Were the Atomic Bombings War Crimes?

Humanity entered the atomic age with two huge bangs and a multitude of whimpers.

I’m going to write about whether the atomic bombs should have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Visiting Hiroshima (see last week’s post) was an extremely upsetting and thought provoking experience. The question that keeps coming back as you wander amongst the twisted paraphernalia is obvious and insistent. Was it the right thing to do?

Hiroshima Before (target bridge at top right)

Hiroshima Before (target bridge at top right)

Obviously, this is an emotive and controversial topic, so I’ll take a little time to explain what the post is trying to address. The question of whether or not the only two atomic bombs ever used in war should have been dropped effectively consists of two questions, given the uniqueness of the event. The first one, or this post’s version of the Hard problem, is whether or not the use of nuclear weapons is ever justified. The second (which, irritatingly enough is also extremely difficult) is whether the use of these atomic bombs in this specific set of circumstances was justified. The Hard problem I will not attempt to answer in any definite way. It seems that the level of moral justification for using nuclear weapons can vary depending on the situation. Extremely contrived sets of circumstances can be dreamt up in which not using nuclear weapons is morally wrong, for example. Practically speaking, I would suggest that the most justifiable use would be against a concentration of military might in which all combatants are volunteers and intending to commit destruction on a similar or larger scale. The least defensible use, of course, would be against a large, concentrated civilian population.

Hiroshima Afterwards

Hiroshima Afterwards

The Hard and the Easy problems become more and more similar as the use of atomic weapons becomes more justified. i.e. The question of whether or not the most justifiable use of nuclear weapons is  morally correct is equivalent to asking whether any use of these weapons is correct. A very justifiable instance would be the use of nuclear weapons as a last resort in order to avert an even more horrible eventuality. However, we only need to address the Easy problem, as I will explain.

In the case of the war between Japan and the allies in 1945 there was certainly a horrible eventuality to be avoided: the invasion of mainland Japan. Given the ferocity of fighting on the pacific islands, and the enforced mass suicides of both soldiers and civilians on the Okinawan islands, it is likely that an invasion of Kyushu by the USA would have been disastrous. Somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Japanese troops were present in Kyushu by July 1945, and the civilian population had also been provided with antiquated weapons to fight the invaders. Large scale suicide plane and boat attacks were planned, with around 10,000 planes earmarked for Kamikaze use. Assuming the American forces did gain a beachhead; they would have faced fierce resistance in difficult terrain, and probably would have followed waves of mass suicides (likely forced) as they progressed inland. The Japanese plan was to force an armistice by making invasion of the home islands unfeasibly costly. The Americans manufactured 500,000 purple hearts (bestowed upon injured servicemen) in anticipation of the landings, and these are still in plentiful supply today. The invasion of mainland Japan would have been a nightmare, so it is probably reasonable to assume that the use of nuclear weapons did prevent an even larger disaster.

Nagasaki Before

Nagasaki Before

The narrative that I was subtly taught as I grew up was that the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was tragic but ultimately unavoidable. A necessary evil. Collateral damage. The story goes that the Goodies needed to defeat Japan, but that the Japanese military was so, well, insane, that a mainland invasion would have killed millions. The only option was to regrettably, reluctantly, drop the bomb (s).

Nagasaki Afterwards

Nagasaki Afterwards

To be justified these atomic bombs had to be a last resort. A desperate move when all other reasonable efforts to get the Japanese to surrender had failed. This, as explained below, was not the case. The moment you accept that the USA had other options is the moment you realise that the bombings were wrong.

There is a chilling, clinical feeling you get when reading about the decision to drop the bombs. The notes of the interim committee read  “Mr. Byrnes recommended and the Committee agreed, that the Secretary of War should be advised that, while recognizing that the final selection of the target was essentially a military decision, the present view of the Committee was that the bomb be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers’ homes; and that it be used without prior warning.”. Truman’s diary later read that they should bomb a purely military target, but the actual order to use atomic bombs on Japan included no mention of sparing civilians or hitting military structures, only cities. The military drew up a list of Japanese cities. They removed those with less than three square miles of continuous urban area (read: civilians). I let out a snort unintentionally when reading this. How silly of me. How could anyone not want to explode the first nuclear weapon used in war in the middle of a large city. This was to be a demonstration of force. They removed from the list cities which had been heavily bombed already, such as Tokyo and Osaka. It’s worth mentioning that the firebombing of Tokyo killed an estimated 100,000, and probably many more (both sides had their reasons to downplay the damage). On the 9th of March 16 square miles of Tokyo, with a population of 1.6 million, was burnt in one night. Bombing a city in which many civilians had evacuated or were dead already would not demonstrate the full power of the weapon. The last city off the shortlist was Kyoto, as the secretary of war had been there for his honeymoon.

