Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

From Barefoot Gen, graphic novel about Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa, author and illustrator (Hadashi no Gen).
Today, August 6, is the one Japanese people remember from WWII. When my oldest child was born in Tokyo on December 7, I remarked on the irony to a college-educated Japanese friend who replied, "What's Pearl Harbor?" (kind of like Afghan men responded when asked their views on 9/11).

On August 6, 1945 the US dropped the first nuclear weapon on the city of Hiroshima. It had been developed without the help of Austrian scientist Lise Meitner, who declined to participate despite having been one of those who discovered fission, and despite having been a Jew hounded from her university position by Nazis.

This event, plus the bombing of the city of Nagasaki a few days later with a different kind of atomic bomb, was always sold to the U.S. public as having been "necessary" to end WWII without a invasion of the Japanese mainland that was sure to cost the lives of many in the U.S. military. But the Japanese were already negotiating to surrender, and knew the war was lost for them. Some have speculated the U.S. went ahead anyway in order to both test the weapons, and intimidate their WWII ally the U.S.S.R. in a spectacular kick-off to what would become the Cold War.

U.S. citizens knew that some kind of catastrophic weapon had been deployed, and that the Japanese emperor soon surrendered, but it wasn't until John Hersey's long piece in the New Yorker in August, 1946 that many learned the gruesome details. Even then, the protracted suffering from radiation poisoning of the surviving hibakusha (a term that had to be coined) was largely unknown.

My own grandfather, drafted into WWII, was among the first U.S. troops to enter Nagasaki after the bomb. Despite pestering by his daughter (my mother), he would never talk about it.

Now we watch in horror as the Fukushima nuclear power plant continues to spew radiation into the atmosphere and groundwater, and attempts to clean it or contain it prove futile. Just last week TEPCO announced radiation levels instantly lethal to humans had been detected, presumably from fuel rods that we already know melted down after cooling failed in the wake of earthquake and tsunami damage.

We of the baby boom generation have lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation our entire lives. We've watched in horror as nuclear weapons and energy have proliferated, despite the best efforts of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol and many other efforts to have humans swear off nuclear before it is too late for everybody.

When young people find out about the disaster visited on Hiroshima, they ask an essential question: Why did the U.S. drop an atomic bomb on the people of Hiroshima? I think this propaganda film made by the Army about Okinawa is a succinct explanation of the overall strategy, though it leaves out the build-up to Pearl Harbor engendered by blocking oil shipments to rapacious Imperial Japan.

My neighbors in Tokyo saw Japanese as the victims, not the aggressors, in WWII. Their view in the early 1980's when I lived there: a cabal of businessmen and highly ranked government officials conspired to drag Japan into building an empire in the region, profiting mightily, while the people paid the price. Japanese starved their way through the war (kamikaze planes were designed in part to save yen by not having to build landing gear), and then suffered conscripted labor and fire bombing of many of their cities even before nuclear disaster struck.

In our times Japanese are leaders in the movement to ban all nuclear weapons -- and, increasingly, the ill-fated attempt to harness nuclear power as an energy source. Today, my thoughts and prayers are with 日本.

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