On Aug 9, Singapore celebrated its Golden Jubilee with an outpouring of national pride and joy.
Aug 9 also marked a more sinister anniversary: the destruction of Nagasaki by the second atomic bomb in 1945. That date has been marked by numerous commemorations both in Japan and elsewhere, all praying for world peace.
Watching these on Japanese television, one comes away with the impression that the bomb came out of the blue, a natural calamity like a tsunami or earthquake or volcanic eruption. It was no such thing. Sympathy for the sufferings of the survivors should not blind us to the historical context. If it had not been for the bomb on Aug 9, 1945, Singapore might not have been celebrating its Golden Jubilee on Aug 9, 2015.
When the Third Reich crumbled in May 1945, it was clear to all that Japan had lost the war. With Germany out of the way, the Allies were free to turn their attention to Asia. Not even the most diehard militarist thought that the war could be won.
The only strategy that the Japanese military had was to make the ultimate victory as costly as possible, in the hope that the war-weary Allies would accept a negotiated peace.
Allied military planners had no illusions about an early surrender. Generals and politicians often spoke grandiloquently of fighting to the last man. Only the Japanese meant it.
To give some idea of the scale of the casualties to be expected, when the Americans invaded Okinawa, the three-month campaign cost them over 72,000 killed, wounded and missing. Kamikaze attacks had sunk 35 ships and damaged 137 others. Japanese deaths were estimated at 107,000 - including a significant number of civilians. The American plan for the invasion of Japan envisaged the capture of southern Kyushu (Operation Olympic) followed by a landing on Honshu in the Kanto region (Operation Coronet). The projected casualty figures for the invasions exceeded a million on both sides, including civilians.
The surrender of Singapore in February 1942 was the largest capitulation of British and empire forces in history. The white man's prestige depended on their triumphant return to Singapore. So when the British 14th Army recaptured Rangoon three years later, in May 1945, it was clear to all that the next destination would be Malaya. The British plan for the reconquest of Malaya was codenamed Operation Zipper. It envisaged a landing in Peninsular Malaya with a force of 100,000 men comprising six divisions, mostly from the Indian Army. Opposing them were some 96,000 Japanese troops of the 7th Area Army, not counting local auxiliaries.
The Japanese had been recruiting locals into the so-called "volunteer" corps Giyu-gun and Heiho to supplement their own troops. Civilians were "encouraged" to join in order to defend Malai and Syonan. My father escaped induction because my grandmother lied about his age. The Giyu-Hei, as they became known, would have been involved in the fighting had Operation Zipper and its follow-up attack on Singapore taken place.
There is no doubt that the civilian population would not have been spared. When the Americans approached Manila in February- March 1945, General Yamashita Tomoyuki had ordered that the city should not be defended.
His orders were ignored. Rear-Admiral Iwabachi Sanji defended the city to his death. The Intramuros was reduced to smouldering rubble. The Americans suffered 5,600 casualties; over 100,000 Filipino civilians died.
That would have been the fate of Singapore if it had come to a fight.
Enter Fat Man
Then came Aug 6. The B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets, dropped the first atomic bomb, "Little Boy", on Hiroshima. Three days later, on Aug 9, another B-29 Bockscar left its base in the Marianas and headed for Kokura, a city on the island of Kyushu which housed a major arsenal. Aboard was the second atomic bomb, codenamed "Fat Man".
At 10.44am Bockscar arrived over Kokura. The city was swathed in cloud. The B-29 made three abortive bombing runs. With fuel running low, the pilot, Major Charles Sweeney, took the decision to head south for the secondary target. By the vagaries of the weather, Nagasaki's name became seared on the historical consciousness of humankind.
At 11.58am Fat Man was released and detonated 1,650 feet above the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works.
Even then, there were militarists in Japan who would not countenance surrender. War Minister Anami Korechika and Chief of the Army General Staff Umezu Yoshijiro wanted to carry on fighting. It took the intervention of the Emperor to end the wrangling.
