Hiroshima's pall

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 March, 2011, 12:00am

We may not know for some time how bad were the nuclear accident and the devastation of the tsunami on Japan, but it has been serious enough to make Japanese wonder: 'Why us?' Why us, when this super-organised society had taken such precautions against earthquakes and their consequences? How could it be, to quote German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel, that 'the impossible became possible'?

The physical repairing will take a long time. The mental healing perhaps longer. It is more than many people can take and even more so for a society that, only 66 years ago, experienced the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 'Why us?' has a deeper resonance than we outsiders can imagine.

Today, one can blame nature, but one can also blame the Japanese scientific and political communities for not building nuclear plants that could deal with 'the impossible'. Six decades ago, one could blame the wartime leadership of Japan for persisting with the war when the evidence was overpowering that Japan had lost. While with the recent events, there was a cause and effect, the events of yesterday were a mixture of Japanese pig-headed militarism and American realpolitik.

The atom-bombing of the two cities is always explained by the US as a necessary step because there remained no other way of forcing capitulation and saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of its troops. But it is simply not true. If we are to understand the impact of these events, we have to be as detached and honest as the geologists and nuclear experts who are now studying how the earthquake and partial nuclear meltdown happened.

The evidence now available suggests that the nuclear bombing was not decisive in persuading Japan to surrender. The emperor and the war leadership were told about the atomic bombing but it did not affect their will to continue the war. The Soviet invasion did. Without the Soviet entry into the war, the Japanese would have continued to fight until quite a few more atomic bombs had been dropped. US president Harry Truman had a workable alternative to using the atom bomb - to co-operate with Stalin, as Roosevelt and Churchill had done on the Western front.

When the Red Army invaded Manchuria, the Japanese political leadership was taken totally by surprise. The invasion undermined their confidence as well as punching a fatal hole in their strategic plan. Without its surrender, Tokyo knew that the Soviets would occupy Manchuria, southern Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands and a good half of Korea and then move further southwards into the mainland. Moreover, it would have compelled Truman to concede Soviet participation in Japan's post-war occupation.

This, not the nuclear bombing, was the key factor. The US conventional bombing attacks on Japanese cities in the spring and summer of 1945 were almost as devastating as Hiroshima. But neither the conventional nor the nuclear bombing turned the heads of Japan's leaders. Its supreme council did not meet until two days after the Hiroshima attack of August 6.

Yet, when the Soviets intervened on August 9, word reached Tokyo by 4.30am and the supreme council met by 10.30am. Following Hiroshima, Emperor Hirohito merely asked for 'more details'. When he heard of the Soviet invasion, he summoned Lord Privy Seal Koichi Kido and told him: 'In the light of the Soviet entry... it is all the more urgent to find a means to end the war.'

After the war, Kido confessed: 'If military leaders could convince themselves they were defeated by the power of science but not by lack of lack of spiritual power or strategic errors, they could save face.' The Americans were only too happy to oblige in this political spin.

Today's Japanese want to know exactly why the great nuclear accident occurred. But, before the wartime generation shuffle away, they should demand that the truth about Hiroshima and Nagasaki be explained, too. It will give a measure of peace to a nation's troubled mind.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist