Manga @ the British Museum

Wow! The British Museum sure knows how to put on an exhibition! This comprehensive overview of the history and variety of Japanese manga comics, characters and stories, is the largest show on manga ever staged outside of Japan, and an all-singing, all-dancing feast for the mind and imagination and the senses!

Higashikata Josuke, a hero from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (1987 to the present) by Araki Hirohiko. Photo by the author

The long Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries at the back of the Museum’s main courtyard have been turned into lowlit funfair and phantasmagoria of all things manga, absolutely packed with a riot of ways of displaying, showing, highlighting, explaining, animating and enjoying all things manga. There are:

  • bookshelves packed with manga books (tankôbon) to take down and read
  • blow-ups of favourite manga characters in striking poses stuck to the walls
  • frames from manga books blown-up onto big canvases hanging from the ceiling
  • animated manga adventures (anime) projected onto screens all over the place
  • display cases examining scores of aspects and elements of the manga style
  • wall labels explaining the history and origins of manga
  • an long, painted theatre curtain covered with traditional Japanese characters from the 1880s, showing manga’s roots in theatrical costume and caricature
  • a huge model of a human head flayed of its skin to become a looming, muscled menace (a manga character, not an anatomical model)
  • footage of the enormous Comiket convention which attracts tens of thousands of manga fans every year
  • footage of a typical ‘cosplay’ festival where thousands of Japanese and foreigners dress up as their favourite manga characters
  • clips from some of the classic animated films produced by the famous Studio Ghibli projected onto a couple of big screens hanging from the ceiling
  • TV monitors which show interviews with famous and venerable practitioners of manga art
  • and all the way through, countless wall labels giving an enjoyable overload of information – either long ones giving you the history and development of the form, or shorter ones giving brief explanations of the huge variety of genres and subject matters which manga has covered

The press release explained that the exhibition is actually structured into six sections but it didn’t feel like that at all, and this review reflects the random, scattergun and sometimes repetitive experience of wandering around the big exhibition hall attracted to this or that image or TV interview or display or information label, sometimes several times, as I tried to get the facts and history and varieties of manga clear in my head.

Information panel early on in the exhibition. Photo by the author

Manga – a quick overview

To quote Wikipedia:

Manga are comics or graphic novels created in Japan or by creators in the Japanese language, conforming to a style developed in Japan in the late 19th century.

The term manga in Japan is a word used to refer to both comics and cartooning. ‘Manga’ as a term used outside Japan refers to comics originally published in Japan.

In Japan, people of all ages read manga. The medium includes works in a broad range of genres: action, adventure, business and commerce, comedy, detective, drama, historical, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy, erotica, sports and games, and suspense, among others.

Since the 1950s, manga has steadily become a major part of the Japanese publishing industry. By 1995, the manga market in Japan was valued at $7 billion, with annual sales of 1.9 billion manga books and manga magazines in Japan (equivalent to 15 issues per person per year [the population of Japan is 127 million]).

Manga stories are typically printed in black-and-white, although some full-color manga exist. In Japan, manga are usually serialized in large manga magazines, often containing many stories, each presented in a single episode to be continued in the next issue.

A manga artist (mangaka in Japanese) typically works with a few assistants in a small studio and is associated with a creative editor from a commercial publishing company. If a manga series is popular enough, it may be animated after or during its run.

Nowadays Manga has expanded way beyond printed magazines and books to include animated films (anime) and a huge gaming industry.

Icaro by Moebius and Jirō Taniguchi (1997) describes the mind-bending adventures of a young man, Icaro, with the ability to fly and a young woman, Yukiko, who risks her life – and more – to help Icaro achieve his dream. Photo by the author

Modern origins

Manga developed from serialised cartoon strips in newspapers in the late 1800s. Political and satirical artists Kitazawa Rakuten (1876-1955) and Okomoto Ippei (1886-1948) are considered the first manga artist. Their work inspired the next generation, including manga legend Tezuka Osamu, creator of Astro Boy.

Osamu’s first manga book was New Treasure Island published in 1947, which blended influences of earlier manga, Disney cartoons and movies. It sold a sensational 400,000 copies, not bad for an 18-year-old and just after the war when the country’s economy was in ruins. Osamu went on to pioneer various manga ‘looks’, not least in his use of cinematic page layouts, casts of recurring characters, and imaginative stories.

Osamu produced manga aimed at both male and female readers, The Mighty Atom (1952) for the former, Princess Knight (1953) for the latter.

Some young visitors enthusiastically copying details about one of the many manga characters blown up and painted on the wall. Photo by the author

Visual techniques of manga

Manga has evolved a set of signs and symbols (manpu) which manga artists use to suggest actions or emotions.

Reading direction Like Japanese writing manga is read from top to bottom and from right to left. The action is contained within frames called koma, which divide the page.

Fukidashi Speech bubbles. The shapes of speech and thought bubbles change to reflect mood and content.

Gitaigo / giseigo Sound effects are used to convey drama and to involve the reader in the action.