The cities on the shortlist were then deliberately excluded from bombings to ensure the maximum number of civilians remained in these cities. Practice runs on cities with similar geography were organised, dropping a single large bomb from high altitude. These were called pumpkins. Then atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The combined death toll was over 200,000, and over 95% of the victims were civilians.

The Blast over Nagasaki

The Blast over Nagasaki

The “last resort” narrative is a comforting story which essentially removes allied responsibility, and turns the guilt and moral abhorrence of civilian slaughter into something that was, all in all, the Right Thing to Do. This is simply not the case. The crucial thing that could and should have been done, at no great financial or military cost to the USA, was to try harder to elicit surrender from Japan. Here is a list of approaches for trying to do this, and their costs:

1)      Tell Japan You Have Nukes

Japan was not warned that the USA had developed an atomic bomb and was planning to use it on civilian population centres. It is thought to have been referenced obliquely as the alternative to surrender in the Potsdam Declaration: “prompt and utter destruction” (the Potsdam Declaration was a demand for Japan’s surrender issued after the first nuclear bomb test). They could have attached pictures and scientific recordings from the Trinity bomb test.

Cost: Nothing. If Japan had not surrendered they could have moved more civilians from city centres, which would decrease the output of any war plants staffed by civilians and the civilian casualties by any later strikes on city centres. Being aware you are about to be nuked is somewhat like being aware you are about to be hit by a train. You can prepare a little, but it’s still going to hurt. A lot.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima

2)      Show Japan You Have Nukes

There was no public demonstration of an atomic bomb on an unpopulated or depopulated area. This was suggested by the prescient Frank report (written by nuclear physicists), which argued for a public demonstration of the atomic bomb’s power, and predicted the nuclear arms race that followed the surprise use of the bombs. This could have been done by inviting Japanese diplomats to a demonstration in the pacific, or by just detonating one in a depopulated area of Japan, preferably with a large audience. The middle of Tokyo bay, for example, or over the top of mount Fuji (OK, I just think that would make an emblematic picture). Leaflet dropping campaigns could have then warned the Japanese people that the same would occur to a city within a week unless the government surrendered.

Cost: Probably a week at most. Assuming the demonstration bomb was dropped on the 6th, and it still took two bombs for the Japanese to surrender, it would have been August 19th by the time the third bomb (and second bomb over a city) exploded.

Nagasaki

Nagasaki

3)      Tell Japan that Russia is Going to Declare War on them

Russia stated that they would enter the war in the Far East three months after the end of the war in Europe at the Yalta conference. Japan and Russia had been engaged in an uneasy truce, until April 5th 1945 when Russia notified Japan that they would not be renewing the pact, but that they would respect it until April 1946. They followed what they had agreed at the Yalta conference, and invaded Manchuria on the 9th of August (the day the second atomic bomb was dropped).

Cost: The most costly option. Increased defensesin Manchuria would have increased Russian casualties, although not greatly given the superiority in strength and numbers of the Russian armed forces.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima

4)      Actually Try Hard to Get Japan to Surrender

This is what stunned me the most. This is something that really makes no sense within the Western narrative. The Emperor of Japan was the head of the state, military, and revered as a deity. The allies knew that promising the continuation of imperial rule was seen as essential by the Japanese government. Allied documents detail their knowledge that the Potsdam Declaration would have a much higher chance of success if they offered the carrot of imperial rule. It initially contained an article offering this, but it was removed on the recommendation of James Byrne (he’s the charming man from earlier who suggested dropping the bombs on a civilian population without warning). The Japanese government therefore ignored the declaration.

The emperor had authorised the use of chemical weapons on the Chinese hundreds of times, and knew about a large number of atrocities committed by the Japanese military. So the allies’ not promising continued imperial rule seems reasonable, if very narrow-sighted, as they could then prosecute the emperor for war crimes. After the atom bombs were dropped, and Manchuria invaded by Russia, the Japanese government responded that they were prepared to accept the Potsdam Declaration, but even then only if the emperor was preserved. This was responded to by the allies ambiguously. Eventually Japan surrendered, despite a coup determined to prevent it. The punchline to all this is what happened immediately after Japan surrendered: the imperial family were preserved, actively protected from being implicated in war crimes, and allowed to rule Japan. The question is when you know there is a huge block stopping a country from surrendering, why would you ignore it, kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and then remove the block anyway?

