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Richard Falk: The Weird ‘Good Fortune’ of Tsutomu Yamaguchi

The personal legacies of the many survivors of the atomic bombing of Japan.

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Photo taken by Flickr user Border. garaku

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

Over the years I have often thought about the political and moral consciousness associated with the atomic targeting of Japanese cities, as well as the absence of any expression of official remorse for the suffering caused and the precedent set. I was struck by the decision to bomb Hiroshima instead of Kyoto out of respect for Kyoto’s cultural heritage, and by giving the flight crew orders not to drop the second bomb on Nagasaki if weather conditions obscured the city center. It was the then Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, who is credited with making the successful plea to the president to spare Kyoto. Stimson, an American patrician public servant, had visited Kyoto twice in the 1920s, and was impressed by the city as a tourist, and also was reported to have been concerned that America’s postwar reputation would suffer if it were to destroy such a place of cultural heritage. With Nagasaki, the crew despite its orders and the presence of cloud cover decided to launch the atomic attack, reportedly worrying that retaining the bomb would be too dangerous as the weapon because of its weight might detonate in the course of landing at its American airbase and no prior authorization had been given to drop the bomb into the sea.

In retrospect, we come to realize that the urban specifics of this most apocalyptic of decisions by the leadership of the American government and its military personnel could have turned out differently so far as the identity of the Japanese victims is concerned. This means that the tragic fate experienced by the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was determined in its specificity by the arbitrariness, perhaps inevitably so, surrounding the logistics and politics of a target selection in a distant place of unknowing.

Of course, the criminality associated with the use of such a weapon of mass terror exists quite independently of whether this or that Japanese city had been subject to an atomic attack. It is this criminality that makes the absence of remorse a continuing blemish on the American way of conducting itself in World War II. In one sense, the American justification at the time based on considerations of ‘military necessity’ and the validity of all tactics associated with winning an ongoing war was consistent with the still prevailing militarized ethics of warfare. What might have set these atomic bombs apart was their scale of destructivity and its accompanying radiation inflicting cruel injury and sickness long after the guns of war fell silent, as well as setting a precedent favoring use under wartime pressures.

With unbounded cynicism, the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while Japanese diplomats were sending peacemaking signals, is another facet of the horror stories associated with World War II.

Viewed less as an operational matter of how and where, and more as a political question of why, we become sensitized to the apparent relevance of sinister geopolitical maneuvers that underlay the decision to use the bomb against Japanese cities rather than to rely on diplomacy to end the war or at least to make this radical innovation in destructiveness by way of an exhibition in an uninhabited part of the ocean. The US government at the time partly wanted to end the war with Japan as rapidly as possible so that it would not be necessary to include the Soviet Union in the negotiation of a Pacific peace in a manner similar to the Yalta and Potsdam diplomatic process among the victors in the war that produced a divided and quasi-occupied Europe in the aftermath of the German collapse. It also seemed to be the case that the American leaders, already looking ahead toward an impending rivalry with Moscow, were intent on exhibiting the full destructive capability of their super-weapon. It seemed irrelevant to mainstream political consciousness given the war atmosphere of limitless self-justification that such decisions behind closed doors translated into ten of thousands of crushed and radiated victims killed or left to die amid the ruins of these two Japanese cities, devastated beyond recognition by such geopolitical maneuvers that have still never been exposed to the sunlight of full disclosure. Instead, the spin masters of the day wove a diversionary tale of lives saved through the avoidance of a supposedly necessary invasion of Japan that was calculated to cause the death of at least a million Americans and Japanese. With unbounded cynicism, the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while being aware that Japanese diplomats were sending peacemaking signals is another facet of this most shocking of horror stories associated with World War II. Such stories have yet to be fairly told or rescued from a continuing struggle between competing narratives of motives and context.

Among the cruel ironies associated with having been in one of these cities on those fateful days was the mystifying combination of survivor guilt and social ostracism that further burdened the strange destiny of the hibakusha.

