Did bombing Hiroshima save Japan?

Had the bombs not been dropped and had the allies invaded, it would have been horrible beyond belief

Yoshikado-sensei said, ‘They’re still th­ere. Spear them! Sp­ear them!’ and it was really fun. I was tired, but I realised that even one person can kill a lot of the enemy.”

So wrote Mihoko Naka­ne, a 10-year-old Japanese girl, in her diary in July 1945. She was describing the ha­nd-to-hand combat training she and her classmates were getting for the “decisive battle” to be fou­ght if and when the US and its allies invaded mainland Japan.

It’s one of many sobering vignettes recounted in Sam­uel Yamashita’s recently pu­blished Daily Life in War­time Japan. Drawing on mo­re than 100 wartime diaries, Yamashita offers sna­pshots of how Japanese civ­ilians mobilised for war, celebrated their military’s initial stu­nning victories, obe­yed (or resisted) their government’s edicts and endu­red the tig­htening circles of ha­rdship that culminated in the collapse of the greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere.

Yamashita, a professor of history at Pomona College (where he and my father were colleagues), didn’t intend to add to the brouhaha over whether President Ba­rack Obama should apologise to Japan on his planned visit to Hiroshima next we­ek — the latest installment of a seven-decade debate over whether the US was ju­stified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, Yamash­ita wrote it largely to fill a gap in the war’s English-language historical record.

Yet Yamashita’s effort to surface wartime Japanese civilian accounts illumina­tes that debate, providing real-time evidence of how willingly most Japanese embraced the regimentation and sacrifice of the war effort. In so doing, his book lends weight to the idea that a massive, terrible shock was necessary to convince Japan that even an envisioned “suicide of 100 million” civilians — to borrow a phrase used by military officials in 1945 — would not achieve a negotiated conditional surrender, much less victory.

Japan had been girding its people for war since well before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As Yamashita documents, popular indoctrination, restrictions on media, and controls on raw materials were ratcheted up from the mid-1930s onward, especially after Japan’s 1937 attack on China. In 1940, the government took over food distribution, with the home ministry using new community councils and nearly a million neighbourhood associations to oversee rationing, sell war bonds, organise scrap drives and rally the populace.

As Yamashita writes, th­ese new bodies “not only subtly shaped the behaviour of wartime Japanese but also served to keep them in line.” Diary entries show th­eir almost daily intrusio­ns, whether in the form of air raid drills, work briga­des, or feverish troop send-offs.

As war crept closer to the homeland, the government encouraged families to send their children to the countryside to escape bombing raids; by war’s end, nearly 1.3 million had been evacuated. Yet the government had more than safety in mind. As Yamashita writes, it was also intent on transforming the transplanted youngsters into what it ca­lled “splendid little citizens” who embodied national virtues.

Their textbooks extolled Japanese as the politest pe­ople in the world and Japan as “the only divine country.” Children were instructed to keep diaries, which administrators regularly inspected. They wrote “comfort letters” to soldiers at the front, and greeted processions ca­rrying the boxed ashes of war dead. Teachers imparted the “national citizens’ quotation of the day” and added their own commentary, along the lines of “wh­at will happen with the attacks of the foreign devils? We must harden our spirits and resolve to launch a great counterattack.”

As Japan’s depleted military resorted to “special attack units” (the infamous kamikaze pilots), teachers lionised these suicide squ­ads as “divine spirits,” who had “reached the territory of understanding.” The eva­cuated children’s long hikes to forage for firewood, bamboo shoots, edible roots, fro­gs and grasshoppers gave way to exercises in spear-fi­ghting, swordplay and hand grenade-throwing. On these trips, some of the teachers would break away to learn how to fly gliders to be loa­ded with explosives and flo­wn into Allied ships.

The last third of Yamashita’s book is a close reading of 24 diaries and 25 “last letters” of Japan's ka­mikazes. As Yamashita no­tes, the special attack units were not an ad hoc initiative, but something discus­sed “at the highest levels” of Japan’s military leadership, with a strong emphasis on the pilots’ spiritual training, especially the inculcation of “self-cultivation” and “self-sacrifice.” As one kamikaze pilot wrote in January 1945: “I exist because my country exists; without a country, I would have no family. If there is life, there is death. Joining a special attack unit and ‘sh­attering the jewel’ is, to me, the highest site of death.”

In the last year of the war, Yamashita writes, “this same discourse began appe­aring in the government-controlled mass media.” Ja­pan’s biggest cities were by then fields of ash and rubble, their residents reduced to near-starvation. But despite isolated acts of subversion and resistance, “most Japanese did what their go­vernment urged them to do; namely, to prepare for the ‘decisive battle’ that would take place when the enemy invaded the Japanese home islands in the fall of 1945.”

That decisive battle ne­ver took place, in large part because of the devastating atomic bombings of Hiro­shima and Nagasaki in August 1945. At least, that’s Yamashita’s view; he remin­ded me that Japan’s military-dominated cabinet was still arguing whether to surrender after the Hiroshima bombing when news arrived of the bombing of Nagasaki. Others point to different re­asons for Japan’s surrender, notably the sudden decision by the Soviet Union to enter the war.

After reading this book, though, I found it hard to argue with what Yamashita told me: “Had the bombs not been dropped and had the allies invaded as they were planning to, it would have been horrible beyond belief.” The numbers supp­ort him: As many as 150,000 civilians may have perished in the battle for Okinawa alone, for insta­nce. Never mind the allied servicemen, who might ha­ve died — including, perhaps, my father, a battlefield interrogator in US naval intelligence, who went on to join a cadre of postwar Japanologists. Spare a thought for the Japanese boys and girls training to throw themselves under advancing US tanks with bombs strapped to their chests.

Nearly two and a half million Japanese died in World War II. But thanks in part to President Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons, Mihoko Nakane wasn’t one of them.

(The author writes editorials on international affairs and was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for secretary of state Warren Christopher, National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton)

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