Japan’s nuclear calamity has shown once again the remarkable courage, patience, and stoicism of that nation’s people. As a visitor to Japan for the past 36 years and former columnist for one of its leading newspapers, Mainichi Daily News, the giant earthquake and ensuing tsunami that savaged northern Japan filled me with anguish and sorrow.
I watched at first fifty, then a hundred nuclear technicians and firefighters know as the “kamikaze brigade” risk their lives in a miasma of lethal radiation to fight the fires and explosions at Fukushima’s ravaged nuclear plant. Many knew they were facing death or grave future illness, yet the charged forward in the heroic Japanese tradition.
In Japan’s samurai code, an act of supreme bravery occurs when a fighter confronts impossible odds, or knows his death in battle is inevitable, yet still decides to fight for honor’s sake. In samurai lore, this is know as “the nobility of failure.”
Japanese history and, of course, World War II, are replete with examples of self-sacrifice and boundless valor in the face of certain defeat.
Brave and resolute as Japanese are, the question remains, why did Japan decide to build nuclear power plants they knew could be potentially dangerous only 15 years or so after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The answer has to do with World War II. Japan has no resources, other than rock, wood, water and its industrious people. All raw material to this island nation must be imported by sea.
Japan entered World War II to seize more land in Manchuria and China, and to gain vital resources in South Asia. In 1940, most of Japan’s heavy oil, and all its aviation fuel, came from the world’s largest oil producer, the United States. Interestingly, the US was also Germany’s leading oil supplier.
When in late 1941, US President Franklin Roosevelt sought (my view) to push Japan into the war by imposing an embargo of oil and scrap metal on Japan, Tokyo had a two-year stockpile of oil.
Tokyo’s military-dominated government faced a stark choice: go immediately to war in hopes of a quick victory while there was still oil, or watch its oil stores dwindle way and thus face military impotence. War was the choice.
Japan’s leading military officer, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, warned Japan was going to war for oil, and would be defeated because of lack of oil.
In 1941, Japan’s economy was only 10% of the size of the US economy in what was to become history’s first industrialized war.
Japanese strategists had seen how Britain’s total naval blockade of the Central Powers in World War I brought about the final defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary by starvation, not battlefield defeat.
Yamamoto’s warning was prophetic. Japan could not sustain its maritime supply lines to South Asia and the oilfields of Indonesia and Malaysia, both former European colonies.
By mid-1944, a brilliant, audacious campaign by US submarines had cut off nearly all of Japan’s imports of raw material and oil. The winter of 1944-45 was the coldest in 20 years. Japanese, facing starvation, subsisted on roots and grass. As in the current Fukushima disaster, there was no fuel to cremate huge numbers of bodies.
Japan did not import a single barrel of oil in 1945. Without oil, its navy could not leave port, its aircraft could not fly. Pathetic attempts were made to make aviation fuel by boiling and distilling pine roots.
The powerful US Fifth Fleet that was nearing Japan alone used more fuel in a year than all of Japan. Without fuel, Japan could not fight. Modern mechanized warfare runs on oil. Adolf Hitler also failed to understand this critical strategic point.
While Japan starved, its cities were laid waste by the most lethal bombing raids in history Nearly half of Japan’s cities, 66 in all, sustained 40% or more total damage from a rain of fire bombs dropped by Gen. Curtiss LeMay’s US B-29’s.
Thirty percent of Japan’s urban population was killed, wounded or left homeless; 2.5 million buildings were destroyed. Most Japanese cities were built of wood and paper – as many still were around Fukushima – perfect targets for LeMay’s fire bombs.
On 9 March, 1945, US B-29’s dropped 1,667 tons of fire bombs on Tokyo. Fifteen square miles of downtown Tokyo were burned to the ground in a gigantic holocaust. An estimated 185,000 civilians died and another 100,000 were severely wounded – nearly all by burns.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki inflicted an immediate total of 200,000 dead and wounded, with many more in ensuring years and decades.
After the war, Japan’s leadership concluded their nation had to have energy independence, even if it meant from potentially dangerous nuclear power. Japan must never again be left helpless. Oil was too precious to use for power generation. It had to be stockpiled for strategic use and transportation.
So Japan took a calculated risk.
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.