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75 years since Hiroshima: are we remembering it right?

Not long ago, a jawbone found at Hiroshima and preserved for decades was found to have been exposed to 3.8 times the amount of radiation than that emitted during radiotherapy. This is yet another insight into the extreme suffering of those that experienced the events in Japan on 6 and 9 August 1945.

Hiroshi Sawachika, then a 28-year-old army doctor likened the smell of bodies burning in the radiation to “dried squid” that had been grilled. Kawamoto, a 13-year old student, recalls seeing his friend Ota after the blast whose “right eyeball [was] hanging […] from his face […] Pieces of nails […] stuck on his lips” as he gave Kawamoto his student handbook to give his soon to be grieving mother. 

At least 214,000 were estimated to have died from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb detonations; some from the blasts themselves, countless others dying or developing chronic conditions due to radiation exposure in the aftermath. 

At least 214,000 were estimated to have died from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb detonations

As Japan and the rest of the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of these events, it has never been more important to ask ourselves whether we are remembering ‘right’.

In May 1945 WWII fighting in Europe ceased and Germany unconditionally surrendered. When Japan didn’t surrender by 28 July as instructed by the Allies, America dropped ‘Little Boy’, an atomic bomb, on Hiroshima at 08:15 Japanese time on 6 August. The intention was for America to bring about a quick end to the continued conflict in Asia without risking US casualties on the ground. Three days later at 11:02 another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan unconditionally surrendered on 14 August. 

America dropped ‘Little Boy’, an atomic bomb, on Hiroshima at 08:15 on 6 August 1945. Three days later another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki

Every year, commemorations consist of tributes to victims, as well as various appeals for world leaders to build bridges and ensure that there is no place for the mentality that drove America’s 1945 August decisions to surface again. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the mayor of Hiroshima led this year’s commemorations in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, promoting Japan’s pacifist movement and desire for a nuclear free world. This is something that the country has been committed to ever since Japan’s wartime suffering. 

As part of these commemorations, UN General Secretary António Guterres delivered a video message reiterating the UN’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons as being the “the only way to totally eliminate nuclear risk.”

Yet these words come at a time when the ‘self-centred nationalism’ that led to the detonation of both atomic bombs in 1945 has started to surface again. Over eight countries now have their own nuclear weapons, with their regulation becoming laxer as countries flout and pull out of various nuclear weapon treaties that started to be created towards the end of the twentieth century.

Russia and America have 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons between them, yet both countries appear to be flouting the Non-Proliferation Treaty signed in 1970 which committed signatories to reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals.

Russia and America currently have 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons between them

Trump’s recent pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which prevents land based and medium range nuclear weapons from being used by the Russian Federation and the United States is a great concern. This is a large blow to global safety in isolation, as well as indicating what we can expect from America in the future regarding their relationship with nuclear missiles. 

Many have expressed doubts that the New START Treaty, currently the only major barrier preventing an arms race between Russia and America that is due to expire this February, will be renewed by the US. 

Amidst the flouting of such treaties, Russia and America have both undergone new nuclear projects. Trump has considered opening up Nevada as a nuclear weapon test-site, and Russia has experimented with various devices as seen last year with attempts to test a weapon in The White Sea

Vladimir Putin’s announcement in January that “for the first time in the history of missile weapons [Russia doesn’t have to catch up] with everyone” and is in fact leading the way with nuclear weaponry, illustrates how the possession of nuclear weapons both by sheer quantity and by levels of sophistication is equated to national power. This is particularly true of Russia being that its international prestige is generated mainly by its military capabilities as opposed to the economic or cultural power that countries such as America also have.

However, the notion of nuclear possession and power gains is not exclusive to Russia and the United States. China is one of the many countries that is benefitting from the current flippancy in relation to nuclear weapon regulation, building up its arsenals in a way that it could not have done a decade ago. Additionally, Trump’s pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran has also increased the already high risk to global security that nuclear weapons bring.

Whilst it is important to look at various individual countries in this way, we have to look at nuclear weaponry as being a “collective history for human beings.” Professor Bo Jacobs of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, notes that up until now nuclear weaponry has wrongly been considered as being part of various national histories.

By viewing nuclear weapons through the lens of national history we risk diminishing the danger that they pose for the whole of humanity.No matter how much Japan commemorates Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world as a whole doesn’t seem to be listening.

By viewing nuclear weapons through the lens of national history we risk diminishing the danger that they pose for the whole of humanity

The view that the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a ‘tremendous scientific effort’ or that it was warranted as it led to Japan’s surrender still exists. Not only is this inaccurate, ignoring the follow up Nagasaki atomic bomb and the American fire-bombing of 60 other Japanese cities before Hiroshima, but it plays into the dangerous mentality that many world leaders possess today. 

Nuclear weapon glorification has firmly been a part of the course of our history. 

In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shipments of more atom bombs were being prepared to be sent to Tinian Island to be detonated if Japan didn’t unconditionally surrender when it did.There have also been 2000 nuclear detonations since Hiroshima as Professor Jacobs goes on to note.

All of this shows that the world has never properly learnt from events in 1945 in the way that it should have.

The hostility and hate that is often a feature of world politics has evidently got in the way of any real change. Complacency may also help explain why the brutal reminders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not yet been successful in altering the way that world powers think about nuclear weapons.

The hostility and hate that is often a feature of world politics has evidently gotten in the way of any real change

The problem is that “we have forgotten how to fear nuclear war” says Nikolai Sokov, a Vienna-based disarmament expert. 

“Decades of fearing a nuclear war that didn’t happen may have induced an unwarranted complacency that this threat belongs to the past” writes Jessica Matthews, a former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This may be true. The continuous anticipation during the Cold War period that a nuclear attack that didn’t actually happen could have occurred, may have led many to equate nuclear threats with the past. This could not be further from the truth.

With the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are also reminded that the first-hand victims that are so key to helping us remember properly will not be around forever.

The average age of a Hiroshima survivor is now 83, with there being three times as many survivors alive in 1981 compared to in 2020. 

This poses a problem.

Although younger descendants are likely to uphold their ancestors’ memory in the best way possible, nothing is as powerful as victims themselves living among us to remind us of the horrors of nuclear weaponry.After all the “hibakusha [those affected by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings] from Hiroshima and Nagasaki […] helped make the case about the humanitarian impacts of these weapons on human beings” leading to the formulation of various nuclear weapon regulation treaties in the first place, as Professor Jacobs notes.

Although younger descendants are likely to uphold their ancestors’ memory in the best way possible, nothing is as powerful as victims themselves living among us to remind us of the horrors of nuclear weaponry

It is with the direct victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that we have the best hope of convincing world powers to think again about the way they interact with nuclear weapons.

Whilst we cannot control how long the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stay with us, we have to elevate their voices as much as possible while we still have them, and for the first time, start making real change in their honour.Not only will this help give the victims of the 1945 bombings justice, but this will also ensure that our world is as safe as it can be.

Whilst we cannot control how long the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stay with us, we have to elevate their voices as much as possible while we still have them, and for the first time, start making a real change in their honour

“The hibakusha have turned their tragedy into a rallying voice for the safety and well-being of all humanity” says Guterres. It’s impossible to disagree. Year in and year out especially around the time of the anniversary of Hiroshima, Japan’s hibakusha make their desire for nuclear weapon disarmament clear. 

With the world never being more divided and the ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty quickly approaching, maybe it’s about time that we actually listen.

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