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The Living Hell of the Japanese-American War

The explosive residue of America’s atomic bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 dominates relations between Japan and the United States.

In a 1986 visit to Hawaii, my wife and I were having dinner with my brother-in-law married to a Japanese-American woman whose mother, it turned out, was from Hiroshima. I asked the Hiroshima survivor to recount her experience. Instead, she burst into tears and wailing.

This explosive residue of America’s atomic bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 dominates relations between Japan and the United States.

Japanese survivors carried out the first study of the effects of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. They published their study on August 23, 1945, just a week before the Americans arrived. They described the effects of the bombing as “living hell.”

On the surface, however, official Japan and America would like to forget the atomic bombing. After all, WWII was America’s “good war.” And Japan, sixty-nine years after a humiliating surrender to the victorious American troops, is still in the USA’s tight military grip.

Japan unleashed the war with the United States with its successful attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Imperial Japan badly miscalculated. The war it provoked became a war of extermination, a race war, a holy war, and a total war.

Americans were not prepared to seek a negotiated Japanese peace or surrender. They demanded the Japanese “yellow bastards” surrender to them without any conditions. This racism and hatred brought too much unnecessary death, the destruction of sixty-six Japanese cities as well asHiroshima and Nagasaki with more than 300,000 dead. “The only good Jap,” for Americans, “was a dead Jap.”

With the atomic blasting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans almost got their wish. In August 1945, Japan was in ruins. The shock and horror and death of the bombed were overwhelming. Scenes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were from Dante’s inferno. Rivers were full of human bodies. Naked people walked with their hands outstretched, their skin peeling and dropping to the ground.

Along with the bombed and burned cities, the notion of civilization went up in smoke. The rest of the Japanese saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki as nightmare evidence of the barbaric and demonic nature of the Americans.

The panorama and tragedy of the Japanese-American war have found a master of story telling in John W. Dower, professor emeritus of history at MIT. His “Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World” (The New Press, 2014) is a great book: comprehensive, political, philosophical, just to both Americans and Japanese, timely, and well written.

He reports that the American occupation authority in Japan imposed censorship on anything atomic – and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The badly injured citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were left alone to die. Indeed, even the Japanese outside Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not offer any assistance to the devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki until 1952 when Japan became putatively independent.

The Americans must have been caught up in their own hubris. They knew the record of Japanese behavior in their fifteen-year war in Asia. The Japanese troops were “aggressive, atrocious, fanatical.” The Americans also knew the Japanese had definite ideas about the Americans’ atomic bombing. “[M]ost Japanese regarded Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the preeminent moments of the atrocity in World War II in Asia, towering above all other acts of war just as the mushroom clouds had towered over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945,” wrote Dower. On the basis of this, how could the Americans judge Japanese atrocities?

They could not. They hanged a few war criminals, but left the structure of the criminal imperial ruling class intact. They put Emperor Hirohito, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, above the law. After all, it was his order for unconditional capitulation that allowed the Americans to step on Japan.

The result is Japan did not have a Nuremberg-like trial. This means Japan is ruled by the same business and military oligarchy that produced the aggressive war in Asia. This explains, for instance, why the Japanese government is so protective of nuclear power, even though the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown of 2011 has been a permanent risk to Japan. Like the United States government that gave birth to civilian nuclear power in order to domesticate the awful military nuclear bombs, the Japanese government repeats the propaganda of the industry.

Add America’s obsession with the Cold War, and Japan was turned to more hatred for communism, especially communism in China where Japan had committed unspeakable atrocities in the Rape of Nanking. Dower says that the “dramatic rise of China as a formidable rival to Japan in the struggle for leadership in Asia, has created a mounting sense of insecurity.”

“Locked in the American embrace,” Dower continues, “their archipelago studded with US military bases like a monstrous stationary battleship off the coast of Asia… and their economy geared more to the United States and Europe than to Asia, they seem to have built more fragile bridges to their neighbors.”

Dower concludes his remarkable book by offering a bit of advice to America: tolerate “dissenting voices and the capacity to confront and transcend past evils.” This would also be a blessing for Japan.

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