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It's Time to Acknowledge that Hiroshima Followed Imperial Japan’s Decision to Launch a Terrible War on Its Neighbors

The fate of Hiroshima cannot be judged without first understanding and acknowledging the full dimensions of the war Imperial Japan unleashed from 1931-1945 throughout Asia and then the Pacific.

Single-minded attention to the atomic bomb casualties and the fact Japan has been an American Asian ally since WWII, skews our attention away from consequences of the greater part of the war Japan in fact started. Yet, when Imperial Japan embarked on war it took 150 times more Asian lives for the purpose of conquest than did the U.S. by dropping two atomic bombs to end the 14-year cataclysmic struggle.(1)

It will surprise most readers to know that Japan attacked and occupied a far larger part of the world and its population than did Germany and her European partners together. Japan caused nearly as many deaths in the East as Germany and her partners did in the West. There was a holocaust, a great devastation, a reckless destruction of life, in Asia as well as in Europe.

Japan initiated the Asian-Pacific War, and arguably WWII, by invading Manchuria and nearby regions from 1931 to 1936, and China proper in 1937. This was followed by the occupation of Indochina in 1940-41. China was the first to defend itself against the Japanese quest for empire. The Chinese, with little material means and internal political problems, fought the toughest and most costly battles and suffered the greatest destruction of life, property and economies. But they did not give up.

Short of war, the League of Nations and the United States opposed Japan’s aggression. This caused the United States to embargo vital war materials to Japan, which aroused Japan to attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Japan then invaded resource-rich Southeast Asia: Malaya, Thailand, Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Borneo, the vast East Indies, New Guinea and ocean islands. This was in keeping with the Japanese militant nationalists' scheme for achieving supremacy in Asia with a “Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.”

It is important to recognize that China and 14 other Asian and Western countries became United States allies following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They fought alongside the United States in a common determination to defeat and demilitarize Japan as soon as possible. The benefits of the abrupt atomic end of the war were just as important to these Allies as to the Americans and Japanese, if not more so.

Japan invaded Asian countries representing one third of the human population. Altogether, the victims of aggression took many forms and were massive in number. The war killed approximately 24 million Allies from violence, atrocities, forced labor, refugee flight and privation. Another 100 million victims were severely affected by the war. (2) These surviving casualties included wounded, raped and tortured, maltreated forced labor, massive numbers of destitute and despairing refugees, the homeless, war orphans, and widows. Others included brutalized POWs and civilian internees. Severe war-caused malnutrition and painful diseases, addicts from Japanese opium sales and ill-equipped and supported Chinese soldiers add to the tragic count. Most of the casualties were comprised of noncombatant children, women, and men. The total casualties approximated the population of the United States at the time.

Imperial Japan’s way of war and occupation rivaled the worst of Nazi Germany’s conduct, as the Allied war crimes trials held in Tokyo, 1946-1948, found:

The evidence related to atrocities and other Conventional War Crimes presented before the Tribunal establishes that from the opening of the war in China until surrender of Japan in August 1945, torture, murder, rape and other cruelties of the most inhumane and most barbarous character were freely practiced by the Japanese army and navy.(3)

The distribution of the catastrophe is instructive. The Chinese and Southeast Asians and ocean islanders suffered about 87% of all Asian-Pacific War deaths. Only 12% were Japanese. Less than 1% were the war-winning Americans and other Westerners.(4) Allied Asia civilians were disproportionately the victims.

Japan, crowded and poor in raw materials, but with a sense of military invincibility saw the creation of an empire as her salvation. Japan was also motivated by its sense of racial superiority over its Asian neighbors. Japan’s imperial regime had volatile ambitions but limited resources, thus encouraging the government to unleash a particularly brutal offensive against the peoples of Asia and surrounding ocean islands.

Japan suffered large military losses, but relatively few civilian casualties for most of the long war. Japan lost about 3 million dead, mostly young soldiers and sailors, plus about 18 million badly harmed survivors. Only in 1945 during the fighting on Okinawa and the U.S. bombing of the home island cities did the Japanese endure the full destruction, death, and pain long suffered by the Japanese-invaded peoples of East Asia.

It is useful for Americans to imagine themselves in the shoes of the majority of the victims of the war. How would we remember the war if we had been invaded and suffered the equivalent of one “9/11” per day— every day— on average, from 1941 to 1945? (5) This is what happened to our Asian Allies.

Imperial Japan's military controlled the destiny of the Far East. The long, destructive war Japan started and refused to end on terms that would assure it would not attack its neighbors again, led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By August 1945 each added week of war condemned more Allied and Japanese cities and villages to destruction and doomed approximately 100,000 Chinese and other Allies plus 50,000 Japanese too death; together, about 150,000 per week. The two A-bombs took approximately 150,000 lives, which equaled the carnage of one week of war. There is every indication that the bombs shortened the war by months. My projections show that the use of the atomic bomb saved from one million to three million lives and spared many millions more physically and psychologically wounded victims. (6) City after city in the path of a longer war throughout Asia was spared destruction.

It is critical to understand why it took the severe shock of two atomic bombs to dissuade the Japanese military from continuing the war. The Japanese army and navy officers’ adherence to the Bushido and Shinto ethic had required their young men to fight to the death without exception, for the Emperor and nation. Surrender was not an option. Japan had never lost a war to another nation and had sometimes won against great odds. These leaders believed in Yamato damashii, or raw courage, which in the end would overcome all Western technological and material advantages. The fates would not allow Japan to lose.

Some argue that if we had relaxed our demand for unconditional surrender and had guaranteed the retention of Emperor Hirohito, the war would have ended without the bomb. The reality was that the Japanese military demanded further concessions that would limit the damage to their post war influence. The United States and its major allies had every reason to insist on terms of surrender that stripped Japan's militarists of all influence, and unquestionably demilitarized the nation for the sake of future generations. Clearly this made any concessions to the military impossible and guaranteeing Hirohito's retention a much more difficult Allied decision.

Much has been made of the U.S. fire and Atomic bombing of Japanese cities in 1945. Yet, the reality is that the cost in Japanese lives to end the WWII carnage was only about 2% of all Allied civilians killed by Imperial Japan’s long war. (7)

President Truman's aide at the time, George Elsey, summed up this fourteen year history succinctly: "It is all well and good to come along later and say the bomb was a horrible thing. The whole goddamn war was a horrible thing." (8)

In conclusion, just as Hiroshima demonstrates the tragedy of weapons of mass destruction, so Japan’s aggression demonstrates the far greater tragedy of starting a war in the first place. This is also a lesson we cannot forget.

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  • Notes

    1. Web Tables 3 & 11

    2.Web Table 7

    3. Röling, B.V. and C.F. Rüter, eds. The Tokyo Judgment: The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTF), Vol I and II. Amsterdam: APA-University Press Amsterdam BV, 1977, I: p. 385.

    4. Web Table 2.

    5. Given a U.S. population in 1942 of ~ 135 million / ~ 400 million population occupied by the Japanese or caught in violence and other war caused deaths from 1942 to 1945 = .34 X 15.8 million (1942-1945) (Web Tables 4 & 9) Chinese plus other Allied total war deaths = 5.4 million equivalent U.S. population size war deaths / 1370 days (3.8 years) = 3,941 U.S. population equivalent deaths per day / 3,000 (9/11/01 toll) = ~ one equivalent of all 9/11 deaths per day on average and perhaps destruction equivalents.

    6. Web Table 20.

    7. Web Tables 3 & 11.

    8. McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p.442.