Japan History Lab

How the Wind Shifted: The Average Perspective of the Destruction of Nagasaki

The destruction of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb stunned the world. It was a display of destructive capability the likes of which had never been seen before. Still, Japan’s military leaders remained determined to endure. When a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, it all but crushed Japan’s spirit. The political implications were clear: the Fat Man was the tool America needed to force Japan’s surrender. What is less evident however, is how the destruction of Nagasaki impacted the Japanese people—from Japan as a whole to those who survived the blast. To fully understand this shift in the social structure of the headstrong nation, it is important to study how their society changed before and after Nagasaki’s destruction. Amazingly, even with America’s possession of atomic weapons, many of Japan’s military leaders were determined to keep fighting. Ultimately, it was the emperor’s decision to surrender that ended the conflict. But it was too late for many in Nagasaki. The people of the ill-fated city endured the greatest changes; for them, everyday life was reduced to digging through rubble and avoiding corpses in the streets while strange new ailments—unforeseen consequence of radiation—swept through the populace. Their homes were left desolate and families torn apart. Out of the destruction arose an entirely new class: the hibakusha, the survivors of the blast.

Craig Collie’s book, Nagasaki: the Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing, is written as a series of narratives from the perspective of individuals in the city before, during and after the blast. These stories give a collective sense of how people carried out their lives at the time. It becomes clear, from early on, that war was embedded in their daily lives at a fundamental level. Several accounts mention the hunger that was ever present: “They chattered on about the things that occupied young Japanese males at the time: hunger and how you might supplement your food supply”(144)1. This came due to the need to fuel the war. Focus was placed on maximizing the output of factories to produce more arms, causing the production of food and goods to falter. Every citizen was expected to do his or her part, whether that be service or factory labour. War was not thought of as the endeavour of the military, but as a national effort. Seeking shelter became a routine practise as American bombers tore across the sky, and some even regarded the sirens casually. Citizen were told time and time again that it was the “Japanese spirit” that would win the war (126)2. This was not some simple sentiment, but something people wholeheartedly believed in. Children were indoctrinated at a young age, and even made games of fighting off imaginary American soldiers when they inevitably came. When an American airplane was shot down, the pilot, Lieutenant Marcus McDilda, was quickly captured by Japanese forces. The reaction of the citizens expresses how their patriotism fuelled hatred towards their enemies. McDilda was marched blindfolded through the streets of Osaka while ordinary citizens screamed at him, and beat him (145)1. Yet despite the coercive patriotism, children and adults alike knew that the war was not going in Japan’s favor. “The workers in the plants knew the war was going badly, but they kept hoping for the miracle that would save the country from defeat. Plans were already being made to counter the expected American invasion of their islands. Civilians were being told that they must fight in the streets and in the hills to defend the homeland. There seemed no other choice” (88)3. The fervor of the Japanese was formed in large part due to the extensive propaganda schemes of the Japanese military and political manipulation (which in itself is an extensive study). The American forces knew of this zealousness and were well aware that invading the Japanese islands would be a long and bloody affair. President Truman ordered the first nuclear bomb to be dropped in an attempt to “avert an invasion of Japan and in that way avoid the loss of huge numbers of American lives” (311-344)4. Though Truman’s reasoning is hotly debated among historians even today, the result is still the same. On August 6th, 1945 Hiroshima was flattened.

Fat Man Assembled

Fat Man Assembled5.

The Japanese military ensured that the destruction of Hiroshima was kept narrowly publicized. Indeed, the day after, “the Japanese military was starting to get a good fix on the new weapon and what it could do. The Japanese people, however, were not much the wiser” (114)1. News trickled across the country, broadcast over televisions and published in newspapers, but little evidence was given to indicate the scope of the destruction, or that it had been an atomic bomb. The only information shared was that it was a new weapon capable of “enormous damage” (140)1. Alternatively, the horrific firsthand accounts of the survivors painted a picture so gruesome and terrifying, it was difficult to fully grasp. Information or no, many found such a weapon beyond the realm of comprehension. How could something so small be so destructive? Life for many, including those at Nagasaki, simply continued. Whether out of ignorance or necessity, it is impossible to say.

Nagasaki: Before and After

Nagasaki: Before and After6.

