Saturday, 2 December 2017


East meets West (1853 – 1945)

In his May 2005 UCLA lecture entitled ‘Godzilla and post-war Japan’, Professor William Tsutsui quoted a 1985 survey of Americans in which they were asked to name three famous Japanese people. The results revealed much about how this still-foreign country was perceived by its former enemy of forty years before. The most popular responses were Emperor Hirohito (so far so good), Bruce Lee (news to him and his fellow Chinese) and…Godzilla. While this last answer is somewhat confused as to what defines a person, it gave two valuable insights: that a far Eastern fictional dinosaur had now bestrode the Western world like a rampaging colossus, and that he was imbued with a recognisable personality  - arguably even humanity – that encouraged respect, awe and fanatical love across a truly global fan-base.

On one level, over time the Godzilla movies became increasingly madcap escapism, a ring-side seat for us to watch guys in rubber suits battering each other as well as realistic miniature Tokyo cityscapes.  The original inspiration for Godzilla’s creation however was a sombre and compelling mix of science-fiction and devastating real-world tragedy. He was to be a unique monster born during uniquely harrowing post-war circumstances for his homeland, and like many children bore a fascinating imprint of his creators, the sum of their fears.

The century in history of Japan’s relationship with the West had begun hesitantly. Until the 1850s, theirs had been an isolated society closed off to any influence from the outside world. Only repeated pressure from Russia and other nations forced the reluctant Tokugawa government to cautiously open up a few strictly controlled ports to international trade. While ultra-conservative samurai factions strongly opposed these external relationships, many saw the advantages to be gained from Western advances in science and the military. In fact it was the threat of the superior firepower technology of the United States Navy under Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853-1854 that ‘persuaded’ them to open up their borders.

After the fall of the ruling Tokugawa Shoganate, Emperor Meiji became imperial ruler of a country that now found itself signatories to unfair treaties favouring their western partners both economically and legally. The only way Meiji could restore his country to respect on the international stage was to undertake drastic reforms. Japanese society was levelled into a full democracy, wiping out the privileges that the samurai military class and daimyo (feudal lords) had previously enjoyed. The Emperor also insisted on a radical program of westernisation for his people. To develop from their agrarian into a modern industrial nation, many scholars were sent abroad, foreign teachers were invited to lecture in Japan, and compulsory education was decreed for all. The country’s armed forces were revolutionised by universal conscription and overhauling the navy and army along British and Prussian models respectively.

As part of its societal remodelling, Japan established its first parliament, the Diet, in 1889. Though Meiji was the sovereign, he was artful in negotiating with the elderly Genro oligarchy who controlled the real reins of power. (For the public’s view of their modern government, look no further than the first Godzilla film’s Japanese release in 1954 where the only time a city landmark’s destruction was cheered at was the Diet building.)

Japan began to flex their new military muscle, and incur the stirrings of future hostility with the West, with two wars over territory. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-94 against China won them Taiwan but due to the Triple Intervention (of Russia, France and Germany) they were forced to return others. The Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05 disputing Korean and Manchurian strategic land resulted in Russian army and navy defeats, which gave Japan a new respect in the world as valuable as their annexation of Korea in 1910.

It was in the era following Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912 (succeeded by the enfeebled Emperor Taisho) that relations between Japan and Western nations started to deteriorate into ultimate conflict. They had joined the Allies in a minor capacity during the First World War, but it was their membership of the League of Nations that became a flashpoint for mounting international mistrust. Japan’s hoped-for ‘racial equality clause’ amendment to its covenant was rejected by the USA, Australia and Britain. When the United States passed the Oriental Exclusion Act in 1924 blocking future immigration into America, Japanese people perceived themselves as the intended targets.

Mirroring the bully’s victim who becomes an aggressor himself, the Japanese subjected China to the same political and economic inequality that they had suffered earlier under the West. The 1930s saw them puff up their chests to a state of military hubris that would eventually be their undoing. Japanese forces occupied Manchuria in 1931, then virtually the whole Chinese coast in the Second Sino-Japanese War that ran from 1937 concurrently with the Second World War till both ended in 1945. In this period China endured monstrous atrocities under the occupying Japanese.