Cost: Nothing. The imperial family were preserved anyway. Maybe a slight poll drop for the democrats.

Nagasaki

Nagasaki

5)      Make them an Offer they can’t Refuse

I like to imagine a world in which the Potsdam declaration stated: we have nuclear weapons, Russia will declare war on you within a month, and if you surrender the imperial family will be preserved. Three weeks later the first atomic bomb is dropped in the middle of Tokyo bay, at an altitude of 1500m to minimize damage. Leaflets are dropped across the country explaining that surrender is required within one week and that the imperial family will be preserved, or an atomic bomb will be detonated over a Japanese city.

I would bet everything on them accepting that offer. What do you think?

So, I’ve come to the unhappy and uncomfortable conclusion that the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII was an unjustified war crime (by all legal definitions since the end of the 19th century). The USA (and Russia, Israel, China) aren’t signed up to the current statute for war crimes, but I would argue that a war crime remains a war crime, even if you choose not to recognize that fact.

Common counterarguments and their weaknesses:

The Japanese were not going to surrender without something as shocking as the atomic bombs

Firstly, just because you think this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try as hard as you can to get them to surrender. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. Secondly, the Japanese had made numerous approaches about surrendering before the atomic bomb tests (link below). The president of the USA was aware of these approaches, and knew that their key requests were the preservation of the imperial line and avoidance of the term “unconditional surrender”. The most serious of these approaches was the Japanese foreign minister’s attempts to persuade Russia to receive Prince Konoye, who would present their peace agreement. Russia was attempting to delay Japanese surrender to strengthen their position in the Far East.

At this stage in the war, the Japanese war machine was broken. Their navy was barely functional, their cities were in ruins, and food was running out. They were not yet defeated, but could not mount any effective attacks against the USA, and could only hope to achieve concessions by making the invasion of mainland Japan too costly. For the record, when people tell you that 100 million people would have died in the invasion, it’s bullshit. This comes from a quote from the fanatical Japanese war journal of the imperial headquarters. If you believe that all 100,000,000 inhabitants of Japan would have committed suicide rather than lost the war, you are suffering from a mixture of ignorance and racism. I am sure that a small minority of fanatics would have chosen suicide, that a larger minority would have been forced into suicide, and that the rest would have lived, because people like living, and Japanese people are people too. A third of Okinawa’s civilian population was forced to commit suicide, and a far larger proportion would have escaped on mainland Japan due to the much smaller ratio of troops to civilians and the far more expansive geography.

This is all very well to say in hindsight, but wasn’t it a very, well, difficult decision at the time?

Yes, it was a difficult decision. If it had been made by a frontline GI who had spent a year in the hell of the pacific war, I would completely understand why the bombings went ahead (although still not agree with them). These decisions were difficult, but they were made by very intelligent people provided with extremely good intelligence and far removed from the horrors of war. They felt pressure to remain popular to the American public, and to prove the value of the hugely expensive Manhattan project. The influential James Byrne made clear on numerous occasions that he felt the bombs would also intimidate Russia, and stop them “getting in on the kill” too much. These are not good enough reasons to massacre innocent people. James Byrne was probably wrong as well. The shock of the atomic bombs ensured that both India and Russia had started nuclear weapons programmes by the end of 1945 (the British already had theirs).

The Civilians were not Innocent, as they had not Rebelled against the Japanese Government

Human history is a sad chorus of the fact that most people will allow remarkable atrocities to be committed in their name provided that they are relatively comfortable and have something to lose. Those who defected from Japanese military rule should be praised for their bravery, but those who remained with their families whilst powerful men played war games should not have been punished for it.

The American People Deserved Revenge for Pearl Harbour

Firstly, no. Secondly, Tokyo was revenge enough. Thirdly, the American people (to their credit) had rejected the use of chemical and biological weapons on the Japanese people during WWII, even if their use would hasten the end of the war. They were not consulted about the third type of WMD.

Is there any Point in Dragging all this up Now?

Yes. Truth is a very important thing, and it seems to be becoming increasingly rare. Our children will have even less chance of avoiding the mistakes of history if they are not aware of them. Most importantly, over 200,000 hibakushas (blast victims) are still alive today. It would be the most beautiful thing in the world if one of them could live to hear an apology.