Screen tone (tōn) The colour and texture and ‘tone’ of the background, or of the entire image, can be varied to reflect the mood of a scene.

Two characters from the women-only Princess Jellyfish series (2008-17). Photo by the author

The profession of manga

There are about 5,000 professional manga artists in Japan and the number continues to grow. There are many routes into the industry: some up-and-coming artists submit manga ideas to publishing houses, some are spotted at fan conventions, some get work as editorial assistants and work their way up.

There’s a monitor showing footage of manga artists and scriptwriters working away in a modern studio, in almost factory, mass production, conditions. The books and magazines and stories are certainly churned out on an industrial scale.

Typical manga stories progress through fixed stages, from sketches and drafts, to a script and storyboard (neemu), to final pages approved by an editor for publication. Many artists write and illustrate their own manga, some use a scriptwriter. Others rely heavily on their editors for content and drawing.

Shelves packed with manga books and a bench to sit and read on. Note the nationality and age of the visitors. Photo by the author

The manga industry

Manga is big business. The total income of the Japanese manga industry in 2016 was about three billion dollars. Four of the top manga publishers – Hakusensha, Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha – dominate the market. They are in constant competition, publishing new stories and characters, striving to keep popular manga artists on their books, and running regular competitions to discover new artists, while any new innovation is quickly copied.

Alongside many other audiovisual displays, the exhibition includes half a dozen TV monitors showing interviews with current leading practitioners of the art, including:

  • Nahuma Ichirō, born 1963 and now editor-in-chief of Big Comic
  • Suzuki Haruhiko (b.1955) co-creator of the popular series Captain Tsubasa (1981-8) and now Managing Director of Shueisha
  • Torishima Kazuhiko (b.1952) now chairman of Hakusensha, but who, as editor of the weekly Shōnen Magazine helped to create the popular Dragon Ball series (1984-95)

Visitor demographics

The exhibition was heaving, absolutely packed. There were a lot of Japanese here, and I heard French and Italian being spoken. But what really impressed me was the age of the visitors. At Tate Britain’s Frank Bowling exhibition, which I went to last week, most of the visitors were the traditional older, grey-haired types — and, after soaking myself in manga, I popped upstairs at the British Museum to see the Edvard Munch show which was rammed with really old people, including at least three old men who were using sticks and moving very slowly – the oldest of the old – barely mobile.

The contrast between those shows of ‘fine’ art, and the crowd in the Manga show couldn’t have been more dramatic. Manga was packed with kids and teenagers and – mirabile dictu – even non-white people!

At the end of the show there’s an interactive gimmick where you stand on a white circle that’s been painted on the floor and a camera up on the wall captures you and projects it onto a computer screen where you can select a variety of manga backgrounds and even, I think, change your own appearance to become a manga character.

The point is there was a whole cluster of black kids doing it, pushing and joking with each other and clustered round the screen giving each other ridiculous appearances. From visiting well over 150 art exhibitions I can tell you that you never get groups of black kids at art exhibitions. Isolated black individuals or couples, maybe.

I smiled as I watched them larking about, genuinely having fun, and it crossed my mind that, if art galleries and museums are sincere about ‘reaching out to all sectors of the community’ and ‘promoting diversity’, the obvious way to do it is to put on shows on popular subjects. Trying to attract the street people I see everyday in Streatham and Tooting to an emotionally and intellectually challenging exhibition of woodcuts by the late-Victorian and chronically depressed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is always going to be an impossible challenge.

Putting on a fun, interactive show, with plenty of moving pictures, animations, cartoons, TV clips and things to do, on a subject which lots of kids and teenagers can immediately relate to – that’s the secret of attracting more diverse and varied (and younger) audiences.

Busy and immersive

This is a terrible photo but it shows you how busy and visually immersive the exhibition is. At bottom is a huge video photo of a typically packed manga bookshop (it is in fact Comic Takaoka, in Jinbôchô Tokyo, one of the oldest continually operating manga bookstores in Japan).

Above it is one of several screens hanging from the ceiling on which are projected an animated version of Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure which the British Museum commissioned from leading manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu and which has gone on to be animated.

You can see loads of other blown-up images hanging like a forest in the background.

And off to the left, there is the enormous plastic sculpture of a flayed head, the Colossal Titan, maybe ten feet tall, from a manga story called The Attack on Titan (2012-13). It’s like a fair.

Installation view of Manga at the British Museum. Photo by the author

Historical precursors

Manga as we know it emerged in the late 1800s, building on Japan’s long tradition of visual storytelling. Precursors of manga include narrative handscrolls and woodcut prints and cheap illustrated novels. The exhibition goes way back to display a picture handscroll dating to 1100, the so-called Handscroll of Frolicking Animals, which shows cartoon animals wrestling, playing and, well, generally frolicking.

Other examples of historical precursors are scattered through the exhibition but the most striking example of manga’s historical roots is the 17-metre-long Kabuki theatre curtain from the Shintomiza theatre in Tokyo which dates from the 1880s and depicts traditional Japanese folk characters and monsters. This repays some study and a slow stroll along it taking in the garish and grotesque characters and animals.