Meanwhile, Japan added French Indochina (Vietnam) to their territories, then sided with the Axis Powers of Germany and Italy, a move that inexorably headed them toward full-scale war with the Allies. The Japanese capture of Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies then) and its vital oil reserves was followed a year later by their fateful sudden bombing of the U.S. naval base at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941. The element of surprise gave Japan six months of territorial advantage until the Battle of Midway in June 1942 signalled a gradual Allied claw-back of land.
By 1945, the Allies had made punishing air-strikes upon Japan and seized their island of Okinawa in a notorious battle. The Potsdam Declaration’s formal request for Japan’s unconditional surrender on July 27th 1945 fell on deaf ears. Thus was triggered the most notorious military action in history: on August 6th, the world’s first weaponised atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, obliterating 80,000 people and 90% of the city. Within three days, another was deployed over Nagasaki leaving a human death toll of 40,000.

Despite these unimaginable actions, and Russia’s entry into the war against Japan, Emperor Hirohito held out until August 14th when his Jewel Radio Broadcast played to the Japanese nation accepting the terms for surrender. He had no choice but to realise the shattering power their enemy wielded – “a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable” - and that without their acceptance, more than just his people’s future was at stake – “it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

After paying tribute to those most devastated by the bombings, the Emperor urged his people to begin the hardly-conceivable task of rebuilding wrecked lives and cities. When he referred to “the hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected hereafter”, he could not have imagined that a nuclear shadow would once more be cast over his subjects, nor that, through the arts, they would find a truly remarkable way to come to terms with their legacy.

Shadow of the Bomb (1945-1954)

Any hope that the end of World War Two would also end use of the Allies’ new near-apocalyptic trump card was extinguished by U.S. President Truman’s decision in December 1945 to begin joint Army and Navy nuclear testing – as if Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not a horrific enough ‘proof of concept’. Once brought into play, such a hideously effective tool could not be de-invented; instead, it was to be refined: "to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships."
The chosen location was Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, north of the equator. This once-idyllic spot was considered remote enough for safety, though in a grotesque irony Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the Marshalls’ military governor, convinced the Bikinians to leave temporarily on the pretext that (codename) Operation Crossroads was for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars."

Japan’s connection to the Marshalls dated back to their administration of them in the early 1900s. During the war, they maintained a strategic military outpost at Kwajalein Atoll. In February 1944, a brutal battle resulted in its capture by U.S. forces. Now its Bikinian neighbour was to play host to a far more destructive occupier whose influence was to involve the Japanese with equally terrible consequences.

Two early tests on Bikini Atoll in 1946 were filmed dropping nuclear payloads of a similar scale to Nagasaki. These were merely dry runs for a more potent project of a thousand times greater magnitude. In the early Fifties, the icy wind of the Cold War chilled the U.S. government with fears that Russia was secretly testing their own advancing nuclear capability. Plans were stepped up to unleash Operation Castle’s Bravo bomb on the northwest corner of the atoll - the most powerful hydrogen bomb the world had ever seen.

American Arms Race paranoia may explain, though never justify, why on March 1st 1954 Joint Task Force 7 went ahead with the Bravo air detonation despite clear evidence that wind direction would irradiate the northern Marshall Islands and their inhabitants. The Defence Nuclear Agency reported "it was recognized that both Bikini and Eneman islands would probably be contaminated." Like some horrific sorcerer’s apprentice, the damage from the resulting 15-megaton blast exceeded its masters’ expectations by two and a half times, vaporising all island vegetation within a 66-mile radius, and injecting incalculable radiation into the surrounding atmosphere.

Amongst the spectators watching the awe-inspiring mushroom cloud were the 23-man crew of the Japanese fishing boat Daigo FukuryĆ« Maru (Lucky Dragon 5). Whilst every effort was seemingly made to notify all outlying vessels, this lone one was not so lucky. Tragically, the time it took the men to retrieve their nets before fleeing exposed them and their haul to several hours of radioactive fall-out. They were transfixed by the “gritty white ash” that rained down on them two hours later, not knowing the confetti’s deadly properties would soon induce radiation sickness in the form of itching, vomiting and nausea – after which one man died. There were even more sickening repercussions as much of the ship’s irradiated tuna cargo would find its way onto dinner tables back home.

Of course the fate of the Lucky Dragon 5 was a small example of the far wider effects of the Bravo bomb - residents of Rongelap Atoll, roughly 125 miles from Bikini, would see similarly awful side-effects in their people. It is a damning indictment of the U.S. government’s handling and irresponsibility that no inhabited islands were fore-warned about the inevitable falling debris and its toxicity, a poisonous snow under which children innocently played in wonder. But the shock-waves emanating from Hiroshima, Nagasaki and now Bikini Atoll were to reverberate long after their aerial bursts, echoing in the Japanese conscience. One of the first expressions of this hideous coming-to-terms would be rendered a mere six months later through the lens of the horror motion picture…