Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Print edition : August 26, 2005

The Atomic Bomb Dome near the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. - KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP

... and forgetting a colonial empire, on the 60th anniversary of the only instance of the use of atomic bombs.

ABOUT five years ago I visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Among the meticulously arranged remnants of the destruction of Hiroshima - the black shadows left on stone, all that remained of a man incinerated by the intense heat while sitting on stone steps half a mile from the centre of the blast, the meticulous models of the city, and so on - two exhibits left a strong impression. One was a photograph of a bandaged official sitting at a makeshift table set up in the midst of utter devastation, the city obliterated for miles around. This was taken shortly after the bomb fell and the man was making lists of the survivors. Records are vital to the business of government and he was getting on with his job. The second was an exhibition of paintings by children of their memories of that day, each image frighteningly darker than the other. One shows the indomitable will of ordinary people to pick themselves up and get on with their lives, the other the deep scars that damaged those who survived and marked them forever.

This impression was reinforced in a conversation with Murakami Keiko, a petite woman in her late 50s with hair dyed purple and no obvious physical effects. She was a survivor, officially defined as a person who was within a certain radius from the epicentre of the blast; one among the few to emerge almost unscathed, though her child was born with one leg shorter than the other. Murakami told me of her lucky survival from the blast, the severe injuries her father, mother and brother suffered, and how, bleeding and hungry, they trekked to a relative's home far away from the city. Her father, a government official, did not stay but immediately went back to Hiroshima to help with the rehabilitation work.

Yet, along with the wounds and the radiation-related complications, the survivors faced discrimination for having been victims. Some saw in Hiroshima's destruction the hand of divine retribution for the belief in a Buddhist sect, Akimondo, popular in that area. The Koreans forcibly brought to work in these cities have their own stories, often forgotten. And one cannot forget the Allied prisoners of war who died in the blasts. At least one English prisoner who died in Hiroshima has had his name included in the names memorialised there. How does one remember the trauma that these people have gone through and continue to suffer from even today? Do the official anniversaries address the issues that their experience raises? Do they take us any closer to, if not abolishing nuclear weapons, at least reducing the use of war as an instrument of state policy?

In Hiroshima, on September 8, 1945, a month after the bombing.-

The strange thing about anniversaries is not that they help you recall events, but that they work to ensure that you forget almost as much. And so it is with remembering the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, and of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The bombings have come to symbolise the horrors of war, particularly the long-term effects of nuclear radiation, an awareness that has fuelled the peace movement in Japan and around the world. This year's call by the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who lead an alliance of Mayors for Peace from 611 member-cities in 109 countries, declares as its goal making the world free of nuclear weapons by the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings. Not only does this seem chimerical given the way the world is moving, but it may be noted that as of now no South Korean city has associated itself with the campaign. Japan's neighbours who have been under her colonial domination have other memories. Moreover, the peace movement in Japan has not made a difference to the country's military alliance with the United States, which ironically provides Japan with nuclear protection, because it has largely focussed on calls for peace without linking it to a political agenda to realise these aims. The victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, known as hibakusha (people affected by the bomb), need to be remembered, but it is equally important to recall the victims of the war, to recall that many victims have not been equally remembered, and that the bombings have been used to paper over the past.

THE utter devastation that was caused by the atomic bombs is seared in our collective memory. But the event has been used to erase much of the context and transform Japan from a defeated colonial power into a victim, allowed it to retain the imperial system, and make the war with the U.S. the focus of its attention and not the larger and longer war it waged in establishing its colonial empire. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings allowed Japan to reinvent itself as a peaceful nation by forgetting its defeat in the War. The Emperor was allowed to continue after the War and absolved of any responsibility for it. The story that is generally accepted is that when the Allies defined the terms for Japanese surrender in the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945, the Japanese Supreme Council was divided, even after the atomic bombings, on what conditions were acceptable. It was the Emperor who finally intervened in favour of accepting surrender on the condition that the imperial institution would be retained. This was seen as preventing the destruction of Japan and laying the basis of its post-War prosperity. In fact, the Japanese government accepted the surrender as long as it did not "prejudice the prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler". In other words, they would have continued fighting if their terms had been rejected. There is evidence to show that the Emperor himself said he would continue the War if the imperial institution was threatened.