Despite this, there was an attempted coup on the night of Aug 14/15 during which the commander of the Imperial Guards Division was assassinated. The coup failed and the ringleaders committed seppuku (disembowelment).
That afternoon, Emperor Hirohito announced in an unprecedented broadcast that the Japanese had to endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable. On Aug 15, Japan formally surrendered unconditionally.
What followed in Japan was a policy of official amnesia. Unlike in Germany, there was no coming to terms with the past.
Watching the coverage of the ceremonies of remembrance on NHK, one comes away with the uncomfortable impression that many Japanese see themselves as victims, not perpetrators.
A visit to the military museum at the Yasukuni Shrine will be a disturbing experience for any visitor from the countries that were occupied by Japan during the war. There is no consciousness that what was done was wrong in any way. Among the general population, there appears to be very little knowledge of what happened between 1931 (when the Japanese detached Manchuria from China and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo) and August 1945, beyond the fact that Japan is the only country to have suffered an atomic attack.
One of my wife's friends tutored a Japanese expatriate in Singapore. He was surprised to learn of the atrocities like Sook Ching. When asked whether he would now tell his children, he was horrified. Better that they should not know, was his response.
It is true that Japan has been a good world citizen since 1945. It is true that the Japanese are among the most pacifist people in the world today. There is much to be said for the view that the war crimes trials in Tokyo were a case of victor's justice, especially since the Soviets were part of the tribunal.
The Indian judge, Justice Radhabinod Pal, found the defendants not guilty on the grounds that the crimes with which they were charged were retroactive in nature.
Some Japanese claim that they were doing no more than emulate the British, French and Dutch in acquiring colonies. They say that the Western colonial powers themselves are not free from hypocrisy.
The British have refused to apologise for the Amritsar Massacre (the centenary of which looms in 2019), and popular military histories dealing with the period justify the shooting of civilians as necessary.
The French massacred hundreds of Algerians in May 1945, in reprisal for an attack on white settlers. Both the Dutch and the French had to be forcibly evicted from their Asian colonies.
All this may be true, but does not address the point: namely, that there does not appear to be a true sense of contrition.
For the countries that suffered, the expressions of remorse are somewhat like a convicted person's mitigation plea; of course, a person who is caught is remorseful, but only because he wants to avoid unpleasant consequences rather than because he is really sorry for what he did.
The anger at Japan goes beyond mere official policy. During a recent visit to Taipei, I was seated next to a Korean academic who could not have been more than a young child when the Japanese left Korea. He spent the whole dinner explaining to me in forceful terms how horrible they had been.
The war of words in cyberspace between Chinese and Japanese bloggers flares up every now and then, with great vitriol. Japan is in contention with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands and with Korea over Dokdo/ Takeshima.
The antipathy of the public makes the resolution of these disputes impossible. A miscalculation by some over-eager pilot or naval captain could escalate into hostilities.
In 1914 Europe sleepwalked into a war that no one really wanted or expected, amid scenes of nationalistic fervour. East Asia should not do the same 100 years on.
China, Korea and others wait to hear how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will mark the anniversary of the Japanese surrender on Aug 15.
Reconciliation can take place only if the Japanese people know what their forefathers did in the 1930s and 1940s. Reconciliation requires a frank recognition that Japanese aggression against China, its occupation of South-east Asia and its colonial past in Korea were wrong.
The year 2016 will see two significant anniversaries. Dec 7 will mark the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbour and the beginning of the war in the Pacific.
The year 2016 will also be the centenary of the battle of Verdun, in which over 700,000 French and German soldiers died. On Sept 25, 1984, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand joined hands in a gesture of friendship and reconciliation at a memorial service in Verdun.
Might we hope for the same among the leaders of Japan, China and Korea?
The writer is President of the Society for International Law Singapore and Deputy Chairman of the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore.
This article was first published on August 14, 2015.
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