Seventy years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atomic bombs, the nightmarish scale of destruction and radiation left behind continue to haunt us.
August 6 marks seven decades since Hiroshima was bombed, followed by Nagasaki just three days later, both cities razed by the only atomic weapons ever used in warfare. Up to 80,000 people in Hiroshima were killed instantly, with conservative estimates of more than160,000 deaths in the four months after the bombing. In Nagasaki, an estimated 40,000 were killed instantly, and up to 80,000 in the proceeding four months.
VIDEO: UBC Associate Professor and Keidanren Chair in Japanese Research Julian Dierkes discusses the bombings, and how they resonate with us today
What was the context of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
War, initiated in 1931 by Japan, had been going on in the Asia Pacific region for nearly 15 years at that point—an undeclared war initially by Japan. American bombing raids targeting Japanese cities had been going on for months.
Japan, to some extent, had been working on a nuclear program, as was everyone else at the time. The technology was known, but its use against Japan was unexpected.
What was the immediate reaction to the bombs?
The most significant reaction, in historical terms, came a week later, with Japan’s surrender. There are remaining historical debates about what would have happened had there not been a nuclear bomb, but it’s fair to say that the use of the weapon certainly hastened the end of the Pacific War.
What were the immediate and long-term effects of the bombing?
The immediate effects were massive death and destruction. And because they were nuclear bombs, there were the long-term effects. People alive at the time, as well as next generations, continue to suffer from radiation poisoning and associated higher cancer rates.
Today, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are very involved in commemorating the events and are also taking a lead in the movement against nuclear arms. That’s quite interesting because they’re cities, and cities are not involved in weaponry in principle. But they have embraced the status of being the first and only victims of atomic bombs, and have used that status to speak out against nuclear weapons.
What was the U.S.-Japan relationship after the end of the war?
Japan’s post-war history is intimately tied up with the U.S. The way the treaty between the U.S. and Japan was framed, coupled with the new Japanese constitution, meant that Japanese military expenses were low. That freed up resources for investments and economic growth and it turned the U.S. into a major economic partner.
It’s one of the big twists of the 20th century that the U.S. unleashed this technology on an aggressor nation who then went on to become one of America’s closest partners.
What happened in the post-war era is structured around the Cold War, then the Korean War and subsequently the Vietnam War, when Japan became a staging ground for U.S. military forces. Japan was firmly in the American camp and so very quickly its future became intrinsically bound to the U.S. trajectory. That remains the case today.
What sorts of commemorations are planned in Japan?
What typically happens is a gathering on the date and time of the bombings. In Hiroshima it will be centered at what is now called the Peace Dome. It’s an iconic structure, because the building survived the bomb blast and has been preserved ever since. The Peace Museum and Peace Memorial Park were built around it and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Most likely there’ll be a large gathering involving victims, although they’re aging. What will be a little bit difficult is that Japan suffered the Fukushima nuclear disaster four years ago. Some of the residents of the Fukushima prefecture surrounding the nuclear power plant damaged by the tsunami have begun referring to themselves as “Hibakusha”, the same term applied to radiation victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s a controversial adoption of that term. The perception among Fukushima residents is that they were victimized by the Japanese state, because it’s involved in nuclear industry. They have taken on the mantle of adding a Japanese voice to international discussions about the risks of nuclear power. I would be very surprised if some of those voices were not be represented in the 70th anniversary commemorations. They, like those bombed and later generations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, see themselves as victimized by nuclear technology.