Japan both treasures and abhors its status as the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are perceived, because of their unique and extraordinary destructiveness, as moral markers: warnings to the world and proofs that Japan paid in full for its part in the war.
The A-bomb attacks are also portrayed in some Japanese narratives as events outside history, in the sense that they cannot be compared to anything else, acts that should never have happened and should not happen again. Rather than being the historical full stop in a sentence that begins with Nanjing or Pearl Harbor or Singapore, the atomic wastelands shame to silence attempts at arguing the logic of cause and effect.
August 9th will be the 69th anniversary of the A-bombing of Nagasaki, which followed by three days the destruction of Hiroshima. In those two cities more than 200,000 people were killed outright or died within six months from wounds or radiation sickness. Even if one accepts the argument that the first bomb was necessary to shock Japan’s leaders into surrendering, the use of the second so soon afterwards seems wantonly cruel. For a Japanese person, therefore, any thought that he or she had a hand in delivering Nagasaki to its fate would be the stuff of nightmares. Which is exactly what 85-year-old Satoru Miyashiro says he has been struggling with these many years.
To explain Satoru’s story is to open up the Hiroshima-Nagasaki narrative to a more subtle interpretation of responsibility, adding new ironies to the decisions that produced the mushroom clouds.
Satoru Miyashiro was just 16 when employed at the famous Yahata Steel Works near the city of Kokura in northern Kyushu. Whenever the air raid sirens sounded it was his job to help light drums of coal tar placed near the steel works to create a smoke screen to prevent the B-29 pilots gaining a clear sight of their target. This counter-measure had been devised as early as 1936 because of Yahata’s importance as an industrial asset; by 1945, the local air defenses were so depleted little else stood in the way of Bomber Command.
The Americans identified Yahata early on as a prime target, but initial bombing raids proved ineffectual. Everyone in the city of 250,000 knew they were living on borrowed time.
The list of Japanese cities targeted for incendiary attacks was a long one: the sort of hit parade nobody would want to be on. A much shorter list of cities was drawn up in April-May 1945 for the atomic bombs. The American military-civilian committee given this task included the old capital, Kyoto, among them. The cultural treasure-trove was assessed as a major industrial centre.
The Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, however, was familiar with Kyoto from having visited there some years before and vetoed the decision. In its place Nagasaki was added to the list.
Young Satoru, of course, knew nothing of these high deliberations in Washington. He was fully occupied at Yahata fighting fire with smoke. Then came news of a terrible new kind of weapon unleashed on Hiroshima the morning of August 6th; like many in Yahata, which was still largely unscathed, Satoru feared what was coming next. Sure enough, two days later, the B-29s arrived overhead. But it was a conventional, not a nuclear attack (though 20 per cent of the urban area was destroyed by incendiaries the Americans rated the results only ‘fair’).
The next day Bomber Command set off from the Pacific island of Tinian with the second nuclear weapon. Their principal target was Kokura, site of a large arsenal, less than 10-kilometres from Yahata (both cities are now incorporated into Kitakyushu). Official war histories state that when the B-29 carrying the A-bomb reached Kokura the weather had closed in, forcing the pilot to divert to his secondary target, Nagasaki. Visibility was bad there also until the clouds opened up just long enough for the bomb to be detonated, as it turned out, right above the main Christian neighbourhood in that port-city.
But is it true that Kokura was spared, and Nagasaki laid waste, because of the vagaries of the weather? Ever since that day Satoru Miyashiro has believed otherwise. On the 9th, an hour before the A-bomb flight approached Kokura, the air raid sirens sounded again, sending Satoru and his colleagues running to light the coal-tar drums. Black smoke soon filled the sky and floated on the wind across to Kokura. The weather in the area that day, according to meteorological records, was fair––not cloudy as the history books say––although a mixture of smoke and mist hung in the air. Rainsqualls had doused the worst of the fires from the incendiary attack on Yahata the day before, and it was probably vapour plumes mixed with coal-tar smoke that blocked the nuclear flash––and sent it on to Nagasaki: the hand of man, rather than nature, determined events.
‘I’ve been hearing this story ever since I was a child,’ says Satoru’s daughter Yumiko. ‘But my father did not mention it to others because he felt a sense of guilt at having brought suffering to the people of Nagasaki.’ Now, as he approaches the end of his life, Satoru has finally gone public adding his recollections to the complex tangle of history.
Was a teenage boy charged with lighting a line of coal-tar fires responsible for destroying Nagasaki? Of course not. The significance of Satoru’s story relates not so much to the past as to the present. Japanese are losing touch with the generation that experienced the war; they are vulnerable to the patriotic pitch of revisionists and others who wish to throw clouds of doubt over Japan’s war responsibility. Sometimes, however, one man’s conscience and sense of personal responsibility is able to throw new light on great events, and in that human affirmation we recognise a necessary truth.
The original report about Satoru Miyashiro was published in the Mainichi newspaper. Walter Hamilton is the author of Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story.