Pandora's Box has been opened in Northeast Asia, and possibly the world, as
the bellicose rhetoric and saber-rattling posturing of the United States,
North Korea, and others has awakened fears in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan
about possible scenarios of either US hyper-engagement or hyper-withdrawal
and the need for "self-defense".
These nations, it should be widely known, sit on top of large stockpiles of
plutonium. The Japanese Self-Defense forces Director announced loudly in
the international press last week that Japan reserves the right to
pre-emptive strikes against North Korea. This is Japan talking, not the
United States, about pre-emptive strikes. South Korea meanwhile, with the
inauguration of their new President Roh Moo-hyun appears cool to the idea of
any military action and distancing itself from the US. Taiwan cannot be far
behind in its nervousness about the turn of events.
The evident beginning of the collapse of a formerly stable security system
in Northeast Asia in such a short time is nothing short of stunning. The
possible continuing sequence of events leaves little to the imagination:
Ground Zero all over again. Maybe many Ground Zeroes.
I write from Western Japan, from Kobe, the city devastated by an earthquake
in 1995, and near Kyoto, the city saved from atomic bombing during World War
II. It is not a comfortable place to be sitting in these cold winter months
of 2003. Like the North Koreans, who suffer from lack of even basic heat or
electricity, we are sitting here uncomfortably watching the unfolding
horrors in the Middle East, filled with feelings of dread that we are next.
This part of the world has seen many catastrophes in the past hundred years,
but none of them will compare with the fragmentation of nations in Northeast
Asia and the spread of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems that seems
to have started here.
The Japanese Defense Agency today withheld even basic information from the
civilian government about the latest missile launching for many hours, the
national news reporting here that it was some time before the Prime Minister
and other key figures were notified, many by the media apparently.
Explanations from the Self-Defense Agency looked dissembling and seemed to
be intentionally vague. What is disturbing is the pattern of closely held
communication and secrecy. Curiously, too, few Japanese were aware of the
Defense Agency Director's threat of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.
Although the story had big international airplay, it was not widely reported
in Japan. Draw your own conclusions.
The steady drum-beat of the horrifying stories of Japanese people kidnapped
by North Koreans over the years since the release of a group of them
recently has at the same time raised the anger level to just the right pitch
to justify military action. Discussion of the revision of the constitution
and elimination of Article 9 (the so-called Peace Article, which mandates
Japan forever from using war as an instrument of diplomacy) so that Japan
can protect itself from outrages such as the abductions and other potential
missile launchings from North Korea has spread, stoking the passions of
In these troubled times, it might be appropriate to consider more carefully
what the expression Ground Zero means, especially as events are escalating
towards flashpoint. Originally a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Ground Zero was co-opted by the events of 9/11 as the symbol of modern
tragedy and righteous anger.
Immediately after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Pearl Harbor was
the phrase on many people's lips, a surprise attack that changed history.
Pearl Harbor had devastated America's image of comfortable isolation from
the tempo of the rest of the world. Now it was happening again. Pearl
Harbor, for Americans at least, stood apart from what had been
"We were innocent and they were evil," according to Americans.
Japanese-Americans and others were quick to jump on the use of Pearl Harbor
in 2001 in the week after 9/11 as bearing another legacy, one of racism,
abuse, and concentration camps. Then a strange period of namelessness
emerged as we all tried to grope with what had happened in New York.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) began happening in disturbing and
unpredictable ways. The image of a surprise attack has lingered, but the
key phrase everyone gradually settled on was Ground Zero.
There is a serious danger, however, in simply using the term Ground Zero
without a deep understanding of its historical precedents. The power of
Ground Zero comes to this: it is the most powerful of all symbols of man's
inhumanity to man. We should continually remind ourselves that Ground Zero
in its original context was the earth-shaking oblivion visited upon the
people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, ultimately, humanity.
"You cannot understand the 20th century without Hiroshima," said Robert Jay
Lifton, one of the most profound authors of our time. The top news story of
the 20th century, Hiroshima as Ground Zero should be remembered and
considered as we appear to be headed for another reckless adventure of death
and destruction. The stark images from the World Trade Center ruins evoke
the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. Ground Zero evokes our mortality as a
Hiroshima? "We were innocent and they were evil." "They deserved what
they got." "If we hadn't done it a million lives would have been lost."
"Pre-emptive strike." These rationales pale by comparison with the
catastrophic wreckage wrought on our collective psyches as humans by
Hiroshima. What will happen next?
The shocking speed with which the world has been altered should give us
pause as we consider what to do next. Like Philip Morrison, one of the
early scientists with the Manhattan Project (the name resonates peculiarly
today), many of those who bore direct witness to Hiroshima and Ground Zero
in the scientific survey of that city in September 1945 saw what happened as
"a crime and a sin." Not because of the hotly-contested decision whether to
use the bomb or not, but because it was "the first event of a future that's
intolerable." Ground Zero was/is a token of what lies in the future.
At Ground Zero in New York City there are thousands of gifts of remembrance
and tribute. Among them are the gifts of hundreds of children: folded paper
birds of peace: Cranes, doves, and yes, eagles. We need to keep uppermost
in our minds what Jimmy Carter said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance
speech, that we cannot change the world for the better by killing each
David Blake Willis (DWillis108@yahoo.com) is a Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative
Cultures (Anthropology and Education), in the Department of Humanities, Soai
University, Osaka, Japan. He has lived in Japan 24 years and has published
research on globalization, transnational societies, and creolization.