Shintomiza Kabuki Theatre Curtain (1880) by Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-1889). Photo by the author

Style and gender

During the 1950s two styles of manga emerged:

  1. shōnen and seinen aimed at boys and young men, respectively and focusing on action and adventure
  2. shōjo aimed at girls and women, focusing on romance and relationships

In fact these gendered genres were created by, and read by, either sex indistinguishably. Around 1970 a pioneering group of women, named the Year 24 Group, brought a new stylishness and sophistication to shōjo stories.

Genres

In the latter half of the exhibition are loads of displays, each one highlighting the wide range of subject matter manga stories can cover. Each of them was accompanied by a couple of examples of storylines around that particular subject.

  • Sport Packed with passion, competition, rivalry, and dramatic physical activities which forge lasting friendships, sport is a natural subject for manga and has even been credited with making certain sports like soccer more popular in Japan
  • Sci fi An obvious area is science fiction, not least because the cartoon style gives scope for drawing any number of futuristic spaceships, gadgets and gizmos. An example is Toward the Terra (1977-80) set in a future where computers controal all aspects of birth, life and death. Only the Mu, a mutant breed of humans with telepathic powers, question the oppressive status quo.
  • Horror Arising out of traditional Japanese horror stories, the clever use of frames means the horrifying thing can be ‘off screen’ or only hinted at, while the reader only sees the characters’ terrified reactions
  • Religion Japan has two belief systems, Buddhism and Shinto. the example given here was of a manga comic which imagines what would happen in Jesus and the Buddha were modern flatmates, an idea which made me burst out laughing
  • Love and sex This is a huge area. Some titles are sexually explicit and so veer into pornography. Others are squeaky clean romances for younger schoolgirls. And everything in between, including high school romance, maternal love, and Boys Love, an odd term which apparently refers to gay love affairs. As with everything to do with sex – a basic element of human behaviour which no society has ever been able to understand or police – there are, apparently, ‘concerns’ about some of the depictions of sex, and the United Nations, no less, has apparently listed some manga stories and threads as violent pornography. Should it be banned in order ‘to protect women and children’? Discuss.
  • Transformation Adventure stories are full of people or things which can transform shift shapes – think of all the superheroes who pop into a phone box to change from boring salarymen into saviours of the world. Then multiply that idea by a thousand themes and variations. They give the example of Cyborg 009 which ran from 1964 to 1992 and concerned nine cyborgs, forced to transform into weapons by the evil Black Ghost Corporation, but who gained superhuman powers and escaped to run off and have thirty years’ worth of colourful adventures. Cyborgs creator – Ishinomori Shōtarō (1938-98) currently holds the world record for manga output, having created 770 titles and 550 volumes.
  • Education Manga is incorporated into educational texts, to produce simplified introductions to all manner of subjects from Marxism to sex education.
  • Current affairs Manga can be produced on current political affairs or traumatic national history. The curators give the example of Kōno Fumiyo’s moving story about a family living with the after effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which won international praise.

Among the scores of snippets from various manga plotlines and heroes which I read, the most memorable was The Willow Tree, created by Hagio Moto in 2007. The entire story was displayed in its entirety in a long glass case. A woman stands by a tree and a boy passes by, growing older in each passing scene. As the seasons pass the willow tree grows and the boy becomes a man. On the final page the man approaches the woman under the tree, and we learn that she is his dead mother who has been watching over him all this time. When he tells her that he knows she is there and that he is fine, she disappears. The changing appearance of the tree, and its falling and regrowing leaves, symbolise not only the passage of time, but the evolving nature of maternal love.

Willow Tree by Hagio Moto (2007)

Comiket

Twice a year there’s a Comiket convention-event which lasts three days and attracts hundreds of thousands of participants and visitors. A big screen shows a speeded-up video of the hordes of visitors arriving outside the convention hall and then circulating round the vast arena of displays and stands, intercut with interviews with fans explaining why they attend.

Lots of fans bring along their own manga comics which they’ve created, known as dōjinshi, often using well-known characters, the manga equivalent of fan fiction. There are about 35,000 dōjinshi groups in Japan.

Cosplay

Short for ‘costume play’, this simply refers to dressing up as your favourite manga characters. Another massive video display shows a montage of mainly young people dressed up as all manner of manga characters and fooling around for the cameras, some acting out entire scenes, some going as far as staging entire storylines.

The annual World Cosplay Summit began in Nagoya in 2003. Cosplayers attend from round the world and the event includes a parade and a competition to be crowned world cosplay champion.

A still from the film about the World Cosplay Competition. Photo by the author

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation film studio based in Koganei, Tokyo. The studio is best known for its anime (or animated cartoon) feature films. It was founded in 1985, after the worldwide success of the anime, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).

