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Atoms, Apparatuses, and Aftermaths: Interview with Subodhana (Subo) Wijeyeratne

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer dominated the Golden Globes taking home five awards, including Best Drama and Best Performance by a Male Actor in a Motion Picture (Drama) for star Cillian Murphy. With Oscar buzz for the biopic in the air, we sat down with Dr. Subodhana Wijeyeratne, assistant professor of history, to discuss the film’s portrayal of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings and their long-term, real-world effects on Japanese culture and their relationship with the US.

In Oppenheimer, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki happens entirely offscreen, without depicting any of the devastation. What are your thoughts on the omission? 

Personally, I don’t find this to be too troublesome, for a couple of reasons. First, Adam Kotsko has a good piece in the Atlantic pointing out the dangers of judging a piece of art by what it leaves out. Second, and more importantly, it seems that by its very elision, it has drawn attention to the whole issue. Folks seeking an unflinching cinematic representation of what unfolded in Nagasaki and Hiroshima should definitely have a look at 1983’s Barefoot Gen, but be warned – it makes for traumatic viewing.

Could you describe how the use of atomic weapons on Japanese soil affected the Japanese people, culture, and economy immediately and thereafter?

There are a couple of things I think it's important to remember. Obviously both Nagasaki and Hiroshima were utterly devastated. Nor were the atomic bombings a short-term calamity; radiation continued to produce birth defects and elevated levels of disease for a generation or more. But I think it is important to remember that the atomic bombings, though noteworthy in the type of weapon used, were not necessarily different in the scale of the destruction they inflicted. By the time the bombs were used, Japan had been subject to an extended campaign of aerial bombardment that had reduced nearly all of their major cities to rubble, and killed tens of thousands. Given that most cities in the country at the time were built with wood, the US used napalm bombs to start huge firestorms that swept through urban areas faster than people could run. Operation Meetinghouse, for example, saw most of central Tokyo obliterated in May 1945, and may well have killed more people than either atomic bombs. So it’s important to remember that in the immediate aftermath, the shock came not from how many died, or how wide the destruction was, but that all of this had been accomplished with a single bomb, and not fleets of B-29s.

In the long term, the use of the weapons bred a deep-seated mistrust of atomic energy and nuclear technology in Japan. In the immediate aftermath of defeat, the idea that Japan was in any way a victim of the conflict was deeply taboo in both East Asia (where countries like China had suffered under Japanese imperialism) and the US (where the righteousness of victory was held to be an unimpeachable truth). However, in Japan, the atomic bombings were held to be emblematic of the fact that a great deal of ordinary Japanese suffered tremendously during the conflict too. As the country recovered, this coalesced into an entrenched anti-nuclear movement. Folks throughout the latter half of the 20th century fiercely resisted the construction of nuclear power stations, and you can see the power of this viewpoint in the fact that after the Fukushima crisis, Japan closed down all of its nuclear reactors—leaving the world’s third biggest economy heavily reliant on fossil fuel imports.

However, in Japan, the atomic bombings were held to be emblematic of the fact that a great deal of ordinary Japanese suffered tremendously during the conflict too.

To what extent is the Japanese narrative overlooked in the American historical perspective on the US military’s use of atomic weaponry during WWII? In your view, what should Americans know and remember about these two events?

There is actually a tremendous body of academic work on the US’s use of atomic weapons in Japan. These deal with nearly every aspect of the bombing—from the development of the weapon, to the decision on where to bomb, to reconstruction in the aftermath. There is even excellent work on the long campaign fought in Japan for the repatriation of the remains of people who died in the bombing which had been brought to the US for study. Despite all this, the conventional popular wisdom—one I still encounter in the wild—is that the bombings were necessary. The argument is that an invasion of Japan was expected to cost millions of American lives, and so dropping the bombs was a quick way of avoiding this.

Though I certainly wouldn’t say this was categorically wrong, I think it’s also important to remember the geostrategic circumstances. For most of World War 2, the Soviet Union and Japan had avoided open hostilities. The Japanese government was orders of magnitude more concerned about a communist invasion than an American one, and so, by August 1945, were arguably ripe for surrender to the US. The main preoccupation of the wartime regime was securing an assurance that the emperor system would be preserved; the Allies, however, wanted an unconditional surrender. So, in some ways, the dropping of the bombs was about securing surrender on particular terms. The question then becomes, was that worth the obliteration of two cities and the deaths of thousands of civilians?

The other thing I’d ask people to keep in mind is that the atomic bombs were, and remain, weapons of terror. The purpose of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not to capture strategically important locations, or to destroy crucial military infrastructure. Their purpose was to frighten, dispirit, and intimidate. Their objective was killing civilians. And, furthermore, they were a signal – not just to the Japanese, but to the Soviets too – about how far the US was willing to go to secure its strategic goals. To my mind, in fact, that remains the prime function of nuclear weapons: engendering fear.

So, in some ways, the dropping of the bombs was about securing surrender on particular terms. The question then becomes, was that worth the obliteration of two cities and the deaths of thousands of civilians?

What effect, if any, did the use of atomic weaponry on civilian areas have on Japan’s scientific and technological research and, specifically, the emergence of Japan’s space program?

