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War And Peace – The Japanese Perspective On WW2

Yushukan Museum

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.

Hiroshima Peace Museum

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

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).

Why The Atomic Bomb And Why Hiroshima

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.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum The Potsdam Declaration

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 Aftermath

 

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.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum Hiroshima After 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.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum Letter of protest to US

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.

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9 Responses to War And Peace – The Japanese Perspective On WW2

  1. Pingback: Day Trip to Miyajima -

  2. Pingback: Traveling Tips and Average Spending in Japan

  3. The WW2 is an unforgettable part of history for the Philippines as we were one of those who were caught in the middle of the war. We learned from what happened to the past, and whatever we have at present is actually a product of what transpired in history.

    Ria Dancel July 27, 2013 at 11:14 AM Reply
  4. Atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought hopes to hundreds of million people. Veterans of Okinawa and POWs saw their chance of survival go up. Over 10 million murdered souls can rest in peace. Six million(25% of Korean pop.) young men and women can returned to their families whom were forced laborers(slaves).
    I am a Korean American and I was educated in both Korea and US. And this is what it means to me.

    Tom August 7, 2013 at 11:43 PM Reply
    • Thank you so much for sharing Tom. It is always incredibly interesting to hear the different outlooks on the various acts committed during world war II and to hear what it means to you.

      Vicky August 14, 2013 at 5:26 PM Reply
    • and what of the japanese atrociteies on underdeveloped countries such as vietnam. I remind you not that the killing of civilians or noncombatants is perhaps the worst thing a proffesional soldier can do. A soldier dying for his nation is but another day but a to kill children for the sake of their ill experiments; is a crime that needs no judge to decide if right or not. How can we have let the royal family live after the atrocities is something that escapes me, but to let them slander the masscres of the mainland as accidents or for their continous outright denial of their wrong doing (current left and right wing) is unforgivable.

      mont June 18, 2014 at 12:19 PM Reply
  5. I have studied WW2 extensively mostly in the hope to understand the psychology of both the soldiers and those who lead them. Obviously when it comes to history every country tends to be biased in their own favor so the ONLY way to find the truth is see and research this subject in the perspective of the enemy and find out where things line up.
    What I’ve discovered is that on all sides atrocities happened and not one country did not do something horrible to another country or frankly their own men.
    The UK killed over 2,000 of the French’s navy even though they had been allies.
    The Germans did countless horrors to anyone that was different in ANY way OR considered a political threat and used the fact that they killed so randomly to psychologically terrorize enemy troops. (The US did stoop to their level and did the same back to German POW’s) They were good at one thing and that was profiteering from other peoples death and slave labor.
    The Japanese imprisoned many different countries and ordered them to work or die and they indoctrinated their people that even when the civilians were liberated many chose to commit suicide since they were told that we were going to EAT them!!! Their value on live was astonishing to me to be sure… Its one thing to not value your enemies lives but its a whole other thing to not value YOUR army’s lives at all! (crazy since without them there is NO war!!)
    The US treated ALL Japanese ancestry people on the west coast as the enemy and placed them to fairly bad condition camps then ordered everyone of serving age to enlist as front line infantry. They were in segregated units same as the African Americans that were serving. However what happened next was worse. The all Jap unit wanted more then ANYTHING to prove their loyalty to America NOT Japan. So they literally accomplished ANY task before them no matter who died to do it. However even though they were so great at their job the commanding officer didn’t value their lives and ran them into the ground right before sending them to most of their deaths while they rescued the “lost soldiers.” Even worse was the amount of people killed by the atomic bomb afterwards since they literally did only one test ten days prior. The US had NO clue what the radiation was capable of (even now we are still figuring that out!) since its something that only shows up after time. All Truman knew was that if the US had to invade Japan it would be a extremely bloody battle because it had ALWAYS been a extremely bloody battle because no matter the odds the Japanese NEVER surrendered. Another fact was the US POW’s in Japan (numbering in the 168,000!!!) would have all been killed if in fact we ever did touch Japanese soil. The final fact is that he did have a new weapon at his disposal and since everyone had thought the war would have been finished a long time ago he was just plan in a hurry to finally end the damn world. So as long as it saved US lives he really didn’t care what happened over there in Japan just so long as they surrendered. Another crazy fact is that more people were killed by us fire bombing them then by the atomic bomb. Since their houses are highly flammable it would cause a fire storm and would sometimes rage for days on end.
    I guess my point is that there are always reasons people get into war in the first place and for the aggressor it is ALWAYS about gaining something of value be it land or resources or political. But once war starts it is SO incredibly horrible that it does affect “normal” people and turns them into monsters. They didn’t start out that way most the time but the environment of death and destruction leads people to do things they wouldn’t have imagined they could possibly do. Hitler didn’t just go round up Jews and kill them all right off the bat! In fact it was a very slow progression were even at the end the Jews themselves thought everything was fine while they were undressing on the way to the gas chamber! The WHOLE reasons there were gas chambers was because Himmler was worried that the SS would be too severely affected by having to kill THAT many helpless ppl and he was also worried about what type of solider he would have if they DIDN’T have a issue with it!! We are ALL capable of great evils. These people aren’t serial killers they BELIEVE in what they were doing and that they are correct in acting as they do. I mean come on! everyone was fighting for their HOMELAND! BELIEVING fully in the wrong thing is what is the TRUE issue! I think everyone for the most part was just looking out for number one which is the ONLY thing you can really look out for in a survival type situation.

    Valerie December 29, 2013 at 8:22 PM Reply
    • You just invalidated your whole statement when you said all are biased towards their own nation. More so, you proved it throughout your comment. They were serial killers. Accept that first and you will be able to look at things in a better light, not highly biased towards the U.S. or even Nazi Germany.
      I will not claim anything such as that I have researched on this extensively not only because there is no way to prove that but also because when you come to think of it, you never really know when you have researched enough. You know, before you can say you understood something fully, you have to be open to all possibilities. That is what makes this blog credible.

      Rob March 23, 2014 at 12:24 AM Reply
    • The French Vichy were not allies – they had signed a pact with the Germans. They had the chance to scuttle their ships as they later did in 1942, they could have surrendered by instead chose to fight back against the British resulting in the deaths. secondly you are right, Hitler began with the socialists, the Gypsies and the mentally ill. Moreover most Jews were not killed in gas chambers but in the field.

      gordon jones August 12, 2015 at 10:13 AM Reply

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