At 08:15 on the morning of August 6th 1945 the Enola Gay unleashed on Hiroshima the first of two nuclear holocausts witnessed by mankind, killing 140,000 people. Almost exactly 600m beneath the hypocentre of “little boy” stands an excellent museum, sitting within the grounds of the Peace Memorial Park.
The museum begins by outlining the development of Hiroshima from the Meiji Restoration onwards. From 1600 to 1868 Japan had been ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a form of military rule. Although the Imperial bloodline remained in place during this period, the powers of the Imperial family were no more than ceremonial. In the years leading up to 1600 European traders in Japan were tolerated, largely because they introduced modern weapons to a country embroiled in civil war. However, when the Shogunate came to power in 1600, the Christianity brought by the Europeans was seen as a threat to state security and a couple of hundred thousand Japanese civilians that had converted to Christianity were executed. This ushered in a period during which Japan became increasingly insular and retreated from the world – Japanese traders sailing to India and further west were recalled to Japan, and all bar a tiny number of Dutch and Chinese traders in Nagasaki were expelled from Japan.
By the mid 1800s Japan was under intense diplomatic pressure from America and Britain to open up ports for trading. Fearful of British maritime power which had recently forced China into opening up trading relations during the Opium Wars, Japan was thrown into turmoil. The Shogunate was split between accepting American and British demands and attempting to rebuff them, with military action if necessary. This split eventually caused the collapse of the Shogunate and in 1868 Imperial powers were restored under Emperor Meiji, following the humiliating resignation of the final Shogun leader. Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo, now called Tokyo (or “East Capital”), and under his rule Japan returned to take its place in world affairs. During the Meiji Restoration railways were built, compulsory education was introduced and crucially, thousands of foreign advisors (mostly European) were brought to Japan to assist in aiding the country’s development as well as drafting a new constitution. Much of the constitutional structure and balance of power between the military and parliament was eventually modeled on the existing German system, a legacy with a devastating destiny.
Empowered by the new constitution and the speed of the country’s development, territorial ambition grew quickly within Japanese military, culminating in partially successful wars with China and Russia around the 1890s and early 1900s. During the 1930s a bunch of jumped up Generals came up with some contrived justification for invading Manchuria in China. The invasion culminated in the Rape of Nanking, during which horrendous war crimes were perpetrated by the Japanese military against Chinese civilians. Signing the Anti-Comintern pact with Germany and Italy in 1936, Japan’s course over the coming decade was set.
Greater diplomatic efforts should of course have been made to negotiate with Japan prior to the atomic bomb being dropped. Assurances regarding the continuation of the Imperial system were seen as crucial to any negotiated settlement, but were never offered by the allied forces. The fact that greater efforts weren’t made is probably due a combination of 3 factors. Firstly, there was enormous domestic pressure in the US to justify the expense of the bomb, the development of which had cost 2 billion dollars. Secondly, both the US and the UK wanted a quick surrender so as to not cede any additional territory to the Soviet Union. Stalin only broke his neutrality pact with Japan after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Recognising that Japan was facing imminent defeat, Stalin’s goal in declaring war on Japan was no doubt to bring as much of the country as possible under the Soviet sphere of influence, and at a very minimum he’d have liked Hokkaido. This would have no doubt led to Japan being split like Korea and Vietnam. Finally, perhaps there was a desire within parts of the scientific community to truly understand the destructive power of the bomb. That sounds like a horrendous thing to say, but once the US and UK had drawn up a shortlist of potential Japanese targets, each of the selected cities were spared conventional bombing to ensure the effects of the atom bomb could be properly understood.
There was a short book written in 1946 by John Hersey which tells the story of 6 Hiroshima residents that survived the bomb (survivors of the bomb are commonly referred to as hibakusha). In the weeks immediately before the bomb was dropped there was an ominous sense of dread amongst the citizens of Hiroshima; confused because strategically inferior targets had been bombed heavily but Hiroshima had been spared. Most big Japanese cities had suffered an incredible loss of civilian life - 200,000 were killed in Tokyo alone in the first half of 1945.
There’s something about the totality of the destruction which is difficult to grasp. On August 5th 1945 there were approximately 76,000 buildings in Hiroshima. The atomic bomb destroyed about 70,000 of them. The most famous building that survived was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Now known simply as the A-bomb dome, the parts of the building remaining upright have been left on the banks of the river as a chilling reminder of the events of that day.
The museum also tells the story of many who survived the initial impact of the bomb but later succumbed to the massive dose of radiation they’d received. One of these stories is about Sadako Sasaki. Born in 1943 Sadako survived the bomb despite being only 2 years old at the time. Tragically she developed leukemia and died ten years later - incidences of leukemia and other cancers in Hiroshima were enormous in the years following the bomb. Sadako believed that she’d survive the leukemia if she could fold 1,000 origami cranes, which along with turtles are symbols of longevity in many sects of Japanese Buddhism. Her story is remembered in a monument to the children that lost their lives to the bomb, which is movingly surrounded by glass cases filled with origami cranes sent from schools across the world.
The museum is supported and patronised by a number of non-nuclear organisations and the arguments in favour of nuclear deterrence are dispatched out of hand. I personally believe that the cold war would have been a lot more bloody were it not for the constant threat of mutual and assured annihilation and, in that respect, nuclear weapons have saved lives over the past 50 years. However, having had a few days to dwell on Hiroshima I really believe that countries need to begin the long path towards decommissioning nuclear weapons. It’s difficult to imagine the great powers using nuclear weapons, even with Putin’s idiotic bullying and bellicose behaviour. It’s maybe less difficult to imagine nuclear weapons being used in the Middle East. It’s widely acknowledged that Israel has a significant nuclear arsenal and it’s probably only a matter of time before Iran has a bomb. Terrifyingly, many modern day nuclear weapons are 3,000 times more powerful than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
Sadly but perhaps understandably, there are many within Japanese politics who think the time has come for Japan to develop nuclear weapons, largely because of the proximity and antagonistic behaviour of North Korea. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1909 and remained under Japanese control until 1945 and to this day relations between North Korea and Japan are frosty at best. At the end of the 70s a number of Japanese citizens were kidnapped by North Korea and allegedly put to work teaching North Korean spies to speak Japanese. Add to that the occasional North Korean missile flying directly over Japan into the Pacific and it becomes easy to see why Japan is a little uncomfortable. Relations between Japan and the new US administration will largely depend on Obama’s policy towards North Korea.
That night when we returned to our cosy ryokan, the owner had left an origami crane on each of our pillows.