MOTOSHIMA HITOSHI, mayor of the city of Nagasaki, has a tendency to rub Japanese politicos the wrong way. His public comments, notably those in December 1988 holding then-Emperor Hirohito responsible for Japan’s World War II atrocities, have evoked rebukes across the spectrum: Motoshima has been marked for death as traitor by ultra-right groups, ostracized by the Liberal Democratic Party of which he is a longtime member, and chastised by Japan Communist Party representatives. On January 18, 1990, a right-wing gunman stepped up to Motoshima in front of Nagasaki City Hall and shot him in the back to “punish” him for his comments on the emperor. The mayor continues to speak his mind, and the gunman was sentenced to twelve years in prison.

Easily Japan’s most controversial mayor, Motoshima is not by any stretch of the imagination a typical public servant in his country, yet that’s how he describes himself. In light of his firm commitment to the peace movement and to human rights issues shunned by most Japanese officials, a fitting title for Motoshima might be “the conscience of Japan.”

Motoshima was born on February 20, 1922. Orphaned as a child, he was brought up by his grandparents as a devout Catholic in a predominantly, and at the time virulently, Shinto society. His first severe test for being “different” came during his service in the wartime Imperial Army. He witnessed the tragedy of The Bomb upon returning to Nagasaki soon after August 9, 1945. After working as a high school teacher, Motoshima joined the Nagasaki Prefectural Assembly in 1959.

He was elected mayor in 1979, vowing to carry on the memory of the atomic bomb and its victims, in a city that staunchly supports its world-renowned Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum. Nagasaki’s Peace Park (unlike Hiroshima’s) includes a memorial to the thousands of Korean A-bomb victims. Each year, Motoshima uses the anniversary of Nagasaki’s atomic bombing to make a public appeal to the Japanese conscience, to remind the people of Japan that their beloved nation was an oppressor before it was an atomic bomb casualty. He typically focuses less on Japan’s own misery and more on the suffering of Korean and other Asian victims of Japan’s wartime brutality.

It is on this sensitive subject that Osaka-based freelance journalist Brian Covert begins this exclusive interview with…THE CONSCIENCE OF JAPAN.

First of all, I’d like to ask you about your recent public appeal, on the 45th anniversary of Nagasaki’s bombing, for the Japanese government to provide aid to “non-Japanese” victims of the bombing and also to apologize to them. Why do you urge this?

I think it’s only natural. By “non-Japanese,” I mean the North and South Korean people in particular. For 35 years after the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, the Japanese had taken away their land, had prohibited them from speaking the Korean language in Korea, and had forced them to change their names to Japanese names. Japan had also demanded that Koreans worship at Japanese shrines, forcibly brought them to this country, and sent Korean women to the battlefields as sex objects for Japanese soldiers. The Japanese were very brutal to them and did not treat them as human beings. And Koreans who were forcibly brought to Japan were killed or wounded by the atomic bombs. So, that’s why I think it’s only proper for the Japanese government to both apologize and provide aid to them.

You served as a soldier in the Imperial Army. How did that come about? And how did you feel at the time, as a devout Christian serving the war cause in the name of the almighty emperor?

Japan had a conscription system at the time. I enlisted as an artilleryman at the age of 21. Joining the army was one of our obligations. But I didn’t actually fight in any overseas battle, since I was stationed at home. Back then I was often asked which was greater to me or which I valued more — the emperor or Jesus Christ? I was physically beaten [after answering “both”]. I had a bitter life as a soldier.

Many of your friends and peers did fight in World War II, and paid the ultimate price with their lives. How do you think you would have reacted if you had been forced to fight and had come face-to-face with “the enemy”?

Of course, I would have done the same as any other soldier. Battlefields lead human beings into abnormal situations, so my conscience might have been numbed enough to do something abnormal.

It must be difficult, but can you describe what you witnessed when you returned to Nagasaki right after the bomb was dropped on the city?

When I returned [about six weeks] after the bombing, nothing familiar to me remained. Only the ruins of the Urakami Catholic Church, the Nagasaki University medical school, and two elementary schools were left standing. It was complete devastation. There was no greenery at all on the [surrounding] mountains. It was…how to express it?...really an atrocity. Immediately after the dropping of the A-bomb there were many human and animal bodies scattered all over the place, which must have been a gruesome sight.

Some people might ask, “With World War II and the Cold War now behind us, why not let the issue rest?” How do you respond?

For a people to progress from the past to the future, they need to think about history’s truths and hand them down to the next generation. That’s what I believe.

You have agreed to this interview on the condition that we not talk directly or in great depth about the emperor of Japan. Could you give me your reason for that?

