Japan’s heartfelt call for peace… but could it be even stronger?

Whose call to peace is stronger? The call made by victims of conflict, or the call made by former perpetrators? That was the question I found myself asking as I wandered Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park earlier this month. 

Memorial Cenotaph
Hiroshima Peace Park
The A-Bomb Dome
The A-Bomb Dome

Japan is unique in so many ways. It’s a fascinating place of extremes and contradictions, where sublime beauty and attention to detail exist beside mass-produced, plastic-wrapped ugliness. I don’t think I have ever been to a place where so many things feel completely alien.

Of course Japan is also unique for being the only country in the world to have been victim not just to one, but two nuclear bombings. And it is very clear from the messages in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum that that narrative has played a strong role in defining how Japan sees itself today. Throughout the park were heartfelt messages offering pacifism and reconciliation as a path forward. 

I honestly can’t imagine how anybody could emerge from the Peace Museum’s collection of photographs and preserved artefacts untouched by the epic tragedy. Twisted clocks stopped in their tracks at 8.15am and the charred remains of a lunch box or child’s tricycle serve as illustrations to the deeply moving and disturbing testimonies of eyewitnesses or parents, whose children blistered and bubbled to their deaths. Surely nobody can think atomic warfare is a good idea. 

And yet, as I wandered the park, I found a “but” forming in my mind. Not about the inarguable suffering of the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but about the fact that the Japanese were also known for being the aggressors of ruthless cruelty, particularly in the Pacific theatre. For their call for peace to be truly effective, I needed ‘Japan the perpetrator of huge suffering’ to stand hand in hand with ‘Japan the victim’. But this admission of guilt is largely lacking. And maybe it is wrong of me to expect Japan to respond as honestly as Germany in this regard. After all, is it not just responding the same way as all countries… in fact, most perpetrators of crime… well actually, most of us as individuals when it comes to our own misdeeds?

Over the years there have been expressions of remorse, such as Prime Minister Shinzō Abe expressing “deep repentance” for Japan’s actions during World War II at a Joint Session of the United States Congress in 2015. But one could see this through a cynical lens, as a strategic move designed to emphasise Japan’s reconciliation and alliance with the USA: Two former enemies turned staunch allies become leaders in the promotion of free value and the rules of engagement in the international community. Meanwhile, Japanese textbooks focus on the suffering the Japanese public had to endure and gloss over Japan’s own devastating actions as an imperial power. Even when they do acknowledge them, it is again as a victim. They look at Japanese foot soldiers’ suffering in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia, ignoring the perspective of the countries colonised or attacked by Japanese forces, like China, Korea and South East Asia.

After my talks on Germany’s culture of apology and atonement, I am often told stories of parents who had fought in WW2 and been able to forgive the Germans… but not the Japanese. Germany was, of course, every bit as cruel albeit in a different way, but it has long held up its national hands in the most unconditional admission of culpability and display of penitence any nation has ever shown towards its own deeds. When people wonder why Japan hasn’t done the same, it could be argued that the answer lies in the reversal of the question: Why has Germany done so much? For Germany is utterly unique in this regard and Japan is merely following the tradition of all other nations around the world. 

The idea of national guilt and the potential need for a nation to apologise is a newish one. And, having been a staunch supporter of apology as a way to forge a new identity, I am actually questioning its importance as a gesture long after the event. True apology is deeply transformative, but when it comes to retrospectively apologising on behalf of a nation, can an apology by people who didn’t do anything to people to whom something wasn’t done have any real effect? So I think my question is now taking the shape of: How can a nation acknowledge its misdeeds and actively dismantle their negative legacy? This could be in relation to slavery, colonialism, war crimes, discrimination… By doing so, we open up the possibility of having dialogues that are less binary than the divisive, fact-based discourses about perpetrators and victims, right or wrong, good or bad etc. and rather focus on the experiences of individuals now; how they have been impacted and what would help them.

So, in answer to my opening question ‘Whose call to peace is stronger?’ I think I would answer, that of the former perpetrator. Because, in order to arrive there, they have had to pass though a deeper process of unflinching honesty, self-reflection, humility and genuine transformation.

Between Birth and Death lies Brexit and very little else it seems… until you enter the world of Art

In these final weeks before the Brexit deadline, I should probably be saying a few words. I’m prone to giving little speeches after all. But I just can’t bring myself to join in the clatter of opinions and emotions. Indeed, when we cross the March 29th threshold, I will be far away in another country, and slightly hoping to get stuck there. Anyway, there are more important things in life than bloody Brexit as my recent visit to the Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth exhibition proved. 

On a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning, I arrived at the still closed doors of the Royal Academy determined to be first in and to have my long-standing hero, Michelangelo, to myself with all the quiet intimacy his tiny, yet exquisite drawings require. So I entered the first darkened room wholly unprepared to come face to face with a floor-to-ceiling-high woman squatting with splayed legs in the final throes of childbirth. Next to her, equally huge, a ghostly figure swirled like white ink dropped in black water. And beyond that, the hollow-cheeked face of an old woman sucked her final breaths through a respirator. 

Bill Viola Nante’s Triptych (1992)

While very moving, Bill Viola’s video installation Nante’s Triptych is, in some ways, a fairly obvious depiction of humanity. Between the life-filled rotundity of the baby’s face and the sunken cavities that collapse the old woman’s into little more than a skin-covered scull, lies what we call ‘Life’. Birth and Death become mere moments, portals into and out of the human experience. 