Six of Studio Ghibli’s films are among the 10 highest-grossing anime films ever made in Japan, with Spirited Away (2001) the second highest, grossing over $290 million worldwide, and winning that year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

Two big screens suspended from the ceiling play a montage of clips from the Studio’s greatest hits, and down at floor level there are monitors showing interviews with some of the studio’s leading animators, explaining their approach and how anime differs from manga.

Still from The Wind Rises (2013) directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli. Photo by the author

The frame

In among this bombardment of information and entertainment, I came across one information panel which struck me as saying the most interesting thing about manga as a visual art form. Inoue Takehiko was commissioned by the Museum to create a manga triptych to conclude the exhibition, and has contributed large, blown-up portraits of three of the tough urban heroes from his series REAL. These are accompanied by clips from an interview with him in which he says:

For me it is all in the frame (koma). I think frames are set to take you beyond, and at the same time to confine, infinity within their confines…a good manga is composed of human figures drawn as if alive defined within an artificial environment defined by the frame.

The second part of this statement is not necessarily true. The human figures of manga are most notable for not looking remotely lifelike, but having highly simplified, open, innocent facial features (characterised by unnaturally large, doe eyes), and for being improbably athletic and dynamic.

But the first half touches on something really profound about all art, which is the power of the frame in limiting and defining the image. This is true of one-off paintings, drawings and prints. But is immensely important in the creation of all manner of cartoon strips, from manga to the French tradition of bandes dessignées through to Anglo-American comic strips.

It is not about the individual picture – although these can often be of stunning impact and beauty – but fundamentally it is about the dynamic experience of reading through a series of framed pictures. And, as Takehiko points out, the framing is vital in creating the mood and tone of each image; and the way successive frames are defined, creates a kind of visual narrative energy, over and above the logical content of the pictures, of their narrative.

It would be really interesting to learn more about the psychology of reading comic strips – how they affect the eye and the mind in a way that static individual images don’t. Wonder if anyone’s researched this subject.

In fact, now I reflect on it the day after visiting, I realise that the exhibition gave a lot of information about the various subject matters of manga, but maybe not enough analysis of that look. All the characters and stories have the same simplified cartoon style and all have the supersize eyes with big catchlights in them.

And, reviewing all the photos I took, and manga online, I realise another fact which is so obvious no-one comments on it. Which is that manga characters don’t look very Japanese. Here’s a photo of a typical Japanese young woman picked at random off the internet, after googling ‘Japanese girl.’

A random Japanese young woman

And here’s a manga of a young woman, from the Wikipedia article.

Figure in manga style by Jez (2016)

The real woman has brown or lightly tanned skin, the manga has pure white skin; and the Japanese has the characteristically narrow eyes of the Far East, while the manga figure has those alarmingly big, round catchlit, cartoon eyes.

It would have been good to have had it explained just how that look came about. Why – for over fifty years – it has stayed essentially the same. And why it denatures the ethnic Japanese appearance in favour of something more…generic and, often, more white and western-seeming. (I may be wildly wrong about this, I’m just going on the impression gained from studying the examples of manga on display here, in this particular exhibition. For example the lead figure in the still from The Wind Rises could be Harry Potter, there is absolutely nothing Japanese about his appearance. Why?)

Golden Kamuy (2014 to the present) is set in early 20th century Hokkaido, where young Sugimoto Sa’ichi leads a ragtag band on a dangerous quest to locate a stolen golden hoard belonging to the Ainu people

Anyway – this is a fabulous and hugely enjoyable exhibition. If you or your friends or kids are remotely interested in manga, this is a must-visit experience.

The Guardian review

The next day I read the review by the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones.

Jones savages the exhibition, raising two issues, the unnecessary comparison with Old Masters, and the omission of the filth and the fury associated with Japanese art.

Manga versus the Old Masters

Seems like whoever took Jones round, knowing he was a critic of high or fine art, tried to justify the show by comparing manga with classical Japanese art. This leads Jones to dismiss the exhibition we have as unworthy of the British Museum’s purpose and to wish it had been a completely different show –

I’ve rarely seen a show whose catalogue is so much more interesting than the display in the gallery. Not only are the drawings in the book dirtier, but there are far more illustrations of classic Japanese art. Surely this is what the exhibition should have been. It should have used the contemporary allure of manga to draw us into a huge survey of Japan’s art history.

I think he’s wrong. An exhibition of classic Japanese art should be that, and just that, and not need any gimmicks. This is an exhibition of a worldwide visual and commercial phenomenon. It needs no other justification. Jones accuses the museum of pandering to popular tastes. As I discussed above – if you want to attract kids and young people to museums you have to reach out to where they are. If, on the way to the manga show, the walk past Egyptian mummies and Assyrian lions and Viking helmets, all the better. They are acquiring the museum-going habit, the air of elitism and snobbery which I know – from personal experience – puts so many people off visiting art galleries and museums, is being dispelled. Once they’ve been to this, it’ll be easier (less intimidating) to go to something a bit more recherché.

