Wounded Nagasaki Mayor Takes a Stand

Motoshima continues to speak out on the Emperor, war

By Brian Covert

While the rest of his city goes on about its busy day outside, Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima relaxes inside as he talks to visitors with his back to a large curtain-covered window at Nagasaki City Hall, the scene of his near-assassination in January.

Motoshima is asked if opening the curtains to take his photograph would endanger his life. He shrugs off the concern as he shuffles over to the windowsill, joking that assassins would never try to “get” him from this angle.

Motoshima is clearly a target among right-wing extremists, yet the mayor appears to take it lightly; his lightheartedness leads one to temporarily forget this man’s tragic past. At the same time Motoshima’s easygoing demeanor serves to shield his more serious side as Japan’s most controversial mayor.

“I think many more people should speak out as I’ve done and create an atmosphere throughout the country in which people feel like speaking out,” he says in a low, rumbling voice. “That way, Japan would gain acceptance in the world.”

And speak out he has. Motoshima’s 1988 public comments holding the late Emperor Hirohito accountable for Japan’s World War II atrocities weren’t the only thing leading to the attempt on the mayor’s life. Motoshima had also been challenging the national government’s limit on hiring foreigners at local city halls; expressing his opposition to beauty contests as “discriminatory toward women”; accepting Asian refugees to his city; and demanding that the central government investigate, apologize and provide aid to North and South Korean victims of Japan’s wartime terrorism.

Not what one would call a typical public servant in Japan. But then, that’s exactly how Motoshima describes himself when asked to assess his 11-year tenure as mayor.

“I’ve done some wrong things, I’ve made my mistakes,” he says. “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 were times when I really liked the idea behind socialism,” said Motoshima, 68, a longtime Liberal Democratic Party member, “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.”

Perhaps the key to the mystery lies in the pieces of his life that have become public: In one way or another Motoshima has always come across as “different” from many Japanese. Motoshima’s parents died when he was young, and he was brought up by his grandparents as a devout Catholic in a predominantly Shintoist society during Japan’s prewar colonial years.

As a young soldier during the war, Motoshima was often asked by his superiors to choose between his Christian God and the almighty emperor of Japan. When Motoshima refused to do so, he was beaten. “I had a bitter life as a soldier,” he recalls.

He was stationed at home and never saw action overseas. Nevertheless, he admits, as a soldier he would have killed “the enemy” if confronted. “Battlefields lead human beings into abnormal situations, so my conscience might have been numbed enough to do something abnormal.”

With the war ending soon after the United States dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki — a “preview of hell” as the local Peace Museum bills the resulting destruction — Motoshima returned from out of town not long afterward to start his life anew in a city he no longer recognized.

After various stints 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.

Motoshima’s counterpart, Mayor Takeshi Araki of Hiroshima, has taken a far less confrontational stance toward the atomic bombing, an approach Motoshima does not totally condone.

“Whatever thoughts a person has must be respected, since everybody has the freedom of speech and ideas,” says Motoshima. “But I think that those of us who experienced the war must reflect on it.”

Yet when asked about his own comments on the role of the emperor in that war, Motoshima declines to answer, saying his remarks are already public record and that he hasn’t changed his views even after being shot by a right-wing gunman in January. Motoshima has come to take that oft-asked question as an “insult” to his integrity.

“The Japanese believe it is shameful to be asked whether or not one’s beliefs are actually true or correct,” he said. “It is also a Japanese habit 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 the same way — is a kind of insult…. The subject can be pursued without having to ask me.”

Motoshima is more amenable, though, when the subject is broached more discreetly: What should the new emperor’s role be in modern-day Japan? For a moment the mayor begins to sound like a typical government official.

“According to Article 99 of the Constitution of Japan, the emperor or his regent, as well as all public officials, have the duty to respect and uphold the constitution,” Motoshima says. “So I, too, am obliged to respect the constitution. That 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.”

But then Motoshima slides into a brief religious sermon on the meaning of the Ten Commandments delivered to Moses atop Mount Sinai, and it soon becomes clear that the mayor does not buy the role of Japan’s emperor as any kind of spiritual leader: “In Christianity, there is one and only one God, and there can be no other — this is the rule we follow,” he says.

Motoshima’s remarks over the past couple of years have angered LDP elders and ostracized him from rank-and-file party members — politically if not financially.

“I know that many high-level politicians, such as former Vice Prime Minister Shin Kanemaru and then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Shintaro Abe had criticized my remarks (on the emperor),” said Motoshima. “I was also expelled as adviser to the LDP’s Nagasaki chapter. Some of the chapter members even came here to protest directly to me…

“I don’t know much about (the financial side-effects) since what we receive is an equalized subsidy,” he continues. “But one Diet member elected from Nagasaki reportedly stated in public that the government either didn’t give or would try not to give much in subsidies to the city of Nagasaki” due to those comments.

Even so, Motoshima is not about to let the government and the public forget that Japan was an oppressor before it was an atomic bomb casualty. In a public declaration Aug. 9 on the 45th anniversary of the city’s devastation by atomic bombing, Motoshima urged the Japanese government to apologize and provide aid to North and South Korean victims of Japan’s wartime brutality.

With those emotional war wounds still healing, Motoshima now stands at the window at city hall, looking over his people as they go about their lives. Just as the mayor had jokingly predicted, no would-be assassins try to pick him off from where he stands, and the picture-taking session soon ends without incident. Amid all his lightheartedness, Motoshima is, no doubt, feeling victorious that his vision of “peace without armaments” has somehow taken root.

Brian Covert is an Osaka-based freelance journalist.