One reason is the Japanese mentality. The Japanese believe it is shameful to be asked whether or not one’s beliefs are actually true or correct. It is also a Japanese trait to hold steadfastly onto one’s original line of thinking. So, to be often asked the same question — whether a thing is wrong or whether I still think that way — is a kind of insult to me.

The second reason is that the mass media made me into a hero [over the emperor remarks], but I’d like to return to being just an ordinary citizen. So, I’d like to refrain from restating the obvious.

I didn’t intend to insult you in any way…

…So, what I want to say is, I don’t want you to ask me the same question that I have been asked over and over again. We are both responsible people here. Moreover, [my comments on the emperor] are fairly recent. The subject can be pursued without having to ask me.

Then let’s move on to the next question. I’d like to focus on the day when you were shot and almost killed. Can you tell us how you felt and what was going through your mind?

As I’ve often said, at first I thought I was dying. For one year before the shooting, I thought I might be killed and I was prepared for it. And I’m old enough now that I don’t have to worry about my wife and children. Since I believe in the old Christian ways, I hope to go to heaven when I die. So, at the time of the shooting, I was thinking about what I had done for the poor and troubled people in my lifetime as ordered by God, how much I had practiced the cross of Jesus Christ, and how I wanted to completely repent my sins before God.

Has that incident changed you? Has it changed your opinions about Japan’s history or about the remarks you made?

Nothing in particular has changed.

There were other reasons behind the shooting than just my remarks about the emperor’s war responsibility. I had also been suggesting we employ a number of foreign people at Nagasaki City Hall, even though the Japanese national government has limitations on employing foreigners in certain positions. My efforts were widely publicized in the newspapers. Second, I had expressed my opposition to beauty contests, which are discriminatory toward women. Third, I had commented that we should not treat [Asian] refugees as burdens. They come to Japan because their human rights have somehow been violated, including, for example, by their lack of food. So, we shouldn’t turn them away just because they are seen as nuisances.

And I had also stated that the Japanese government should check into what the actual [wartime] conditions of North and South Koreans were back then, and that it should subsequently apologize and provide aid to them. I made all those comments one right after another, so I think that caused the shooting.

What kind of pressure has the Liberal Democratic Party been giving you to tone down your remarks or keep quiet? And another question: What has it cost Nagasaki in terms of financial support from Tokyo?

I know that many high-level politicians, such as former Vice-Prime Minister Kanemaru Shin and then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe Shintaro, criticized my remarks. I was also expelled as adviser to the LDP’s Nagasaki chapter. Some of the chapter members even came here [to City Hall] to protest directly to me. Conservative party members who make up the backbone of the LDP called me up on the phone and sent me letters. And I was protested against by other individuals and groups, both directly and indirectly.

As for the second question regarding financial support from the national government, I don’t know much about it since what we receive is an equalized subsidy. But one Diet member elected from Nagasaki reportedly stated in public that the central government either wouldn’t give, or would try not to give much, in subsidies to the city of Nagasaki [due to the remarks].

Is speaking out on World War II really worth all this pain you’ve been through?

If Japan is to become a nation that is trusted by the world, we have to go through such things. I think many more people should speak out as I’ve done and create a more open atmosphere throughout the country. That way, Japan would gain acceptance in the world.

How would you assess your own performance — both strengths and weaknesses — as mayor of Nagasaki?

It will be 12 years this April. I’ve done some wrong things, I’ve made my mistakes. For instance, stories appeared in the newspapers that I had received money from a private company. So, I don’t think I have a perfect past.

There have been times when I really liked the idea behind socialism, but I didn’t have a consistent ideology. I’m not brave, I’m just an ordinary man. It’s a mystery to me why it all turned out like it has.

Speaking generally, at this stage in Japan’s development is there a need for an emperor? And if so, in what role to you think the present and future emperors could best serve Japan?

According to Article 99 of the constitution of Japan, the emperor or his regent, as well as public officials, have the duty to respect and uphold the constitution. So, I too am obliged to respect the constitution. Having that obligation means showing the proper decorum toward the emperor as a “symbol.” I won’t say any more than that. My only hope is that the emperor as a symbol will live a life befitting the new era.

In Christianity we have the Ten Commandments, the subject of a famous movie, which were delivered to Moses by God atop Mount Sinai. This is one of the foundations of Christianity, stemming from Judaism. The first commandment is: “I am thy God. Thou shalt have no other god before me.” So, in Christianity there is one and only one God, and there can be no other — this is the rule we follow.

So, in other words, there’s no room for the emperor as a god?

That is correct.

And the last question, Mayor Motoshima: How do you envision the legacy of Nagasaki? How do you want the world to remember your city and your people?

“Peace without armaments.” Nagasaki has appealed for two things: One, that Nagasaki be the last city ever destroyed by nuclear war. The other, that lasting peace be the only legacy humankind hands down to posterity.