Manga and pornography

Jones’s article also mentions the fact that lots of manga is ‘dirty’ (an oddly old-fashioned choice of word) by which he means pornographic. This confirms a nagging feeling I had that associates manga with random pornographic images I’ve come across in years of surfing the web. Even googling just the word ‘manga’ produces results which include topless or bottomless manga schoolgirls, some with a variety of sex aids. And some of the comments at the bottom of Jones’s article go into greater detail, giving the types of pornographic manga that are readily available, along with the Japanese terminology defining them (for example hentai, which refers, apparently, to ‘any type of perverse or bizarre sexual desire or act.’)

Having read those comments, and looked up some of the images, two obvious points emerge, for me. One is that Japanese erotic taste is different from ours. They are casually explicit about some things we are shocked by, and, as anyone who’s met a Japanese knows, quite easily shocked and even insulted by the casualness of our Western manners.

Yes, folks, it’s almost as if they come from a strikingly different culture and tradition (something which is so easy to forget in our 24/7, internationalised, global culture). Having read all the Guardian comments, collected the pornographic terminology, and looked up some of the examples, there is a second easy point to make.

Which is that the Museum and its curator obviously set out to attract the widest audience possible, to attract visitors of all ages – I saw plenty of teenagers, and families with kids, sometimes toddlers, excitedly looking at the cartoons or filling in the Children’s Trail handout they’d be given. I stood by one wall label while a girl about 7-years-old read out the label to her sister who was too young to read. Should the curators have included hard-core manga pornography in the exhibition? Should that little girl have found herself spelling out the precise meaning of pornographic terms to her young sister?

Obviously not. As Jones points out, some of that stuff can be found in the catalogue, all exhibition catalogues generally going into more detail than exhibitions can, and no child is going to buy the catalogue.

So it was the right call. You or I can explore porno manga on the internet to our heart’s content, if we wish. It would have been a disaster to include any in this show, thus created an X-rated zone kids couldn’t go into and probably causing shock horror stories in the press.

This exhibition is about creating a family-friendly, child-safe environment in which a) to enjoy yourself b) to learn lots about manga c) to inspire kids and the museum-averse to coming more often. It’s a success in every way.

Curator

Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, founding Director of the Sainsbury Institute and Professor of Japanese Art and Culture at the University of East Anglia.


Related links

  • Manga continues at the British Museum until 26 August 2019

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

Related links

Atomic by Jim Baggott (2009)

This is a brilliantly panoramic, thrilling and terrifying book.

The subtitle of this book is ‘The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49‘ and it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. At nearly 500 pages Atomic is a very thorough account of its subject – the race to develop a workable atomic bomb between the main warring nations of World War Two, America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia –  with the additional assets of a 22-page timeline, a 20-page list of key characters, 18 pages of notes and sources and a 6-page bibliography.

A cast of thousands

The need for a list of key characters is an indication of one of the main learnings from the book: it took a lot of people to convert theoretical physics into battlefield nuclear weapons. Every aspect of it came from theories and speculations published in numerous journals, and then from experiments devised by scores of teams of scientists working around the industrialised world, publishing results, meeting at conferences or informally, comparing and discussing and debating and trying again.

Having just read The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira, a ‘biography’ of the theory of relativity, I had gotten used to the enormous number of teams and groups and institutes and university faculties involved in science – or this area of science – each containing numerous individual scientists, who collaborated and competed to devise, work through and test new theories relating to Einstein’s famous theory.

Baggott’s tale gives the same sense of a cast of hundreds of scientists – it feels like we are introduced to two or three new characters on every page, which can make it quite difficult to keep up. But whereas progress on the theory of relativity took place at a leisurely pace over the past 100 years, the opposite is true of the development of The Bomb.

This was kick-started when a research paper showing that nuclear fission of uranium might be possible was published in 1939, just as the world was on the brink of war (hence the start date for this book). From that point the story progresses at an increasing pace, dominated by a Great Fear – fear that the Nazis would develop The Bomb first and use it without any scruples to devastate Europe.

The first three parts of the book follow the way the two warring parties – the Allies and the Nazis – assembled their teams from civilian physicists, mathematicians and chemists at various institutions, bringing them together into teams which were assembled and worked with increasing franticness, as the Second World War became deeper and darker.

If the you thought the blizzard of names of theoretical and experimental physicists, mathematicians, chemists and so on in the first part was a bit confusing, this is as nothing compared to the tsunami of names of Army administrators, security chiefs, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians who are roped in to create and administer the facilities which were established to research and build, first a nuclear reactor, then a nuclear bomb.

Baggott unfolds the story with a kind of unflinching factual pace which is extremely gripping. Each chapter is divided into sections, often only a page long, which explain contemporaneous events at research bases in Chicago, out in the desert at Los Alamos, in Britain, in German research centres, and among Stalin’s harassed scientific community. Each one of these narratives is fascinating, but intercutting them like this creates an almost filming effect of cutting from one exciting scene to another. Baggott’s prose is spare and effective, almost like good thriller writing.

