Nuclear Surgery: Post-War Japan

The “Ground-Zero” Memorial in Hiroshima for where the atomic bomb was dropped. In the foreground lies an arraingment of flowers against Shinto influenced architecture.×205.jpg

As Japanese soldiers lied in wait of an impending invasion by Russians, Chinese, and American soldiers, they were, most of them, united by their national fervor for the emperor and Japan. Many of them had trudged through some of the most gruesome battles of the war and had not even heard the news of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their friends and families. The surrender of Japan by the Emperor Hirohito was unprecedented in the Japanese warrior-culture and many struggled to push through the immediate post-war climate. On all sides, there was guilt and pain over what had occurred. At the epicenter of the debate was the atomic bomb and the ruin it had caused in the two cities. While the war had officially ended, both the US and the Japanese fought over the right to claim the moral high ground, with the US putting their efforts into the scarred “Hiroshima Maidens.”
One historian of this specific period, David Serlin, focuses on Hiroshima and its corroborating pieces, such as the proposed memorial by Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American, and the “Hiroshima Maiden” plastic surgery project (Serlin, p. 58). These two projects, which were all proposed by Americans, created backlash among the Japanese community. Serlin does focus on this aspect and notes that some Japanese considered it inappropriate to allow any Americans, regardless of Japanese descent, to work on memorials in Hiroshima (ibid). To be sure, this would be akin to the bombers of Pearl Harbor dedication a memorial to appease their own war guilt, which the US was, in essence, doing. At the time, Japan was attempting to construct a new post-war rhetoric which showed them pushing through the tragedy and rebuilding a “new” Japan (Serlin, p. 64). Japan’s insistence to push a “victim” narrative gives them the basis to criticize the nuclear policy of the US, which was further provoked by the Lucky Dragon in 1953 (Serlin, p.79). On the other hand, the US was attempting to use the radiation scarred women of Hiroshima and their free plastic surgery as a symbol of “altruism” to show the US’ good intentions (Serlin p. 81).
The complimentary article by Dower helps prop up this position ever further. He claims that Hiroshima receives the brunt of attention relating to the damage of the atomic bombs even though Nagasaki suffered a similar fate. The emphasis of Japanese media to focus on solely the ruined buildings instead of the disfigured survivors serves to present the Japanese as a strong, unshakeable people who able to move on from the destruction. This was in fact a fallacy as a major problem of the post-war was the kyodatsu or the traumatized and lost people of WWII who carried out their lives with a purposeless attitude (Dower, p. 170). Here we see the contradicting positions of the Japanese and the Americans, with some accusation of US being their “feminization” of Japanese culture (Serlin, p. 87). If we ask which narrative won out in the end, we only must look at modern Japan and the strong nation they stand as today.
Post-war Japan was a continued battle between the State Department and the resurgent government of Japan to set an accepted view of the atomic bomb. Where the US wanted to establish the bomb as an “ethical” option that saved lives by preventing a long and costly invasion of the Japanese mainland, the Japanese used it as an example of the strength and fortitude of the people of the rising sun. Looking forward, Japan became one of the strongest economies in the world, for a period, until the inevitable crash that rocked the island nation in the 90s and 00s. Japan adopted, and still maintains, the same post-war attitude that Germany held following their rough treatment at the hands of the allies. The actions of the victors of World War II have shaped the current world order, and it is important to recognize the impact that a weapon like the atomic bomb caused on the only people who have suffered its use.


D Serlin, Reconstructing the Hiroshima Maidens, in Replaceable You- Engineering the Body in Postwar America (2004).pdfPreview the documentView in a new window

Recommended: J Dower, A Doctor’s Diary of Hiroshima, Fifty Years Later, from Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering – Japan in the Modern World (2012).pdfPreview the documentView in a new window

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