The Gate of Hell, Nagasaki

The Gate to Hell, Nagasaki

Links:

Photos of the bomb sites http://www.allworldwars.com/Photographs-of-the-atomic-bombings-of-Hiroshima-and-Nagasaki.html

Official bombing order (not mentioning military targets or minimizing civilian casualties): http://www.dannen.com/decision/handy.html

The people who decided to drop the bomb without warning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interim_Committee

CIA report on Japanese peace approaches: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol9no3/html/v09i3a06p_0001.htm

Timeline to bomb drops: http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/timeline/timeline_page.php?year=1945

Good for further info: http://www.doug-long.com/

Hiroshima, or How I Learned to Loathe the Bomb

Hiroshima was the most thought provoking and challenging experience of my time in Japan. It is the experience that I would keep above all others, and recommend to anyone in this neck of the woods. But it was not comfortable.

Breakfast

Breakfast

There is a disjointed feeling of apprehension when arriving as a Briton. An echo of responsibility. Hiroshima is spacious, leafy, and new, like most Japanese cities. There are marquees up for what looks like a food fair, and hundreds of school kids walking about with bows taller than they are (presumably a kyudo tournament). Lune is waiting in the city centre, we grab pastries and coffee, then go to dump our bags. Hiroshima seems lovely, and I end up thinking “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer city”, which is sort of perverse but instinctive. People are friendly, the air is relaxed, and school orchestras play by the riverside.

Aioi Bridge - The Bullseye

Aioi Bridge – The Bullseye

Sausage Dogs

Sausage Dogs

The sign in our path reads “Atomic Bomb Dome”. This jars the eyes a little, and I do an unconscious double-take. There is something ridiculous about seeing those famous words, indelibly linked to devastation, in a whirring urban area. It was the nearest structure to the hypocentre to be left standing (just under a kilometre away), apparently because the blast was almost directly above, so the walls were forced down rather than sideways. The dome is a beautifully wretched skeleton of iron, painted in flaking pink and bowed to one side. It sits on a central cylinder of concrete, which is immaculate except for a network of thin white veins, which could be heat or restoration work. The building was nearly demolished like all the other concrete shells left after the blast (all the wooden buildings collapsed or burnt), but eventually it was designated as a memorial, and will be restored in perpetuity as a monument to peace. Nearby is the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, which was the target for the bomb. Children run and jump off the granite information slabs, and a man persuades two remarkably well behaved sausage dogs to pose in the foreground as he photographs the dome. There is a blue sky, and brilliant sunlight, but the place still feels dark. Some information on the bomb in booklets and on posters has been placed there by an elderly man who has a happy smile and a baseball cap. The writing explains that he was in the womb when the bomb went off, and I get the impression he comes here often. There is a clay roof tile which has a rough surface with glossy black bubbles, melted by the heat rays. It feels coarse and cold.

What Happened in Hiroshima

What Happened in Hiroshima

Hiroshima Peace Park occupies the former site of a vanished neighbourhood, on an oval island which is reached by the vertical stroke of the “T”. There is a peace flame, which I assume to be eternal but find that it will be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon on earth is destroyed. I hope there’s a difference. There are a number of memorials devoted to different groups who lost their lives: the students mobilized to clear a fire corridor that morning, the children, and, embarrassingly late (erected in 1970, moved into the park in 1999), the forced Korean labourers. An amorphous mound covers the ash which they couldn’t identify. School kids in coloured caps and shorts trot after their teachers, bowing at each memorial, carrying reams of paper cranes. The cranes are for the Children’s Memorial, which was inspired by the death of Sadako Sasaki. Sadoko was two when the bomb went off, and was healthy until the age of 11 when she, like many children from Hiroshima, developed leukaemia. It was said that if you fold 1000 paper cranes then the gods will grant your wish. Sadoko had little paper, so used bandages and the wrapping paper from the get well gifts of others. Accounts differ as to whether she got there or not, but agree on the end of the story. Around the Children’s Memorial there are Perspex cuboids absolutely stuffed with these cranes, hanging on strings or arranged into mosaics. I wonder what happens to the cranes after their time is up. Is there a huge warehouse somewhere, filled with boxes upon boxes of them? Do they float them on the river? Throw them in a fire?