Following this acceptance, the Emperor made a public broadcast, the first time his subjects had heard his voice, announcing the decision. The broadcast showed that he was taking the bold decision to protect the innocent people who were being killed. In the speech the War was defined only in terms of the war with Europe and the U.S., with no mention of the war in Asia. The Emperor was projected as an apolitical peace-loving figure who had been used by the militarists to lead Japan to war. The U.S. was complicit in this transformation as its political objectives saw Japan as an integral element in containing the Soviet Union and China. The Emperor was not examined in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and, as later evidence shows, was an active supporter of U.S. policy in Asia. In 1979, a Japanese scholar discovered U.S. documents showing that the Emperor had sent his interpreter with a message to the U.S. occupation authorities that he wished to see a long-term occupation of the Ryukyu islands (present-day Okinawa) as a defence against the Russian threat. By the time Hirohito visited the U.S. in October 1975, he was greeted with warm enthusiasm, very different from the political protests that he faced during his visit to Western Europe in 1971. The Japanese, who claimed to have fought for the liberation of Asia, became the staunchest friends of the U.S. Strangely, there was never the equivalent of the "good German" becoming a close ally.

Were the bombings really necessary and would the atom bomb have been used on Germany? Or was Japan targeted because being Asian it could be used as a testing ground? This is a question that lies at the heart of the founding myths of post-War Japan and its transformation into a victim. We forget that the bombings were part of a process that began for Japan's neighbours in 1931, or even earlier, as Japan began acquiring a colonial empire, and that is why it is known in Japan as the 15-year-war. Pearl Harbour was attacked only in December 1941, after which the U.S. entered the War that ultimately ended with the defeat of both Japan and Germany in 1945.

The U.S. decision to use the bombs has been debated by participants as well as historians. The logic of the bombings was that the Japanese would put up a stiff resistance leading to unnecessary deaths among the Allies. Just eight weeks before the surrender at the battle of Okinawa, the Japanese had shown their determination to fight: 110,000 Japanese and 12, 000 U.S. soldiers killed. It was perhaps the bloodiest battle of the War. When the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945, and carried out Operation Desert Storm, the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria, despite being in a weak state, was ordered to fight to the last man. Major General Masakazu Amanu, Chief of Operations at the Japanese Imperial headquarters, was convinced that defensive preparations, begun in early 1944, could repel any invasion of the home islands. Even Akio Morita, founder of Sony and then a naval officer, felt that it was the atomic bomb and not the conventional bombings that brought about Japan's surrender. Even the people in Hiroshima did not give up. Hachiya Michihiko, a doctor, recorded in his diary of those days that "many who had been strong advocates of peace and others who had lost their taste for war following the pika (the blast of the atomic bomb) were now shouting for the war to continue". He goes on to say that the Emperor's broadcast calling for surrender produced a greater shock than the bombing of the city.

In Nagasaki, in the aftermath of the attack.-

Years after the War, U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes claimed that 500,000 American lives would have been lost - and that number has become the authoritative figure - had the atomic bomb not been used. But in the summer of 1945 the U.S. military planners projected 20,000-110,000 combat deaths and around four times that number wounded. Moreover, a submarine blockade had cut off Japan's imports. This, combined with an operation against Japan's railways that isolated the cities of southern Honshu, had led to a shortage of food supplies. In 1945, Japan was facing mass famine. Although the population was concentrated in the main island of Honshu, the great bulk of the food crops were grown in Hokkaido and Kyushu and parts of southern Honshu. From April 1945, import of food from the continent virtually ceased. The Japanese historian Irokawa Daikichi argues that some 10 million people were likely to have starved to death if the War had not ended. Japan was facing defeat and surrender was the only option available.

Even many of the leading military leaders at that time, however, argued against the use of the atomic bombs. Admiral William Leahy, White House Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his memoirs that "the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance against our war on Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender". Similarly, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War, recalled that he had opposed the use of the bomb in his meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Eisenhower thought the Japanese were ready to surrender and, moreover, did not like the idea that the U.S. should be the first to use such a bomb. Even Admiral `Bull' Halsey, Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet that participated in the final offensive against the Japanese home islands in the final months of the War, publicly stated in 1946 that "the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment". The Japanese had put forward peace feelers through the Russians and were looking to end the War. Most Japanese historians put the declaration of War by the Soviet Union as the major turning point that convinced the Japanese of the need to surrender.

John Dower, a leading historian of modern Japan, whose writings powerfully and persuasively describe the racial stereotyping that fuelled the War, argues that the saturation bombing of civilian targets, extensive use of flame throwers in the island-hopping strategy across the Pacific, and the kill-all tactics, led to an unparalleled level of destruction and violence that made the bombs less decisive than they appear to be. The day after the Soviet Union's declaration of war on August 8, and on the evening of the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki, the Imperial War Council met and decided, on the intervention of the Emperor, to accept the surrender terms. On August 14, Japan surrendered. On balance, the arguments against the use of the bomb seem to be stronger and certainly the second bomb dropped at Nagasaki did not seem to serve any useful purpose.

