US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima later this month, the first ever by a sitting president, has rekindled the debate on both sides of the Pacific on what happened during the weeks leading up to the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing of the city in the closing days of World War II.
Aside from calls for the president to apologize —or not apologize —for the decision made by his predecessor, Harry Truman, 71 years ago, and endless speculation about what the visit means for current politics (read: the fortunes of Shinzo Abe in July’s Upper House election and the fortunes of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in November’s US presidential election), Obama’s visit has amateur and professional historians everywhere reviewing the fateful decisions in Tokyo and Washington that led to the bombing.
And, for Kyoto and Osaka, it was indeed fate, and the deliberations of a few men at the highest levels of the American government, that spared both cities from a similar bombing.
During a top secret meeting on April 27, 1945, just a few days before Nazi Germany surrendered and ended the war in Europe, a group of senior American military drew up what was one of the first lists of possible targets for America’s atomic bomb, then in the final stages of development. Seventeen different targets were suggested and, while Tokyo Bay was at the top of the list, Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, as well as Hiroshima, were also on it.
Just a few weeks later, however, on May 12, 1945, another report from a top secret meeting about atomic bomb targets showed that Kyoto was now No. 1 on the target list, followed by Hiroshima.
“From a psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan the people are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon,” the report said.
Osaka was not mentioned in this particular report as a possible target.
From here, so the story goes, the fates intervened. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had honeymooned in Kyoto many years before, ordered that Kyoto be removed from the list. Whether he did it out of fond, personal memories of Kyoto’s cultural treasures or for more geopolitical reasons—such as fears that bombing Kyoto would be used by the Russians, then officially US allies but emerging as postwar rivals, as propaganda and make Japan’s surrender even more difficult to achieve—is something historians continue to debate.
Whatever the reasons, Kyoto was dropped from the list. It would only be learned after the war that Kyoto University was involved with a top secret atomic weapons research program, and one wonders that if Washington had known about the research whether the ancient capital would have still been removed from the list.
Osaka, by contrast, appears to never have been officially off the potential target list. It has long been believed by some older Osakans that their city was, in fact, the most likely target if Japan had not surrendered and the US had dropped a third atomic bomb.
Today, peace groups in Kyoto and Osaka are known nationwide for their citizens’ efforts in calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
While some no doubt wish Obama and the US would apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, others, probably the majority, are more interested in seeing whether his trip will lead to an acceleration in disarmament efforts worldwide. Not only to ensure there are no more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis, but also to ensure no other cities, like Kyoto and Osaka, ever have to read about decisions made elsewhere that, but for fate alone, spared them a similar horror.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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