Wed, 06 Aug 2003

Another side of Hiroshima

Kornelius Purba, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

I had rather mixed feelings when visiting Hiroshima on Feb. 6, 2001, at the invitation of Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun. I felt peaceful in the quiet Peace Memorial Park, watching the golden fish swim in the Otagawa River which runs between the park and the Atomic Bomb Dome.

The mood changed to one of horror when Asahi journalist Kazuo Takagi escorted me through the Peace Memorial Museum. The moment of horror 58 years ago was described in every horrible detail. The message was clear: the world should never allow another war to take place and any use of nuclear weapons should be stopped.

The museum has objects and photographs that illustrate the horror caused by the U.S. atomic bomb that was dropped on the city on Aug. 6, 1945. About 140,000 people died immediately and in total the bomb claimed 226,870 victims. On Aug. 9, about 74,000 people died when the U.S. dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. Six days later Japan surrendered to Allied forces. It was for the first time that nuclear weapons were used.

However, there was a curious little display in the corner of the museum containing textbooks from Asian countries, including Indonesia, and how they dealt with the subject of World War II. The textbooks were accompanied by a confusing explanation, written in Japanese and English, which read:

"There is a movement today to read and re-evaluate the school textbooks of the Asian countries which Japan held as colonies or occupied during the war. Hiroshima was dealt a severe blow by the atomic bomb, but Japan, too, inflicted great damage.

"School textbooks in those countries describe the pain in detail, along with perceptions of Japan. Internationalization must begin with speaking the truth about the role each country played in the war (italics are of the writer). We must find a way to make our mutual pain a positive gift for the future."

Wouldn't it be wiser and more honest to history if the text was reviewed? The purpose of museums is to educate people, not to spark new controversies. The text itself could strengthen the argument of several Asian countries, and even Japan, that Japan is still not ready to face historical facts.

Luckily, according to a volunteer in the museum, the little display was unnoticed by most visitors. And, of course, its real meaning is still debatable.

For many Indonesians the three-year occupation of Japan until August 1945 remains a very bitter memory. People who felt the brutality of Japanese occupation naturally feel that Indonesia was the victim of Dutch and Japanese colonialism.

For most Indonesians, Japanese colonialism was practically a matter of history, different from the situation in China and Korea. Their suffering during Japanese occupation was much more severe compared to the suffering of Indonesians.

Until now, Germany has been seen as more mature in accepting the consequences of its role in the war. While this article does not aim to reopen old wounds, there may be a lesson to be learned from this situation.

In this context, Indonesia's honesty would likely be tested over her role as a former colonial power. It would likely be too bitter for Indonesia to concede the historical fact that it colonized East Timor. From the expressions and stories of many East Timorese, we can gather that their perception of the brutality and atrocities suffered under Indonesian occupation was no different from the perceptions of those Indonesians who suffered under Japanese rule.

Still we insist that we liberated East Timor in 1976 from imperialism. Does Indonesia still not feel any shame in insisting -- as Japan also insisted in the 1940s -- that the East Timorese should thank us for our generosity in providing them with a better life? Indonesia needs to rewrite at least its historical version of East Timor. Denial only proves how immature and irresponsible we are as a nation.

One day, East Timor might build a museum to memorialize the nation's suffering during Indonesian oppression. If that happens, perhaps there will be a protest from the Indonesian government, insisting that Dili place a plaque in the museum "speaking the truth about the role each country played in the war".

Back to Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is expected to attend on Wednesday an annual memorial service in Hiroshima. Japan is the only nation that has directly felt the horror of nuclear weapons. Japan was changed by the experience and now she consistently plays a pivotal role in building world peace.

And we hope that Japan will continue to play its role as the world's second most powerful economy for world prosperity and peace. However, it is not easy to face up to a moment of truth in history, even in our individual lives.