Hiroshima’s G7 Summit: A Chance to Consider the Nuclear Weapons Threat AnewPolitics
Whenever you read about Hiroshima and its tragic past, it probably seems remote. You know that the United States dropped the first atomic bomb used in wartime there in 1945, but you may not necessarily “feel” how it impacted ordinary people.
Hiroshima is one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations. The red “floating” torii gate at Miyajima and the A-bomb Dome at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park are World Heritage sites that leave a great impression on most tourists. In guidebooks, however, the dropping of the atomic bombs is covered as if the event is a remnant of a detached past in a distant land and treated as little more than a heart-wrenching history.
On May 19, the G7 Leaders’ Summit begins in Hiroshima. It brings together the leaders of the “West,” including three nuclear weapons powers: the United States, Britain, and France. This is the perfect time to think once again about the question: what would happen if nuclear weapons were used again as they were in Hiroshima 78 years ago?
I have been reflecting on this question for some time. But around a year ago, I began to think about it more often. This is because Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened the world by saying that he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if he did not get his way following his invasion of Ukraine.
War Similar to Cancer
I was a reporter and print journalist for 33 years. My job as a reporter allowed me to travel to many of the world’s conflict zones after the Cold War ended.
I reported on the Pakistan nuclear tests, NATO air strikes in Kosovo, and the military quagmire that that was the invasion and occupation of Iraq. More recently, I was on location when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and fighting broke out between pro-Russian forces claiming “independence” and Ukrainian troops in the Donbass region.
War is to human society what cancer is to the human body. Similarly, simply calling for the elimination of cancer does little to deal with the problem—we need to know and address the mechanisms that allow both aberrations to keep proliferating.
I am now writing my doctoral dissertation in Hiroshima with a focus on peace studies, international relations, and nuclear weapons. Knowing about war and understanding its mechanisms is one step toward keeping war under control. It is my belief that journalists and international relations researchers can make an important contribution by shining a light on the causes of war.
Never Again: Remembering the Victims and their Appeal
More than 30 years ago, I was working as a novice reporter in Nagasaki. While overlooked, Nagasaki suffered as much as Hiroshima from the use of nuclear weapons. There, I met a radio station reporter and journalist named Itō Akihiko. Itō had risked his life to give attention to the hibakusha who had survived the atomic bombings but suffered from its lingering effects. Itō left his radio job in 1970, and on a voluntary basis, diligently interviewed 1,003 hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, documenting their statements.
Before his death, Itō told me about his experiences. He was constantly troubled by the continued existence of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and the possibility for conflict precipitating their use or plunging us into another nuclear crisis. He worried that the plea of hibakusha for nuclear weapons to never be used again after Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not being heeded.
Recently, I have been enveloped by a similar sense of crisis.
Civilians and Children
Walking in Hiroshima today can lull you into a strong sense that peace is prevailing. A few minutes’ walk south from the hypocenter of the atomic blast is Peace Boulevard. The street is lined with thick greenery and has a serene atmosphere, giving the appearance that people have long enjoyed a peaceful life there.
However, the very existence of this street is a product of war and one that makes clear the inhumanity and callousness of the atomic bombs.
In 1945, the United States began conducting strategic air raids on urban centers on the Japanese mainland, including small and medium-sized cities. Hiroshima was one of the cities deliberately left largely unscathed.
However, no one expected this situation would last, and the Japanese military decided to demolish part of Hiroshima’s city center to create a firebreak and a road that could be used for evacuation. That area is where Peace Boulevard lies today.
With the war nearing its end, many Hiroshima males who had not yet reached military age were drafted into the war effort. On the morning of August 6, 1945, these boys, along with numerous girls similarly called up from junior high schools to assist in the work, assembled near the soon-to-be hypocenter to begin their tasks. So, when the bomb detonated some 600 meters in the air, a disproportionate number of teenagers were in the immediate vicinity. At least 6,000 school-aged young people died immediately. Memorials to the students and each school still stand on Peace Boulevard near where they were working.
Beyond the hypocenter, a tremendous number of children and people who had nothing to do with the military died. That was the essential character of the first use of nuclear weapons in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Inhumanity of Nuclear Weapons
Concrete data on how many people were killed by the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki still eludes us to this day. Given that so many records were lost, thousands of victims had their lives snuffed out and became nameless to history. This is just one aspect of the inherently indiscriminate and inhumane nature of nuclear weapons.
Another is that the damage caused by these weapons continues beyond the immediate period between when an explosion begins and ends. Many people in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared uninjured and even in good health—and were of course relieved to have survived the initial detonation of the bombs. However, in a few short years, many would die or begin a lifetime of suffering significant ill effects from the bombs’ radiation.
Nuclear weapons are not simply “big bombs” of a more barbaric period, to be found only in history books today. They are weapons that are still deployed in the real world and, if used, would certainly cause inhumane, long-term civilian “collateral” damage. More than 12,000 nuclear weapons still exist in the hands of governments around the world. If all of them were detonated, it would easily be enough to annihilate the human race.
Therefore, the issue of nuclear weapons has the potential to become a “personal matter” for everyone, and should not be treated as some abstract military exercise. The question of what would happen if nuclear weapons were used again directly concerns all of humanity.
Paying Heed to the Scale of Damage
Governments of countries that possess nuclear weapons regularly assert that they need them to “deter” others from using them. They say that they themselves do not intend to use them and they are only an insurance policy to ensure people like Russia’s Vladimir Putin are not tempted to threaten their use, or actually to use them, to gain some strategic advantage. That such people like Putin exist in the international community gives this idea a certain validity.
But this is an unusual type of insurance policy. If you take out a policy against some risk, it is meant to give you peace of mind in the event of an emergency. But if in the small print the contract says, “the cost of this peace of mind will be the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, or more,” would you still sign the contract?
What needs greater attention is the damage that nuclear weapons would have on the lives of ordinary people if they were to be used. In this sense, the most powerful arguments against the use of nuclear weapons are the testimonies of the victims of the August 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
When the G7 leaders convene in Hiroshima, one of the items on their agenda will be condemning Russia’s nuclear threats. There are reports that a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is being considered. This is of course important, but I hope the leaders will truly take in the significance of Hiroshima and the inhumane consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.
The Nuclear Great Power Myth
It has been 78 years since nuclear weapons were used in war, a sign of appropriate caution regarding them that must not be minimized. However, because of the technological and military symbolism surrounding these highly destructive weapons, a myth has been forged over the decades that their possession confers great-power status on a country and essentially makes them more important.
When the G7 leaders gather in Hiroshima this year, at the very least I want them to truly take in for themselves what it would mean if nuclear weapons were used again. When discussing these weapons and policy surrounding them, I want these leaders to keep the destruction that visited Hiroshima firmly in mind. Hopefully then, the answer to how we should handle the issue of nuclear weapons will become clear.
(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: The Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, or A-bomb Dome, as seen from the rooftop of the Hiroshima Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Photo by United States Army, November 1945. Courtesy Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.)