- Travel Topics
Vicky and I had been dying to get into a conversation about WWII with some Japanese, but it was always difficult to segue into the conversation, and, frankly, most peoples’ English wasn’t sophisticated enough for that complex of a conversation. As a result, we were extremely excited to visit the Yushukan museum in downtown Tokyo, which is a full history on Japanese aggression including World War 2. While it wasn’t a personal perspective, it was, at the very least, a government sanctioned opinion, as well as a museum, which has been accused of revisionism and glorifying Japanese aggression, so it was guaranteed to be interesting.
The museum begins chronologically starting with early, Japanese samurai. Swords, armor, guns – interesting, but nothing controversial. The beauty starts around the mid 1800s. Right around 1850 or so Japan was coming out (forced) of it’s closed door policy, during which no Japanese were allowed to leave Japan and no foreigners were allowed to enter (this persisted for 200 years with relatively few exceptions). In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry arrives with a bunch of ships and demands Japan open it’s country up.
Now I’m not a historian, but you have to understand the magnitude of this. Japan closed its door on the west under the pretense that they were superior and that the west was a bad influence that needed to be curtailed. Then, 200 years later, after Japan has had relatively little innovation and interaction with other countries abroad, they get a knock on the door from the west, who shows up with massively, modern ships and cool guns – effectively making the Japanese, an extremely proud culture, look uncivilized.
What followed was essentially a series of “Friendship Treaties” with all the major western nations, as well as some sweeping modernization in Japan, which completely turned the culture upside down and led to the beginning of the emperor system in 1868.
If you’re not sure where I’m going with this brief history lesson, it’s that modern Japan is somewhat built on Western imperialism, and, at least in this museum, they use that rationale as the basis of every action that subsequently happened. Well that, and their desire to prove racial equality with the west.
Everything following 1850 puts Japan in a great light. For example, what we learn in the US as the Nanking Massacre, they refer to as the “Nanking Incident” and boast about how they freed the Chinese population.
So, when we finally get to World War Two, we find that Japan was “forced to enter” in order to “stop western imperialism” as well as to “prove racial equality” (after being discriminated against in several treaties following World War I). Everything is entirely aimed at making the west look like aggressors and Japan look like the underdog, fighting to attain equality after doing everything in its power to avoid the war. In their opinion, it was clear that the US was going to declare war on them anyways (which may be true).
Perhaps most blatant of all, however, is that there is no mention of cooperation with Germany and no mention of the Holocaust. Japan, it seems, was solely at war with the west, and despite losing, they paved the way for many other uprisings (specifically African) against racial inequality.
In stark contrast to the war museum in Tokyo lies the peace museum in central Hiroshima city. It’s difficult to believe that this park, in which school children now gather and sing, was once the site of one of the most horrific acts of war in the history of mankind.
At 8:15AM on August 6th, an atomic bomb named “Little Boy” was dropped 600 meters above Shirayama hospital in the center of Hiroshima city. It exploded with a blast radius of several kilometers, obliterating almost everything in its path. With approximately 80% of the city located within a 3 km radius, almost all of Hiroshima was engulfed in flames – the city burned continuously for 3 days. Among the casualties were military personnel and civilians, consisting of Japanese, Koreans, and Westerners (including American POWs).
A tour of the museum begins with the history of the atomic bomb. Under suspicion that Germany was also conducting research on building their own atomic bomb, the US created the “Manhattan Project”, a top-secret, national effort to construct the world’s first atomic fission bomb. 3 years and 2 billion dollars later and the first bomb was tested in New Mexico on July 16th.
10 days later a letter, the Potsdam Declaration, was sent to Japan demanding their unconditional surrender. In this letter was no mention of the atomic bomb, or any bomb for that matter. It is also did not assure the continuation of the emperor system, which was the main concern/term that the Japanese desired in order to surrender.
The Japanese rejected the treaty.
In America, we are generally taught that the decision to detonate the atomic bomb was a cost-benefit scenario. A swift end to the war would save more lives than would be lost via the bomb. However, as the museum clearly indicates, there were other factors at play.
The first is that America had spent 2 billion dollars in research and development in order to construct the bomb. Detonating it would serve as the ultimate justification for the vast time and effort, which had gone into constructing it. It would also showcase to the world the might/power, which America had recently attained (announcing the bombing of Hiroshima, Truman said that America had “harnessed the power of the sun“).
The second is that the likely alternative to dropping the bomb would be to invade Japan mainland directly, which, in most scenarios would require the assistance of the Soviet Union, who had recently declared war on Japan, thereby increasing their post-war influence.
Viewed in this light, the decision to drop the bomb appears to be much more politically motivated than we are led to believe.
4 cities were selected as potential targets for the bomb, with Hiroshima being “desirable” for its population density and city size, which would provide ample test data. It was also a military stronghold. Lastly, it was thought that there were no American POWs there.
The horrors that ensued are generally glossed over in US history books. Many people were incinerated on the spot, to the point that their shadow is still engrained in the surrounding cement today. Others, who were close enough to the blast radius (a few kilometers), were inflicted with enough burns and/or radiation that they died a few days later. Many who at first appeared to be unscathed died as a result of unknown reasons months after the blast. There was an air in the city that, eventually, everyone would perish. By the end of 1945 it is estimated that 140,000 out of the total population of 350,000 died as a result of the first atomic bomb.
Three days following Hiroshima, another bomb, “fat boy”, was dropped on Nagasaki – claiming an additional 80,000 lives.
While one would expect the museum to take a blameful tone, similar to the war museum in Tokyo, it does not. In fact, it directly cites Japanese aggression several times. Above all, however, it calls for a general plea for peace and nuclear disarmament.
Since World War Two, despite several wars where nuclear weapons were considered, nuclear weapons have not been used. That said, nuclear testing continues, the stock piles grow, and the weapons become more destructive – in some cases thousands of times more destructive than the original atomic bomb. Above all, the US, who should be spearheading the case for nuclear disarmament, continues to push through policies making nuclear weapons more usable and has conducted the most recent nuclear test on August 27th.
It was rumored that after the nuclear blast, nothing would grow in the area for another 75 years. However, that same autumn, small plants began to spring up, signifying the resilience of the people and mankind as a whole. Now, the A-bomb dome, the only remaining structure from that time, stands, surrounded by greenery. Not far from it burns the eternal flame, which will continue to burn until all nuclear weapons have been disassembled.
As long as we live in a world with nuclear weapons, the world will never be safe, and there is no guarantee that the horrors committed will not be repeated.