Hiroshima undoubtedly caused Japanese military leaders to hesitate, and despite opposition from some, they refused to surrender, setting US forces in motion again. Only three days later, on August 9th, planes set out carrying Fat Man, the second nuclear bomb. Nagasaki was actually the secondary target chosen by American intelligence. Due to a number of mishaps, including poor weather, the B-29 Bockscar was forced to redirect. A break in the cloud cover gave the bombardier just enough vision to see a stadium, and he released Fat Man. Japanese citizens hesitated at the small group of planes, but otherwise thought little of their presence; bombing runs were usually carried out by far more aircraft. Some took shelter while others simply continued as if nothing was the matter. Then, the bomb detonated. In an instant, thousands of lives were snuffed out, and tens of thousands more were forever changed. The blast all but obliterated the Urikami valley, knocking over buildings and setting the surroundings ablaze. Anybody exposed to the brilliant flash was severely burned, even at a distance of over two and a half miles from the epicentre (93)3. It is estimated that approximately sixty- to seventy-thousand died by the end of 1945 (69)7, from the initial blast and radiation. Within milliseconds, the everyday life of almost every citizen of Nagasaki was drastically and irrevocably changed. “The atomic bombs destroyed the total ‘society.’ They destroyed ‘home,’ ‘workplace,’ and even ‘community.’ Such a loss of the social milieu for sustaining human life was made total by the demolition of the regional community and support system” (69)7. Adults and children alike found themselves surrounded by death and decay; bodies lay strewn everywhere, in the streets and floating in rivers, stripped of flesh and torn apart. Nagasaki’s recovery would be a difficult and arduous process. What nobody could have predicted was the emergence of an entirely new social class; the survivors who flooded out of the city were regarded as tainted, and faced intense discrimination8. For these people, even as Japan entered a new era of peace, life could never be the same.

The word hibakusha translates to “A-bombed persons” (1)9. Very quickly, these people were set apart from others, mostly due to the effects of the radiation they had been exposed to. Their diseases were unfamiliar and seemed to come from nowhere, giving the impression that they were inherently unclean. Cleanliness and purity, like in many cultures, was a significant concept to the Japanese people, and had been for centuries. The hibakusha were therefore neglected and even avoided, as if their blood was contaminated and their “impurity” contagious—similar to lepers in ancient times. Though both the American and Japanese governments knew somewhat of radiation, they “did little to alleviate [the hibakusha’s] plight in the days and weeks that followed the bombings” (5)9. In fact, even though America occupied the Japanese homeland in a “businesslike and peaceful” manner (329)3, their presence was a hindrance for the hibakusha. America denied the effects of radiation at first, asserting that the propaganda of the Japanese government was to blame; which in turn was accepted by the Japanese government, who were eager not to contend with their occupiers. Later, a censorship code was enacted by the US limiting any mention of the radiation-involved cases and having the studies of Japanese doctors sent to American agencies for analysis. This made the situation for the hibakusha worse, as they could neither understand nor receive treatment for their ailments. Meanwhile, they continued to suffer not only social stigmas, but severe physical side effects. The radiation affected reproductive systems severely, and was commonly inherited from one generation to the next; many were left sterile while children were often stillborn or horribly deformed. Women faced the greatest prejudice, seen as doubly unclean because of pre-existing notions of famine impurity and were the more avoided. Even when special medical programs were later created specifically for hibakusha, doctors weren’t wholly sure how to treat their symptoms, or simply dismissed them as having “A-bomb neurosis” (21)9, the belief that mental preoccupation with the atomic bomb was the cause of their distress. In other words, they were considered hypochondriacs. Hibakusha not only faced a greater chance of illness, but they faced social barriers which, passed down from parents to children, wouldn’t fully dissolve for several decades.

Destroying Nagasaki was what finally crushed Japan’s spirit. In the long run, it even proved beneficial for the country. Many of the Japanese leaders still petitioned to continue the war, but ultimately the Emperor made the decision to surrender, faced with the possibility of more nuclear strikes and Russian’s declaration of war against 1945. Emperor Hirohito declared Japan’s official surrender on August 15 and for many it was the first time they actually heard the man speak (285)1. Despite the stirrings and suicides of military leaders that followed this fateful decision, Author Craig Collie concludes the narrative of Nagasaki in an eloquent way: “Whether a coincidence or cause and effect, the day after the Nagasaki bombing saw the first steps towards the new Japan and, free from the grasp of militarism that had plagued it, the economic recovery that was the nation’s post-war miracle” (285)1. While Japan moved forwards, it was the hibakusha who felt the lasting impact of the bomb. For them, Nagasaki’s destruction was more than the loss of their property, it was the complete loss of the lives they once knew. For the hibakusha, life would never be the same.