The nuclear spies

And indeed the book strays into actual thriller territory because interwoven with the gripping accounts of the British, Russian, German and American scientists, and their respective military and political masters, is the story of the nuclear spies. I read Paul Simpson’s A Brief History of The Spy a few months ago and it gives good accounts of the activities of Soviet spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greengrass, Theodore Hall, as well as the Rosenbergs. But the story of their spying and the huge amounts of top secret information they handed over to the Russians is so much more intense and exciting when it is situated in the broader story of the nail-biting scientific, chemical, logistical and political races to build The Bomb.

German failure

As everyone knows, the Nazis were not able to construct a functioning bomb before they were militarily defeated in May 1945. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and the main impression from the book was the sense of vicarious horror from the thought of what they’d done if they had made a breakthrough in the final desperate months of spring 1945. London wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.

Baggott’s account of the German bomb is fascinating in numerous ways. Basically, once the leadership were told it wouldn’t be ready in the next few years, they didn’t make it a priority. Baggott follows the end of the war with a chapter on hos most of the German nuclear scientists were flown to England and interned in a farm outside Cambridge which was bugged. Their conversations were recorded in which they were at first smugly confident that they were being detained because they were so far in advance of the Allies. Thus they were all shocked when they heard the Allies had dropped an atom bomb on Japan in August 1945. At which point they began to develop a new line, one much promoted by German historians since, which is that they could have developed a bomb if they’d wanted to, but had morals and principles and so did all they could to undermine, stall and sabotage the Nazi attempt to build an A bomb.

They were in fact ‘good Germans’ who always hated the Nazis. Baggott treats this claim with the contempt it deserves.

Summary of the science

The neutron was discovered in 1932, giving a clearer picture of what atoms are made of i.e. a nucleus with at least one proton (with a positive electric charge) balancing at least one electron (with a negative charge) in orbit around it. Heavier elements have more than one neutron and electron (always the same number) as well as an increasing number of neutrons which give weight but have no electric charge. Hence the periodic table lists the elements in order of heaviness, starting with hydrogen with one proton and going all the way to organesson, with its 118 protons. Ernest Lawrence in California invented the cyclotron, a device for smashing sub-atomic particles into nuclei to see what happened. In 1934 Enrico Fermi’s team in Italy set out to bombard the nuclei of every known element with neutrons, starting with hydrogen (1) and going through the entire periodic table.

The assumption was that, by bombarding elements with neutrons they would dislodge one or two protons in each nucleus and ‘shift’ the element down the periodic table by one or two places. When the team came to bombard one of the heaviest elements, uranium, they were amazed to discover that the process seemed to produce barium, about half the weight of uranium. The bombardment process seemed to blast uranium nuclei in half. Physics theory, influenced by Einstein, suggested that a) this breakdown would result in the release of energy b) some of the neutrons within the uranium nucleus would not be required by the barium atoms and would themselves shoot out to hit other uranium nuclei, and so on.

  • The process would create a chain reaction.
  • Although the collapse of each individual atom would release a minuscule amount of energy, the number of atoms in such a dense element suggested a theoretically amazing release of energy. If every nucleus of uranium in a 1 kilogram lump was split in half, it would release the same energy as 22,000 tons of TNT explosive.

Otto Frisch, an Austrian Jewish physicist who had fled to Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen after the Nazis came to power, heard about all this from his long-time collaborator, and aunt, Lise Meitner, who was with the German team replicating Fermi’s results. He told Bohr about the discovery. Frisch named it nuclear fission.

In early 1939 papers were published in a German science journal and Nature, while Bohr himself travelled to a conference in America. In the spring of that year fission research groups sprang up around the scientific world. In America Bohr realised anomalies in the experimental results were caused by the fact that uranium comes in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The numbers derive from the total number of neutrons and protons in an atom: U-238 has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; U-235 has three fewer neutrons. Slowly evidence emerged that it is the U-235 which breaks down. But it is much rarer than the stable U-238 and difficult to extract and purify. In March 1939 a French team summarised the evidence for nuclear chain reactions in a paper in Nature, specifying the number of particles released by disintegrated nuclei.

All the physicists involved realised that the massive release of energy implied by the experiments could theoretically be used to create an explosive device vastly more powerful than anything then existing. And so did the press. Newspaper articles began appearing about a ‘superbomb’. In April the head of physics at the German Reich Research Council assembled a group devoted to fission research, named the Uranverein, calling for the ban of all uranium exports, and for it to be stockpiled. British MP Winston Churchill asked a friend, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a fission bomb. Soviet scientists replicated the results of their western colleagues but didn’t bring the issue to the attention of the authorities – yet. Three Hungarian physicists who were exiles from the Nazis in America grasped the military importance of the discoveries. They approached Einstein and persuaded him to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt, which was written in August 1939 though not delivered to the president until October. Meanwhile the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September and war in Europe began. At this point the Nazis approached the leading theoretical physicist in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, and he agreed to head the Uranverein, leading German research into an atomic bomb until the end of the war.

