Many nations fail to acknowledge difficult heritage, often intentionally, out of fear of damaging their national identity. In the article “Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult,’” Sharon Macdonald defines difficult heritage as “times of evil wrong-doing that did no evident credit to a positive national identity” (2015, 6). The Holocaust, the Native American genocide, slavery, and the Nanking Massacre are examples of difficult heritage that nations most likely wish could be obscured from their history. Acknowledging previous atrocities might remind the world of a nation’s dark past, in turn damaging their national identity. Despite a nation’s concern for acknowledging its difficult heritage, Macdonald suggests that “self-disclosure and self-reprimanding have…come to be widely regarded as a positive development by those inside as well as outside the societies that are perpetrating them” (19). Honesty is as important among nations as it is between friends. Macdonald’s examples of positive development include the opening of Germany’s educational exhibits surrounding National Socialism and the payment of reparations by France to Holocaust survivors as a result of the national rail company’s participation in the Holocaust (12-17). Occasionally, victimized groups pressured nations into addressing their difficult heritage, such as victim organizations in post-WWII Germany. When victim nations desire an apology, it pressures guilty nations to acknowledge their difficult heritage. But, what if a victimized nation does not seek an apology?
Macdonald’s article does not discuss instances where victimized nations do not seek an apology. A clear example is the atrocities committed by the United States during World War II: bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1945, the United States government justified bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a way to end the war in the Pacific and prevent further American casualties. Unfortunately, the bombing instantaneously cost Japan approximately 120,000 military and civilian lives, and tens of thousands later lost their lives which has been attributed to exposure to radiation from the bombs (2017). Although the bombings occurred 72 years ago, one can assume that the citizens of Japan await an apology from the United States. With this in mind, according to the Los Angeles Times, a Russian news agency conducted an opinion poll in 2015 and found that 60% of the Japanese public would welcome an apology (Adelstein 2016). Despite the results of the Russian poll in Japan, the United States has not apologized. Why not? Research indicates that the United States’ apology track record after committing atrocities is lacking at best. However, there is another reason that the United States refrains from apologizing to Japan. An apology might create difficulties rather than solve issues for Japan’s government. Macdonald argues that, “apologizing for past wrongs also requires a bringing of those wrongs into view” (16). If the United States was to apologize for its wrongdoings during World War II, logic would indicate that society would then look to Japan’s government officials to apologize for the atrocities committed by Japan throughout its history. According to Adelstein, Japanese officials are concerned that an apology from the United Stated would “only serve to energize anti-nuclear activists” in Japan (2016). Concerned about the issues that could arise from receiving an apology, Japanese officials prefer to move forward rather than dwell on their painful past.
Is it feasible for one nation to absolve itself of an atrocity if the victimized nation prefers no apology? It can be possible through cooperative understanding and mutual hope for a better future. Macdonald calls for “public acknowledgement” of difficult heritage, which does not necessarily require an apology (6). Nations such as the United States and Japan can acknowledge their difficult heritages without formally apologizing for committing the atrocities. In May of 2016 United States President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima. Likewise, in December of 2016 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor. During their visits, both leaders offered condolences for lives lost, however neither leader apologized for their nations’ atrocities (Sisk 2016). Although no formal apologies were exchanged, both leaders publicly acknowledged their nation’s difficult heritage. Mutual understanding of the cost of war, particularly the loss of human life, has enabled the United States and Japan to move forward and become powerful allies. Since both Japan and the United States understand the devastation that nuclear weapons can cause, their alliance provides hope for a better future where other nations are deterred from utilizing nuclear weaponry.
Acknowledging difficult heritage offers opportunities in multiple realms of education. It opens the academic door for more in-depth discussions regarding war crimes, the aftermath of atrocities, reconciliation among nations, and the opportunity to learn valuable lessons from difficult heritage. Library and information professions continue to refine their educational platforms which provide insight and understanding regarding a nation’s difficult heritage. Museums and archives presently showcase the atrocities and expose the human necessity to educate current and future generations in regards to the importance of preventing similar atrocities from ever occurring again. The significance of acknowledging difficult heritage is that it inspires mankind to progress towards compassion, forgiveness, and pursuing closure.
Adelstein, Jake. 2016. Los Angeles Times. “Japan doesn’t want the U.S. to apologize for bombing Hiroshima. Here’s why.” Los Angeles Times. Last Modified April 29, 2016. Accessed September 24, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-na-japan-hiroshima-apology-20160429-story.html.
History.com. 2009. Accessed September 24, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/bombing-of-hiroshima-and-nagasaki.
Macdonald, Sharon. 2015. “Is ‘difficult heritage’ still difficult?” Museum International 67: 6-22.
Sisk, Richard. 2016. “Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Military.com. Last Modified December 28, 2016. Accessed September 24, 2017. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/12/28/remorse-no-apology-japanese-leader-pearl-harbor.html.