One big impact was that Japan was, until the 21st century, extremely keen to distinguish civilian technology from military technology. Under their postwar constitution, funding for the two were kept entirely separate, and Japan could not export any technology that might be used for military purposes. This doctrine of “peaceful usage” was particularly evident in the space program, where many folks—particularly on the left—worried about the fact the same rockets used to put satellites in orbit could be used to lob nuclear warheads at each other. So this intense commitment to civilian-only use became enshrined within Japan’s various science and technology institutions. Accompanying this was a political reluctance to openly fund military space technologies—for example, spy satellites—until the 1990s, when North Korea’s missile launches finally changed the situation. 

The US and Japan have a warm, allied relationship now. What led to this friendship? How did the two nations overcome tragedies like Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor? To what extent did partnerships in post-war science and technology play in this healing process?

John Dower has pointed out that halfway through America’s occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, a series of geopolitical changes occurred that basically shifted the US’s priorities from reforming and defanging Japan, to facing off against China and the USSR. The key here was the Korean War, during which Douglas MacArthur actually suggested the US nuke North Korea. When the conflict began, the US began to rely on Japanese manufacturing for weapons to supply American troops on the Korean peninsula, and also reconfigured their expectations of Japan such that, moving forward, it would be an anti-communist ally. Many folks purged for involvement in World War II were brought back into the fold of power on the basis that they, too, held strong anti-communist beliefs. So, anti-communism formed a key basis of a friendlier relationship.

Science and technology definitely played a part in this, but I’d suggest the story is far less straightforward than folks may think. The two countries often disagreed on what role technology should play in their relationship. So, for example, after Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech, the US encouraged Japan to build its own civilian nuclear reactors, and provided guidance on how to do this. Over the ensuing decades, Japan relied heavily on US technology imports—and capital—to rebuild their own economies. However, technology could just as soon be a source of tremendous conflict, from the human level, to the state. In 1954, for example, a group of Japanese fishermen were irradiated by the Castle Bravo test in Bikini Atoll, causing an outcry in Japan—one which was made worse by the US refusing to reveal precisely what had been in the fallout that had affected the men. In the 1960s, the US encouraged Japan to buy American liquid fuel rocket technology, but limited key aspects of it for fear the latter would develop their own ICBMs. This frustrated the Japanese to no end, and eventually pushed them to design their own, home-grown rocket (which initially was a bit of a dud). Technology could also cause economic ructions—in the 1980s, worried about the trade deficit, the US forced Japan’s satellite industry open to outside competition, which had a huge effect on the country’s space program. So technology certainly did bring the two countries together, but its use and sale could also push them farther apart.

What are some of the most significant science and technology projects that the US and Japan have partnered on since WWII? Would the International Space Station be on this list?

The ISS is definitely up there! The Japanese decided to participate in the 1980s after having turned down an invitation to join the Space Shuttle project, which they later came to regret. They designed a specific module for it, Kibo, which is really quite extraordinary. One of its neatest features is a sort of cradle that extends outside into the vacuum, which allows scientists to conduct experiments in space from the comfort of the pressurized interior. In true Japanese style, they can manipulate their work using robotic arms. I also think it's important to remember that Japanese companies like Nissan and Mitsubishi also engage in a great deal of military development, both investing in US projects, and producing US equipment through licensing agreements.

It was ordinary people who flew the planes that dropped the bombs. It was ordinary people who died in the blast and flame. It was ordinary people who had their clothes burned into their skin, their children vaporized, their neighborhoods leveled.

In your view, is it important that we more closely examine the events leading up to, surrounding, and following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What lessons, do you think, can be drawn from this remembrance?  

Absolutely, for one single reason: it should not ever happen again, but there’s a good chance it will.

It seems to me that the world went through something of a lull in the 1990s and 2000s in terms of nuclear fears. The large-scale use of nuclear weapons is the preserve of states which can invest in the manpower and infrastructure to maintain a deterrent; nukes are extremely expensive. But as tensions between large geopolitical blocs faded in the aftermath of the Cold War, so too did the fear of nuclear war. The concern for a long time was the use of “dirty bombs” by terrorists, or nuclear mishaps like Fukushima. There are two problems with this view. First, it wasn’t like this everywhere—India and Pakistan, for example, have kept their nuclear weapons pointed at each other for nearly a generation. Second, it isn’t true anymore. With Russian aggression, China’s view of Taiwan, and countries like Iran, North Korea, and Israel all possessing various degrees of nuclear capacity, the chance that someone, somewhere will use an atomic weapon is higher now than at any point, I think, since the late 1980s.

The second thing I’d point out is that, much as Oppenheimer seems to be pointing out, technology is not just about atoms, apparatuses, and aftermaths. It is about people. It was ordinary people who flew the planes that dropped the bombs. It was ordinary people who died in the blast and flame. It was ordinary people who had their clothes burned into their skin, their children vaporized, their neighborhoods leveled. And when it happens again, it will happen to ordinary people—people who may not look or sound like us, but are in all their essentials the same. Ultimately, we are all subjects of historical circumstance. If happening to be born in a particular time and place isn’t enough to justify having nuclear hell visited upon us, can it really justify us visiting it upon anybody else?

You can find details on Subodhana's academic and creative work—including his new novel, Triangulum—at

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