And so the race to build the first atomic bomb began! The major challenges were to:

  • isolate enough of the unstable isotope U-235 to sustain a chain reaction
  • to kick start the chain reaction somehow, not with the elaborate apparatus available in a lab, but with something which could be packed inside a contain (a bomb) and then triggered somehow
  • a material which could ‘damp’ the process enough so that it could be controlled in experimental conditions

From the start there was debate over the damping material, with the two strongest contenders being graphite – but it turned out to be difficult to get graphite which was pure enough – or ‘heavy water’, water produced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. Only one chemical plant in all of Europe produced heavy water, a fertiliser factory in Norway. The Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and a spin-off was the ability to commandeer regular supplies from this factory. That is why the factory, and its shipments of heavy water, were targeted for the commando raid and then air raids dramatised in the war movie, The Heroes of Telemark. (Baggott gives a thorough and gripping account of the true, more complex, more terrifying story of the raids.)

Learnings

I never realised that:

  • In the end the Americans built the bomb because they were the only ones with enough resources. Although Hitler and Stalin were briefed about the potential, their scientists told them it would be three or four years before a workable bomb could be made and they both had more pressing concerns. The British had the know-how but not the money or resources. There is a kind of historical inevitability to America being the first to build a bomb.
  • But I never realised there were quite so many communist sympathisers in American society and that so many of them slipped across the line into passing information and/or secrets to the Soviets. The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies.
  • And I never knew that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man put in charge of the facilities at Los Alamos and therefore widely known as the ‘father’ of the atom bomb, was himself was such a dubious character, from the security point of view. Well-known for his left-wing sympathies, attending meetings and donating money to crypto-communist causes, he was good friends with communist party members and was approached at least once by Soviet agents to pass on information about the bomb project. No wonder elements in the Army and the FBI wanted him banned from the very project which he was in fact running.

Hiroshima

The first three parts of the book follow in considerable detail the story from the crucial discoveries on the eve of the war, and then interweaves developments in Britain, America and the USSR up until the detonation of the two A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

  • I was shocked all over again to read the idea that, on the eve of the first so-called Trinity test, the scientists weren’t completely confident that the chain reaction might not spread to the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the air on fire.
  • I was dazzled by the casual way military planners came up with a short list of cities to hit with the bombs. The historic and (by all accounts) picturesque city of Kyoto was on the list but it was decided it would be a cultural crime to incinerate it. Also US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had gone there on his honeymoon, so it was removed from the list. Thus, in this new age, were the fates, the lives and agonising deaths, of hundreds of thousands of civilians decided.
  • I never knew they only did one test – the Trinity test – before Hiroshima. So little preparation and knowledge.

The justification for the use of the bomb has caused argument from that day to this. Some have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering, though the evidence presented in Baggott’s account militates against this interpretation. My own view is based on two axioms: 1. the limits of human reason 2. a moral theory of complementarity.

Limits of reason When I was a young man I was very influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Life is absurd and the absurdity is caused by the ludicrous mismatch between human claims and hopes of Reason and Justice and Freedom and all these other high-sounding words – and the chaotic shambles which people have made of the world, starting with the inability of most people to begin to live their own lives according to Reason and Logic.

People smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, marry the wrong person, drive cars too fast, take the wrong jobs, make the wrong decisions, jump off bridges, declare war. We in the UK have just voted for Brexit and Donald Trump is about to become US President. Rational? The bigger picture is that we are destroying the earth through our pollution and wastefulness, and global warming may end up destroying our current civilisation.

Given all these obvious facts about human beings, I don’t see how anyone can accuse us of being rational and logical.

But in part this is because we evolved to live in small packs or groups or tribes, and to deal with fairly simple situations in small groups. Ever since the Neolithic revolution and the birth of agriculture led to stratified and much larger societies and set us on the path to ‘civilisation’, we have increasingly found ourselves in complex situations where there is no one obviously ‘correct’ choice or path; where the notion of a binary choice between Good and Evil breaks down. Most of the decisions I’ve taken personally and professionally aren’t covered by so-called ‘morality’ or ‘moral philosophy’, they present themselves – and I make the decisions – based purely on practical outcomes.

Complementarity Early in his account Baggott explains Niels Bohr’s insight into quantum physics, the way of ‘seeing’ fundamental particles which changed the way educated people think about ‘reality’ and won him a Nobel Prize.

In the 1920s it became clear that electrons, one of the handful of sub-atomic particles, behave like waves and like particles at the same time. In Newton’s world a thing is a thing, self-identical and consistent. In quantum physics this fixed attitude has to be abandoned because ‘reality’ just doesn’t seem to be like that. Eventually, the researchers arrived a notion of complementarity i.e. that we just have to accept that electrons could be particles and waves at the same time depending on how you chose to measure them. (I understand other elements of quantum theory also prove that particles can be in two places at the same time). Conceivably, there are other ways of measuring them which we don’t know about yet. Possibly the incompatible behaviour can be reconciled at some ‘deeper’ level of theory and understanding but, despite nearly a century of trying, nobody has come up with a grand unifying theory which does that.