But standing in front of these huge videos I saw something else too. It was like I was staring at a visual rendition of one of the underlying plots of the book I’m writing. For, as I took my first breaths in a nursing home in Kent, my German grandfather was heaving his last in the family home in Schleswig Holstein. Our lives overlapped for a mere six days and yet, behind the changing backdrops to my physical existence, he too continued to exist. As I tripped and tromped my way through the various milestones of my life, he was there; an absent presence, like the shadowy figure of a backstage assistant, moving behind the scenes, invisible to the audience but essential for the illusion of the stage ‘reality’. “The dead are invisible, they are not absent,” St Augustine had said. And looking at that central panel, Viola seems to be saying that too; we all occupy the same space, between Birth, Death and Rebirth.

Michelangelo The lamentation over the Dead Christ (1540)

Overtaking other early visitors immersed in subsequent room-sized Viola installations, I eventually reached a row of Michelangelo’s drawings and shrank my full attention into each one in turn. And there I saw what I value most in the world. There, vibrating through the tiny pencil strokes evoking Mary’s extreme tenderness towards her child, the weightlessness of Christ’s resurrection and the dynamic muscularity of writhing male figures, was the most sublime evidence of the soul. That invisible part of us that transcends birth, life, death… even Brexit. In this country the word ‘soul’ is often spurned for its religious connotations. As a result, even the concept of soul is all but ignored or avoided by modern politics, the school curriculum, medicine and science… but not by Art. In Germany, the word for soul is Seele. It effortlessly encompasses all that is intangible about us – mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, psychic – so it is more liberally embraced and supported in many spheres of life. This is what I fear we have been losing sight of in pre-Brexit Britain; that essence of what we love and value about a Michelangelo or any other truly great piece of art.

Michelangelo Three labours of Hercules (1530-33)

Whatever happens on March 29th – ok, here we go, here’s my penny’s worth on the subject of Brexit – I see Britain as a nation in grave danger of losing touch with its soul. The fool’s gold of ‘economic growth’, ‘financial independence’, ‘control’, ‘national identity’ and ‘greatness’ with which we are endlessly pounded will merely dump us on a new shore battered, divided and disorientated. Some people and businesses, above all in the City, will thrive, but many more won’t because those aren’t the things that make a nation as a whole happy, fair or humane. Look at the 45% rise in knife crime of recent years… it’s not just down to the cuts in policing. Neither is an increase to policing the main solution. No, this country has been short-sighted and plain wrong to cut out and close down so many of the small things that nurture and nourish peoples’ souls; youth centres, productive activities in prisons, learning assistance, the arts… Those are the things that make a real difference to many peoples’ lives. That’s why I am choosing to duck beneath the turbulent political waves rocking our country and beyond, to fill myself with art and cultivate spaces where the quieter qualities of soul and all that we as humans share in common, can thrive. Because without those, Britain will become infinitely poorer whichever way Brexit goes.

Message to pupils of a Catholic school I recently talked at.

This article by Ben Okri on transcendence in art is one of the best I’ve ever read: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/bill-viola-michelangelo-ben-okri-birth-transcendence

Bearing witness to war… thanks to Marie Colvin and Don McCullin

Marie Colvin: “Despite all the videos you see [from governments] and all the sanitised language… the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children.”*

Don McCullin“War is partly madness, mostly insanity and the rest of it is schizophrenia.”

UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass…” and be willing to take military action and able to deploy “hard power”.**

While the ‘War’ Secretary flexes our national muscles, anti-war rhetoric is headlining in cinemas and art galleries. And I for one welcome it with open arms because it is coming from people who have experienced war first hand.

Seven years ago, on 22nd February 2012, Marie Colvin, one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, was killed while covering the Siege of Homs in Syria. The recently released film A Private War is a powerful homage to her and the relentless bravery she displayed at the frontlines of the world’s most dangerous conflicts in order “to bear witness” to the human suffering. Easily recognisable by her trademark black eyepatch, American-born Colvin worked for The Sunday Times for more than 25 years. By the time she died aged 56, she had probably seen more war than most soldiers.

Paul Conroy and Marie Colvin on her final assignment
Read More »

For 27.1. – a Holocaust Memorial Day tribute to my audience last week

Nothing on the booking form or accompanying correspondence gave any clue as to who my audience would be on Thursday morning last week. I just turned up at Kenwood House on the edge of Hampstead Heath ready to give my German memorial talk to the monthly Arts Society. As we stood in the frosty sunshine waiting for the house to open, the Chair mentioned almost in passing, “This is North London, so most of our members are Jewish.

Read More »

Could the question to start 2019 be: What can we, Great Britain, put in? rather than: What can we get out?

I’d like to focus my last blog of 2018 on a single question that arose out of a letter written by a German citizen and published in The Guardian. It is addressed to all of us here in Britain and I feel it captures the essence of the principles we celebrate and/or practice in some form or other over the Christmas period: family and giving.

It says: “Dear friends in Britain. Maybe you are not aware of what Europe will miss when you leave. We will miss your refreshing views, because living on the continent can give a blinkered viewpoint. We will miss your international experience and networks. We will miss your calmness and pragmatism. We will miss your long democratic experience in developing the future EU. Together we are strong! Please stay. We are waiting for you with open arms.

Read More »

100 years on – remembering to learn the lessons of history

It’s the eleventh of the eleventh, one hundred years on from the day when three signatures scribbled urgently on a piece of paper in a train carriage in France, finally brought the horrors of the First World War to an end.

Read More »