Nuclear Japan, 70 years after Hiroshima

26.07.15 Publication:

Ever since their first contact with Europeans in the 16th century, the Japanese have always seemed hard to understand. The 70th anniversary of one of the worst moments in Japan’s history, the dropping by US forces of the atom bombs on Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki three days later, illustrates this perfectly. Think about it: the only country ever to have suffered atomic devastation then became one of the keenest to join the age of atomic power, until the terrible tsunami in March 2011 caused one of the worst ever nuclear accidents, at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power station.

How could a country that from that terrible week in 1945 onwards had the largest number of sufferers of radiation poisoning ever seen in a single nation, then embrace nuclear power, even building many nuclear power installations on earthquake fault lines and on coasts vulnerable to tsunamis?

Paradox and inscrutability are famous Japanese characteristics. But another thing I learned when living in Japan in the 1980s is that if you dig below the surface, such paradoxes often disappear. The Japanese themselves often distinguish between the tatemae, or surface appearance, of something and the honne, or reality. And the reality of Japan’s reaction to the atom bombs and to nuclear power is both more subtle and easier to understand than it at first appears.

If you go to the atom bomb museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what you find is, naturally enough, the poignant and graphic depiction of horror, of events that were like hell on earth. But you soon also notice a strong sense of victimhood: a sense that rather than simply being terrible events that led to Japan’s surrender on August 15th 1945, the bombings represented the singling out of Japan for special treatment, for special punishment.

The questions resound. Why did the US only use its atomic weapon on Japan and not Germany? Why did it choose to use the bomb twice within three days, rather than simply waiting for the horror of the Hiroshima attack to sink in and to bring about capitulation?

These are fair questions, which historians will debate for generations. The second question, about Nagasaki, is especially hard to answer: it is almost as if the Americans were using the second bombing to perfect their new technology.

The effect of such questions, which permeate the museums as well as education about the atomic bombs in Japanese schools, seems to have been twofold. First, the feeling of victimhood has acted to some extent to neutralize, or at least soften, both the sense of defeat and of guilt about the war. Yes, Japan committed terrible atrocities in China and elsewhere in Asia; but in August 1945 atrocities were committed in Japan, too.

Second, the whole experience has reinforced a feeling that has been crucial in Japan for centuries: vulnerability. Mountainous and located in one of the world’s most active seismic zones, Japan has always been accustomed to natural disasters. Responding to such adversity, and working to mitigate the risks of it, has featured strongly in Japanese history.

The unnatural disaster of the atom bombs, and of the firebombing of Tokyo that preceded it, are in some ways just another example of such adversity. But what they and the overall wartime defeat also emphasized was Japan’s weakness in terms of technology and of resources. They showed that, with hindsight, the Pacific war had been unwinnable. Defeat wasn’t just a matter of bad tactics. Japan was too weak and too backward.

Like Germany, the Soviet Union, Britain and the US, Japan had pursued its own atomic weapons research during the war. If it had succeeded in creating an atomic bomb it would surely have used it. But its research was, historians now say, not just a failure but a pathetic one. Japan didn’t just lose the atomic race: it was left far behind, and then humiliated by becoming the first and only ever target.

So two strong winds have blown ever since in Japanese society. One is a sense of the importance of science and technology not just in economic terms but as a protection for Japan in the future, a national imperative. The other is a powerful mood of pacifism.

War, for the Japanese, did not just end in defeat. It ended in a hell in which citizens were vaporized in an instant, in which injured victims walked the streets looking like ghosts, and died days or weeks later from the radiation.

In the past few days, the Japanese government has pushed laws through Parliament to make it easier for the country’s armed forces to participate in future conflicts in support of allies. The public reaction against this has been strong. It is clear that the government would not stand a chance of changing the anti-war articles of the post-1945 constitution itself, as that requires a two-thirds majority in a referendum.

Pacifism is more powerful than is opposition to nuclear power, though that has grown substantially since Fukushima Dai-ichi. For Japanese are also highly pragmatic: lacking natural resources of their own, they know that their dependence on imported energy makes them vulnerable.

In political circles and the military, there is also another motivation to stay on the forefront of nuclear power: ability in that technology also enables Japan to be what is known as a “threshold atomic power”, in other words a country that could develop and produce nuclear weapons within a matter of months, if it needed to. After all, Japan sits in a dangerous neighbourhood, with North Korea testing its nuclear weapons all the time, and of course nuclear-armed China being not exactly friendly.

This cannot and is not said very openly. But it is understood. If “never again” is the emotional response to the atom bombings of 70 years ago, the practical response is to reduce the country’s chances of becoming a victim again, both through alliance with the US and through Japan’s own capabilities. The tatemae may be that Japan is anti-nuclear; the honne, or reality, is that it is pacifist, but feels vulnerable.