THE second critical area of concern is in the way Hiroshima and Nagasaki have memorialised those who died. The U.S. forces had identified a number of targets, but finally focussed on Hiroshima and Kokuro. Kyoto, though a target initially, was famously spared because of the intervention of Japan specialists such as Edwin Reischauer, Professor at Harvard University and later U.S. Ambassador to Japan, who saw it as an invaluable historical treasure. Ultimately, on the day of the bombing, bad weather prevented the targeting of Kokuro and the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Hiroshima was then a city of considerable military significance. It was the headquarters of the Fifth Division and of the 2nd General Army that commanded the defence of southern Japan. It was also a communication centre, storage point and an assembly area for troops. As it had not suffered much damage earlier, it was felt to be an ideal target to study the effects of the bomb. It is estimated that a total of 140,000 people died in Hiroshima, 60,000 of them owing to poisoning by radiation, by the end of 1945. The city government estimates that as of August 2004 the cumulative toll was 237,062. There are 27,000 hibakusha still living in Japan.

Emperor Hirohito.-AFP

Nagasaki, one of the largest ports, was also of great War-time importance as the centre of industrial activity that included the production of ordnance, ships, military equipment and other materials used in war. The immediate deaths caused by the bombing are estimated to be 75,000; but the total number of residents killed is believed to be at least 100,000.

Among the hibakusha, at least 50,000 were people from Korea, a Japanese colony since 1910. They had been forcibly brought to Japan as mobilised workers and soldiers. Yet these Korean dead were never mentioned in the annual peace ceremonies held every August 6 until 1990. In April 1970, Koreans living in Japan erected a memorial to the Korean victims of the Hiroshima bomb. They did this at the spot where the body of a Korean prince, Yi Gu, who was serving as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Japanese Imperial Army, that is a collaborator, was found. They were not allowed to erect their memorial in the Hiroshima Peace Park, which had already become a place of international pilgrimage. The Japanese authorities finally allowed the memorial to be moved to the Peace Park in July 1999.

The memorialising of the Korean victims is further complicated by the fact that the Koreans living in Japan are divided - supporters of North Korea and those who owe allegiance to South Korea. The memorial, erected by supporters of South Korea, has the inscription "In memory of prince Yi Gu and the other 20,000 or more souls", thereby giving rise to the question why the prince deserved special treatment. Moreover, the word used for Koreans (kankokujin) is one that is only used for South Koreans thus excluding the North Koreans (chosenjin). There are attempts to bridge the divisions within the Korean community, but the North Korean hibakusha, estimated to be between 930 and 1,953, are still effectively excluded from any official assistance. Little is known about them or their health and access to medical treatment. Tokyo has long resisted providing full assistance to those survivors who do not live in Japan; 5,000 of the total of 285,600 hibakusha live outside the country. The government provides a monthly allowance of $1,260 and free medical check-up to survivors in Japan. But survivors based outside Japan, mostly South Koreans, get a smaller amount though a 2002 court ruling forced the government to provide more relief to victims living abroad. The North Korean victims do not get any relief because the government argues it does not know whether the relief will actually get to the intended beneficiaries or be used by the cash-strapped government of North Korea.

On September 2, 1945, Japanese officials stand in a group facing representatives of the Allied armed forces before signing the surrender agreement on the deck of USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.-

Many of the hibakusha have come forward to stand as testimony to the horrible effects of nuclear weapons and to call for an end to them. But, as their numbers decrease, questions about how the peace movement can be taken forward have been raised. One step that has been taken is to build global alliances with like-minded groups and cities. However, it would seem that within Japan, the peace movement, divided by political and sectarian rivalry, needs to locate its anti-war objectives within a larger political and social agenda. Without such a goal, its annual pronouncements end up as ineffective platitudes. The strength of the peace movement has been to act as a restraint on the growth of the Japanese defence establishment and prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. Meanwhile, Japan has incrementally strengthened its defence forces, become a key U.S. military ally, and expanded its role in the region as well as globally both as an U.S. ally and within the United Nations.

However, despite its important role in the regional economy, Japan's relations with its neighbours are bedevilled by its past. This can only be resolved if it begins to move away from a view of itself as a victim and recognises that its colonial past in Asia was not for the liberation of those countries but led to their domination through brutal measures.

This recognition is a vital step in any reconciliation. This recognition, even more than compensation, is what the former colonies seek. Situating the search for peace within this historical regional framework would answer the demands of Japan's neighbours and change the terms of debate both within the country and among its neighbours.

The B-29 bomber Enola Gay, which carried the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, at the Smithsonian Museum of Air and Space in Washington.-JAMAL WILSON/AFP

The recent resolution of the Diet on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War made no mention of Japan's aggression in Asia - an omission that does not augur well for the future.

Brij Tankha is Professor of Modern Japanese History at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

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