Yet Japan, although mercilessly victimized during the war, was far from innocent. Its militarism led to aggressive warfare and conquest throughout Asia, and inscribed memories of occupation cruelty that linger vividly even now in countries such as China, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia. And of course, it was Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that created the basis for America’s formal entry into the war against both Japan and Germany. At least, in the aftermath of the war Japan has acknowledged, although ambiguously at times, its own responsibilities for aggression that created the chain of events that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs, whatever its principal explanation, whether geopolitical, vindictive, or military. In the historic Shimoda case brought by atomic survivors in a Japanese court, seeking symbolic repudiation of the atomic attacks and only nominal damage for personal injury and suffering to underscore their anti-nuclear animus. The court invited expert testimony from distinguished international law experts in Japan, who concluded that the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki indeed violated legal prohibitions against indiscriminate, poisonous, and inhumane weaponry, and thus the attacks violated existing customary international law even absent any treaty explicitly prohibiting atomic weapons. What the Shimoda court did so impressively, aside from providing the world with its first and last judicial assessment of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was to offer their conclusions without moralistic posturing. This outlook of contrition was confirmed by issuing this decision condemning the use of atomic weapons on December 7th, the 22nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The experience of persons exposed to an atomic attack is easier to interpret than the public rationale due to the concreteness of individual experience, and the physicality of the harm. Nevertheless, there is a zone of ambiguity due to the uncertainty of the connections between exposure to the radiation generated by the bomb and the rise in underlying cancer rates. We can never explain with certitude many particular cases, especially if the symptoms are deferred to a time remote from the event. This may account for the term hibakusha used to set apart the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the rest of the Japanese population. To qualify as a hibakusha (in literal Japanese translation, ‘explosion affected people’) a person had to prove that she or he was physically present in one of the two cities at the time of the blasts so as to be eligible for government compensation and assistance. It was definitely not socially desirable to be perceived as a hibakusha, and many survivors did their best to hide this identity to avoid severe discrimination against themselves and even their children, which took several forms, especially employment and marriage. This discrimination was rationalized by the widespread acceptance of the fallacious belief that those exposed to radiation were contagious or genetically affected so that future generations would be similarly afflicted. As of 2015, there are 185,519 hibakusha known to be alive, 1 percent of whom suffer from radiation sickness. Additionally, separate memorials to deceased hibakusha list over 297,000 in Hiroshima and just under 169,00 in Nagasaki. Among the cruel ironies associated with having been in one of these cities on those fateful days was the mystifying combination of survivor guilt and social ostracism that further burdened the strange destiny of what survival must meant to each hibakusha.

There were also some uncanny ironies associated with such a survival. Perhaps the most extreme irony was the strange fact that an estimated 165 persons experienced both attacks and qualified as what came to be called double hibakusha (a documentary film Twice Bombed: The Double Atomic Bombed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2006) depicts this grotesque phenomenon). And of these, the strangest case of all, at least that is somewhat publicized, is that of Tsutomu Yamaguchi.

Mr. Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on August 6th as part of a business trip on behalf of his employer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, when the atom bomb exploded. He was at an office meeting 1.8 miles from ground zero, and suffered serious burn injuries on his left side, but not so serious that he could not return to his home in Nagasaki the next morning. What is somewhat startling is that Yamaguchi went to work in Nagasaki on the following day despite his condition, and on August 9th told his officemates about the amazing fact that a single bomb had destroyed the entire city of Hiroshima. His boss reacted by telling him he was crazy to believe such a ridiculous thing, and at that moment of vengeful irony the Nagasaki bomb was detonated, repeating the awful saga of Hiroshima, and validating Yamaguchi’s story greeted with such skepticism moments earlier.

While hibakusha remain alive, we are movingly reminded that the tragedies endured in 1945 remain lived realities that should never be interred within a larger impersonal assessment of the military policies that ended the war.

Yamaguchi, a draftsman who designed tanker ships, survived both attacks despite sustaining injuries in each, and evidently “thought Japan should never start a war.” But he also is reported to have considered at some point killing his family with sleeping pills if Japan lost the war. Yamaguchi died of stomach cancer in 2010 at the age of 93, and his long life exemplifies the ironic nature of what strikes us decades later as a remarkable survival story posing an enduring question decades later to those of us detached from the immediacy of such calamities: was Yamaguchi supremely unlucky to have been in the only two cities ever attacked with atomic weapons or was he extraordinarily lucky to have survived both attacks and lived to the age of 93? Rarely have good and bad fortuitous experience been so intermixed, and perhaps the word ‘lucky’ is too casual given the epochal significance of this dreadful dawn of the nuclear age.

Not until 2009, a year before his death, did the Japanese government officially decide to recognize Tsutomu Yamaguchi as the first person certified to be a double hibakusha. Apparently even the authentication of atomic victimization became its own further ordeal thanks to the draconian workings of the Japanese state bureaucracy.

While hibakusha remain alive, we are movingly reminded that the tragedies endured in 1945 remain lived realities that should never be interred within a larger impersonal assessment of the military policies that ended the war. We are also reminded of the failure of the organized world community to take the necessary and possible steps to ensure that there are no future generations of hibakusha.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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