Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Remembering the Atomic Bombs, Problematically

Today is the 69th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, and like every other school child in Japan, my son is interrupting his summer holidays to attend a special school session in remembrance. I support this, although I wish the "peace education" focused a little more on pro-active steps for peace and less on the promotion of a victim mentality. It's a small niggle, and I am glad that this day is treated with importance. It was an event that changed the world, not only Japan.

You know there's a "but" coming, so I'll get right to it.

The significance of the use of nuclear weapons lies in the type of destruction and the way the world was changed as a result. I don't in any way want to diminish or minimise the suffering of the people affected, but the loss of life was not statistically significant in comparison to other war time events. Around 70,000* people lost their lives in the bombing of Hiroshima, while the firebombing of Tokyo killed around 87,793 and was described by flight commander Gen. Thomas Power as “the greatest single disaster incurred by any enemy in military history”. In the battle of Okinawa around 100,000 Okinawan civilians and 110,071 Japanese soldiers died. Japan's overall death toll during the war was around 2,350,000.

While the atomic bombings are important events that deserve significant memorials and attention from the school curriculum, I'm frustrated by the lack of knowledge about anything else that happened during the war... and that's just speaking domestically, the issue of what Japan did to the rest of the world is a whole other can of worms. 

From Japan's Bureau of Statistics
I included this chart in a packet of demographic data on which I asked a second year university class to base essays. 90% of my students wrote that the huge dip in population growth in the 1940s was "because America dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki". The emphasis on those bombs throughout their elementary, JHS and SHS educations makes their answers unsurprising but still disappointing. 

*Estimates vary wildly and can get very political, but the difference in scale should be clear irrespective of which numbers you believe. 
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  1. After what occurred during the invasion of Okinawa, the thinking went that the number of casualties, both Japanese civilian and Japanese and allied military, would be horrendous if the allies were to have to invade the home islands. Undeniably, actual Japanese casualties would have been even more horrific during an invasion than had President Truman decided to not use atomic weapons. Another course of action was to blockade the home islands and slowly starve the population into submission. The final course of action was a continual aerial bombardment with gravity bombs. I am not sure which of the other courses of action (invasion, blockade or bombing) would have been preferable to the Japanese people. All courses of action either caused, or would have caused untold misery. The fact of the matter is the war had to end, with the Imperial Japanese government surrendering unconditionally.

    1. It's certainly a decision I wouldn't have had to make. Thank you for commenting.


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