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Strangely Familiar

March 14, 2015

It’s not often I review exhibitions, so I’m not going to now – but the current exhibition ‘Metamorphosis of Japan After The War’ at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery until 26 April 2015, coincided with some reading I was doing. It features the work of eleven Japanese photographers, who sought to portray and understand the seismic changes their country was going through in the period from the end of World War 2 in 1945 to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. 

Hiroshi Hamaya, The sun on the day the war ended, 1945

The exhibition begins with a photograph taken on the day the war ended. The caption tells us that on hearing the news of his country’s surrender, Hiroshi Hamaya impulsively ran outside and took a picture of the sun. It is a simple, graphic image that elicits a simple, obvious interpretation that is probably wrong.

The blinding flash of the atomic bombs, which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki was likened to “the sun falling on their heads”. History as written by the victors, tells us that this event made Japan surrender and ended the war. But authors including Paul Ham in ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki’, suggest that this generally accepted version of history is too simplistic, although convenient for both the victors and the vanquished. 

Japan surrendered to the USA on 15 August 1945, nine days after Hiroshima and six days after Nagasaki. What is usually left out of this chronology is crucially, the surrender came seven days after Russia declared war on Japan and invaded Japanese-held territory.

America was able to decode secret Japanese diplomatic cables and knew of their desperate attempts to get Russia (with whom they had a non-aggression pact) to broker a peace deal with America. Japanese records show the Russian entry into the war was a greater concern to the Japanese leadership than the bombings.

The main reason given for dropping the bombs was to save the lives that would be lost in an invasion of Japan. But again this is not the whole story. What is now forgotten are the moral debates the Americans themselves had over using the bomb. By this point Japan had been made militarily impotent. Firstly by a naval blockade that cut off its supply of raw materials and had left much of its army stranded overseas, unable to return to defend the home islands. And secondly by the American’s total air supremacy, which allowed them to systematically destroy Japanese cities with conventional and incendiary bombing. For example on 9 March 1945 Tokyo was firebombed, killing possibly 100,000 people.

The need to physically invade Japan to defeat it, was itself being questioned. The invasion was planned for late 1945, with victory assured but unlikely until 1946. By this time Russia would have occupied territory previously held by the Japanese. Some of this territory had in fact been taken from the Russian Empire by the Japanese in their war of 1905.

The Americans were wary of a Russian presence in Asia, so wanted the war to end before Russia made gains. U.S. – Soviet relations were rapidly deteriorating in Europe after the defeat of Germany in May 1945. Russia was establishing what was intended to be a permanent influence and presence in Eastern Europe. America wanted the Pacific to be its sphere of influence.

newspaperSo the bombs were used to shock the Japanese into a quick surrender, but were also intended to send a message to Russia of the power of America’s monopoly of atomic weapons. Within a month of the Japanese surrender, American planners had drawn up a list of Russian cities they would have to bomb in a third world war and calculated how many bombs they would need to do it. Unknown to them, Russian espionage and scientific prowess would give them their own bomb by 1949. So, rather than being the end of the Second World War, the atomic bombs should be thought of as the beginning of the Cold War. Rather than a vanquished enemy to be punished for Pearl Harbour, occupied Japan was to be rebuilt as an ally of America. Ironically Japan’s industry was helped by the Cold War heating up with the Korean War. And elements in the Japanese leadership were able to maintain that they had not been defeated on the battlefield, and could use the massive civilian casualties to portray themselves as victims of an American atrocities rather than he perpetrators of their own.

So if Hamaya was not thinking of the flash of the atomic bomb when he photographed the sun, maybe he was saying that even in defeat, the sun would still rise, or making a reference to “Nippon” (the Japanese’s word for their country means “sun-origin”), or maybe he wasn’t thinking of anything.

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