any invasion of Japan by Allied forces.
Local schoolchildren in Hiroshima, alongside survivors of the atomic bombing, marked the 77th anniversary of the explosion Saturday with a ceremony in the city’s peace park, directly beneath the epicenter of the blast. They were joined by members of the Japanese government, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“Almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are held in arsenals around the world,” Guterres told delegates at the ceremony. “And crises with grave nuclear undertones are spreading fast — from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is totally unacceptable for states in possession of nuclear weapons to admit the possibility of nuclear war.”
Hiroshima is set to host the G-7 summit next year. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a pledge to those gathered in Hiroshima: “Together with the G-7 leaders, in front of the monument of peace, we will confirm our commitment to unite to protect peace.”
Japan’s constitution, written in the aftermath of its defeat in 1945, says “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” However, the threat of war is edging closer to its shores.
China’s large-scale, live-fire military exercises surrounding Taiwan in recent days – in apparent retaliation for the visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei last week – have raised fear that Beijing is planning an invasion of the island, which Beijing claims as part of its territory. Japan says several Chinese missiles launched during the exercises landed in seas that are part of its exclusive economic zone.
At a press conference in Hiroshima following the atomic bomb ceremony, Prime Minister Kishida said the government had to respond to the crises in Taiwan and Ukraine. “We will drastically strengthen our defense capability,” he told reporters.
Despite upending decades of government policy, Japan’s drive to boost defense spending and capability has growing public support, says analyst Tetsuo Kotani, a professor of global studies at Meikai University in Tokyo and senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
“Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Japanese general public’s perception on national security changed dramatically. The Japanese people are very much worried about China’s aggression,” Kotani told VOA.
“And looking at public opinion polls, more and more people are now supporting for the change of constitution and also the increase of defense spending and even the introduction of Japan’s offensive strike capabilities.”
Kotani added that Japan could be drawn into any conflict over Taiwan.
“The assassinated [former Japanese] Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that the security of Taiwan and the security of Japan are inseparable because of the geographical proximity and also because Japan hosts the U.S. military upon its soil,” Kotani said. “So, the Japanese defense planners have been preparing for any scenario which can affect Japanese territory.”
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki transformed Japan’s attitude to war and military power. Seventy-seven years on, the country is having to confront a new reality: A powerful, aggressive China willing and able to project its military force on Japan’s doorstep.