This week marks the 70th anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima on 6th August and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, followed by Japan’s surrender on 15th August, a date that became known as Victory over Japan Day, or V-J Day, although the formal surrender ceremony did not take place until 2nd September in Tokyo Bay aboard the battleship USS Missouri and so that day is known as V-J Day in the USA. 15th August is officially marked in Japan as “the day for mourning of war dead and praying for peace.”
The devastation unleashed by the first wartime use of nuclear weapons is well documented: the attacks claimed an estimated 200,000 lives almost immediately, with the death toll continuing to rise over the decades due to injuries and radiation-related sickness. In Hiroshima alone the death toll on the day of the bombing is estimated to be 100,000, doubling to 200,000 within five years, and rising to 247,000 the following year. Doctors and scientists found increased rates of leukaemia, cancer and cataracts in both cities over thirty years later.
183,519 people are known to still be alive today having survived the bomb attacks in 1945. They are known as hibakushu and in addition to their injuries and stress, many of these survivors – and later, their children - were stigmatised and rejected by Japan’s deeply homogenous society as a result of their experiences. Women suffered spurning by potential marriage partners fearful that they would not produce healthy babies, while employers also discriminated against hibakushu, making it difficult for them to return to the workforce.
About 20 years ago I visited Hiroshima during one of my many visits to Japan to attend Sony product line-up meetings in Tokyo. These would last for two weeks so for those of us required to stay throughout there was always the challenge of how to entertain ourselves over the middle weekend. On one occasion a few of us took the bullet train to Hiroshima and visited the impressive Peace Park. I still have a bundle of postcards I bought there depicting such memorials as a statue of “Children suffered from A-bomb”, the Bell of Prayer for Peace, and most moving, the Monument of Doin-Gakuto, a skeleton of a building that was at the epicentre of the bomb.
The idea of an atomic bomb was known to Japan’s military and civilian leadership – they had their own fledgling nuclear programme - but they seem to have had no inkling that the US had a finished and tested bomb. In the spring of 1945, US secretary of war Henry Stimson debated with scientists working on the “Manhattan Project” about whether some warning of the bomb’s power should be given to the Japanese. It was decided against this since the main priority was to use the bomb “to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible.”
By this stage of the war, “area bombing” by the Allies in both Germany and Japan had already resulted in massive casualties. In one night alone on 9th March 100,000 died in a single fire-bombing raid on Tokyo; 66 more cities had been partially destroyed in daily, massive attacks. But it was deep in the Japanese psyche never to surrender. The extraordinary power of the Atomic bomb was the only thing that could alter this perspective. Six days after Nagasaki Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender speaking of a “new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable”.
The scientists who worked on the “Manhattan Project” could actually calculate its power to do damage and well before President Truman took the decision to drop the first nuclear bombs they could see the danger of a new world order based on nuclear weapons, in which more and more nations would be competing to acquire them. In early 1944, Niels Bohr, A Danish physicist and Nobel prize winner, visited Washington and London, seeking to persuade the Allies to allow the USSR to share in the development of the bomb in order to prepare an “international control scheme” for after the War- but without success.
Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist, gave the Soviets stolen plans, including those of the Nagasaki bomb. Four years after Nagasaki the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device in Kazakhstan. The UK followed in 1952, then France in 1960. By the time China exploded its first bomb, in 1964, the US had some 30,000 warheads. Thus the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all nuclear powers.
By 1985 the USA and the USSR had more than 60,000 warheads between them when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev began disarmament talks. By that time Pakistan had tested its first nuclear bomb (in 1983) joining India, Israel and South Africa in the nuclear club of nations despite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty adopted in 1968. Since then there has been some progress in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons and dismantling those in existence. The USA, Russia and UK have all more or less halved their nuclear arsenals. South Africa and some of the former Soviet nations renounced their nuclear arms programmes in the early 1990s. Overall the global number of nuclear warheads has reduced to around 17,000. However, China, Israel, India Pakistan and the outlaw North Korea have all added to their stockpiles.
This has not been entirely due to diplomacy as luck has had a hand. In 2003 Colonel Gaddafi, spooked by the allied invasion of Iraq, agreed to dismantle his nuclear programme, somewhat fortunately given Libya’s subsequent descent into chaos. Ukraine, however, may be rueing its decision to give up the 2,000 Soviet warheads on its soil given Russia’s recent aggression. Israel, which neither confirms nor denies its own programme, destroyed Syria’s main nuclear plant in 2007, again somewhat fortunately given Syria’s four-way civil war. And although Israel condemns the recent deal with Iran it may have been its own actions that helped bring Iran to the negotiating table as its spies are believed to have assassinated at least five Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years.
Many of the survivors of the first nuclear bombs now give their remaining energy to promote the cause of peace and the dismantling of all nuclear bombs wherever they are stored. But others remain angry with both their parents who fought the war and with their conquerors who in the early part of the occupation censored everything published for fear of inciting Japanese animosity to the occupation. The Americans also obscured the truth about radiation sickness and blocked the publication of scientific studies in Japan, impeding proper treatment for the sick and dying. It was not until the 1950s that the Japanese public learned the full reality of the nuclear attacks.
V-J Day has particular piquancy in our family. My father was an officer in Field Marshal William Slim’s 14th Army that fought back against the Japanese in Burma in 1944-45. My mother did not celebrate V-E Day in May 1945 because her husband was still fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. Even V-J Day, while it marked the end of hostilities, was only a time for limited celebration as it was several months before he returned home. First all the sick and the injured had to be repatriated followed by the Prisoners-of-War. It was only in October 1945 that my father and mother were reunited after nearly four years of separation. My father suffered nightmares for the rest of his long life which seemed to involve grappling with a Japanese soldier, though he would never talk about his actual experiences.
When I was offered the job of Managing Director of Sony Consumer Products Company UK I asked my father if he had any objection to my joining what was then Japan’s most iconic company. He said “Oh, that was all in the past and we should forget about it now”. It was very generous of him. It was in the past. But I don’t think we should forget about it now and I will mark the occasion on the 15th August in some appropriate way.