Meanwhile we have to work with reality in contradictory bits and fragments, according to different theories which fit, or seem to fit, to explain, the particular phenomena under investigation: Newtonian mechanics for most ordinary scale phenomena; Einstein’s relativity at the extremes of scale, black holes and gravity where Newton’s theory breaks down; and quantum theory to explain the perplexing nature of sub-atomic ‘reality’.

In the same way I’d like to suggest that everyday human morality is itself limited in its application. In extreme situations it frays and breaks. Common or garden morality suggests there is one ‘reality’ in which readily identifiable ideas of Good and Bad always and everywhere apply. But delve only a little deeper – consider the decisions you actually have to make, in your real life – and you quickly realise that there are many situations and decisions you have to make about situations which aren’t simple, where none of the alternatives are black and white, where you have to feel your way to a solution often based in gut instinct.

A major part of the problem may be that you are trying to reconcile not two points of view within one system, but two or more incompatible ways of looking at the world – just like the three worldviews of theoretical physics.

The Hiroshima decision

Thus – with one part of my mind I am appalled off the scale by the thought of a hideous, searing, radioactive death appearing in the middle of your city for no reason without any warning, vaporising half the population and burning the other half to shreds, men, women and little children, the old and babies, all indiscriminately evaporated or burned alive. I am at one with John Hersey’s terrifying account, I am with CND, I am against this anti-human abomination.

But with another part of the calculating predatory brain I can assess the arguments which President Truman had to weigh up. Using the A-bomb would:

  1. End a war which had dragged on too long.
  2. Save scores of thousands of American lives, an argument bolstered as evidence mounted that the Japanese were mobilising for a fanatical defence to the death of their home islands. I didn’;t know that the invasion of the southern island of Japan was scheduled for December 1945 and the invasion of the main island and advance on Tokyo was provisionally set to start in march 1946. Given that it took the Allies a year to advance from Normandy to Berlin, this suggests a scenario where the war could have dragged on well into 1947, with the awesome destruction of the entire Japanese infrastructure through firebombing and house to house fighting as well, of course, of vast casualties, Japanese and American.
  3. As the US commander of strategic air operations against Japan, General Curtis LeMay pointed out, America had been waging a devastating campaign of firebombing against Japanese cities for months. According to one calculation some two-and-a-half million Japanese had been killed in these air attacks to date. He couldn’t see why people got so upset about the atom bombs.

Again, I was amazed at the intransigence of the Japanese military. Baggott reports the cabinet meetings attended by the Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the heads of the Army and Navy, where the latter refused to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In fact, when the Emperor finally overruled his generals and issued an order to surrender, the generals promptly launched a military coup and tried to confiscate the Emperor’s recorded message ordering the surrender before it could be broadcast. An indication of the fanaticism American troops would have faced if a traditional invasion had gone ahead.

The Cold War

And the other reason for using the bombs was to prepare for after the war, specifically to tell the Soviet Union who was boss. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to join the war on Japan and this he did in August, making a request to invade the north island (the Russians being notoriously less concerned about their own troop losses than the Allies). the book is fascinating on how Stalin ordered an invasion then three days later backed off, leaving all Japan to America. But this kind of brinkmanship and uneasiness which had appeared at Yalta became more and more the dominant issue of world politics once the war was won, and once the USSR began to put in place mini-me repressive communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

Baggott follows the story through the Berlin Airlift of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950), while he describes the ‘second physics war’ i.e. the Russian push to build an atomic reactor and then a bomb to rival America’s. In this the Russians were hugely helped by the Allied spies who, ironically, now Soviet brutality was a bit more obvious to the world, began to have second thoughts. In fact Klaus Fuchs, the most important conduit of atomic secrets to the Russians, eventually confessed his role.

Baggott’s account in fact goes up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and it is so grippingly, thrillingly written I wished it had gone right up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he’ll write a sequel which covers the Cold War. Then again, most of the scientific innovation had been achieved and the basic principles established; now it was a question of engineering, of improving designs and outcomes. Of building bigger and better bombs and more and more of them.

The last section contains a running thread about the attempts by some of the scientists and politicians to prevent nuclear proliferation, and explains in detail why they came to nothing. The reason was the unavoidable new superpower rivalry between America and Russia, the geopolitical dynamic of mutually assured destruction which dominated the world for the next 45 years (until the fall of the USSR).

A new era in human history was inaugurated in which ‘traditional’ morality was drained of meaning. Or to put it another way (as I’ve suggested above) in which the traditional morality which just about makes sense in large complex societies, reached its limits, frayed and broke.

The nuclear era exposed the limitations of not only human morality but of human reason itself, showing that incompatible systems of values could apply to the same phenomena, in which nuclear truths could be good and evil, vital and obscene, at the same time. An era in which all attempts at rational thought about weapons of mass destruction seemed to lead only to inescapable paradox and absurdity.


Credit

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott was published in 2009 by Icon Books. All quotes and references are to the 2015 Icon Books paperback edition.

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