Today, August 6th, 2013, marks the 68th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. This date is far more than an anniversary of a single event – it is both an annual reminder of the challenges and divergent priorities facing Japan, as well as a stark reminder of the dark side of increasing human potential.
50,000 people attended the ceremony in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, among them being ambassadors from nuclear powers the United States, Britain, and Pakistan. Japanese Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe pledged that, as the world’s sole country to have suffered through nuclear attacks, Japan has a responsibility to work towards a world without nuclear weapons. This could be slightly welcome news for many who feared that Abe’s recent electoral victory would unleash more hawkish policies and postures.
However, for many, this pledge felt hollow in light of many of Japan’s pro-nuclear energy policies. First, Hiroshima mayor Kazumi Matsui raised concern over Japan’s negotiations with India over exporting nuclear technology. Promoting the export of Japanese nuclear technology is part of Abe’s push to revive the Japanese economy, and Japan has already signed agreements with Vietnam, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, and has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. These agreements are widely unpopular in Japan, with 60 percent of Japanese opposing the export of nuclear technology compared with 24 percent who support these agreements.
Second, Matsui criticized the Japanese government’s support of restarting the country’s nuclear power plants and urged the government to enact a “responsible” energy policy which places prime emphasis on safety and protecting people’s livelihoods. Despite the prevalence of such anti-nuclear sentiments, Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics (IEE) today announced that more nuclear reactors may be restarted by next summer. Among its three forecasts, the low-case scenario places four restarted reactors in Japan by the summer of 2015; in its mid-range scenario, that number would be sixteen. This announcement is not only ironic for being announced on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, but also because of the worsening situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The radiation level of groundwater near then plant has soared 47-fold, and suspicions of continued ocean contamination are increasing. A barrier built to contain the contaminated groundwater has already been breached, and the possibility of a massive release of contaminated water has led to Japan’s nuclear regulator calling this situation a new “emergency.”
In both cases, public opinion might not be enough to slow the revival of nuclear power on the archipelago. Between Abe’s electoral victory and Japan’s increasing current account deficit, the pressure needed to combat the nuclear industry is simply not there as the public’s attention is more focused on the recovering Japanese economy.
The anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing is also inevitably a time to consider Japan’s relationship to nuclear weapons. At the ceremony today, Mayor Mitsui mentioned a recent statement made by 80 countries at the Preparatory Committee for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in Geneva, describing nuclear weapons as “inhumane.” Japan did not sign this statement as it viewed signing the statement as counter to Japan’s reliance on the United States’ nuclear umbrella for national security. Whether to continue under this umbrella or to develop a native nuclear weapons capacity is a perennial debate due to the security threats posed by North Korea and, more recently, a more assertive China. In a national poll released last April, 72.6 percent of Japanese do not believe that Japan should pursue nuclear weapons, while 24 percent believe it should. While some view this favorably with a vast majority in the opposition, others see the nearly one-quarter of Japanese who support the idea as abnormally high. (This one-quarter is far lower than in South Korea, where a 2013 poll showed that nearly two-thirds of South Koreans favor building a nuclear arsenal.) I personally met a member of this one-quarter while on a bus in Kyoto last year. This person was not in any way stereotypical of a right-wing extremist – she was a kindly, middle-aged mother escorting her daughter from school. The reason for her support was the increasingly strident Chinese military in pressing for territorial claims. A further deteriorating security environment could easily see this quarter increase.
Debate over nuclear weapons and the legacy of Hiroshima is spilling into the American press as well. In a feature story earlier this year, Foreign Policy magazine explored the idea that the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not force Japan’s surrender, but rather the impending Soviet invasion forced this surrender. To support its argument, author Ward Wilson points to the timing of the surrender, the impact of the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan, the extent of previous bombings, and the comparative impact of the nuclear bombing versus more conventional bombing raids. For example, while the immediate impact of Hiroshima’s atomic bombing claimed around 100,000 lives, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 5-6, 1945, took over 120,000 lives. This attack, using conventional weapons, remains the single most destructive attack on a city in the history of war. There is a mixed utility to Wilson’s analysis. On one hand, it threatens to diminish the perceived destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, which could lead to less fear of their use and a greater chance for proliferation. On the other hand, it demonstrates that destruction on an unimaginable scale is not simply limited to the most esoteric of weapons, but can also be committed using conventional weapons.
Finally, this anniversary should be a reminder to us of the power of rapidly expanding technology and the externalities and consequences of its use. While the Tokyo firebombing may have had a higher death toll than the bombing of Hiroshima, the destruction caused in Tokyo was done by 334 bombers. Hiroshima required one. Hiroshima opened the era of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” the Cold War, the arms race, and nuclear proliferation. While this technology later led to “Atoms for Peace” and “cleaner” energy, it also led to the incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. We can only guess at some of the next technologies that will come in the 21st century or the full extent of the externalities associated with advances in artificial intelligence, biological engineering, nuclear fusion, or particle accelerators. Perhaps the best reflection we can make on this anniversary is not simply how to prevent the next Hiroshima done with nuclear technology, but how to prevent the next Hiroshima done with the next technology.