The Children's Memorial

The Children’s Memorial

The peace museum is a glass fronted concrete shoebox on stilts, and about as inoffensive as a public building from the 50s can be. It costs 30p, because they want everyone to see it. The museum is fairly balanced, and first tells the story of Japanese imperialism in the first half of the 20th century. It covers the war with Russia, the annexation of Korea, and the invasion of China, including the rape of Nanjing. It also notes every time a new military unit or structure is created in Hiroshima, which happens faster and faster in a crescendo up to a stopped watch.

8 16 am.

There is a TV loop playing shots of the foliage around Hiroshima whilst a survivor describes the sky opening. First she mentions her breakfast, clothes, and the weather. The sky was almost perfectly clear and pure blue. Opposite loops the footage of Enola Gay, taking off and flying towards the target. This cuts to the rising cloud; the footage shaking despite the fact the plane was by now around 10km away. Between them lies a model of the city, stuffed with matchstick houses. The wall shows a panorama of the view afterwards. It is filthy and hollow. Nothing lighter than the grey of ash is visible. Concrete shells hunker over amorphous debris.

Peace Cranes

Peace Cranes

One of Many

One of Many

The most heartening thing about the Hiroshima bombing is the response of its people. People came in from the surrounding region to help the wounded, which was crucial as almost all of the medical staff were incinerated in the hospital. The fallout meant that these rescuers suffered radiation sickness for payment. Debris clearance began immediately. The first streetcar resumed three days afterwards. On the first anniversary of the blast, when people were still suffering from radiation sickness, and rebuilding their homes, Hiroshima began campaigning for peace. Imagine another country killing half the people in your city, then a year later asking for reconciliation. It is as if they saw the true face of war, and rejected it unthinkingly, instinctively.

A wall is plastered with the protest letters that Hiroshima mayors send in response to every nuclear weapons test. Over 600 so far, and four this year, including a couple to the recipient of the world’s first ever pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize. A mayor of Hiroshima has set up a global network of mayors calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons (check for your city here http://www.mayorsforpeace.org/english/membercity/europe/united_kingdom.html). Every year there is a peace festival on the day of the bomb. They add the names of hibakushas (bomb victims) who have died in the past year to the coffin at the main memorial, and float coloured paper lanterns down the river, into the darkness.

The Blast

The Blast

The first section covers the concepts, the build-up, and the aftermath. We walk past a burned horse carcass, over a bridge to the main building, which contains information about what happened to the people of Hiroshima. Later I realize this is because after you hear about what an atom bomb does to people you can’t really think straight. A dark brick corridor leads to a map of the city after the blast, with the fireball after one second hanging above. Human models show survivors creeping through the wreckage, clothes torn, forearms at 90 degrees. This is because the skin on their forearms is hanging off in tatters, presumably from shielding their eyes against the light. All the horrible articles are here, which have now become almost clichéd. In the flesh they are weighty and shocking.

Microcephaly and Azaleas

Microcephaly and Azaleas

Glasses melted together. Rooftiles with bubbles that look like human eyes. A human shadow on the steps of the bank. A child’s tin lunchbox filled with foamy charcoal. Fragments of skin and nail that a victim carried home before dying. The dark patterns on a girls kimono burnt into her back (dark colours absorbed more heat). A rusty tricycle. The dead child’s dad had buried his son and his favourite toy in the garden, because he felt he wasn’t old enough to be buried far away in the family grave. Reading this is heartbreaking. Decades later, he moved his son’s remains and gave the tricycle to the museum. The most shocking thing is reading the stories of individuals besides their clothing, which is torn and stained dark. They are uniforms, and look sort of like pajamas. The general narrative is this: person X was working at place Y, suffered 50-90% burns, wandered home as there was nowhere to go (the hospitals were gone), and died after Z days of suffering. What hits home are the individual details; the things which make you see them as people rather than 1 in  140000. After five you realize this is too many, and see those vaporized as the lucky ones. The death toll for Hiroshima is 140000, but only half of them died immediately. The other 70000 (those that died by December 1945) died slowly and painfully due to burns or radiation sickness or both.

With almost cruel thoroughness, the next section describes the long term effects of the radiation. A firestorm burnt through what was left of the city centre and the people there. The radioactive ash spiralled up into the sky and fell back as black rain 30 minutes later. People were suffering from smoke inhalation. Most of the clean water had been disappeared when the bomb went off. Those not drinking the pus from their burns blisters could look forward to the black water in puddles. A mother’s diary records what happened to her seven and five year old children. Their appetite vanished first, then their hair. They began vomiting, and passing blood. Teeth fell out. Eventually her younger son died after around a month and her older daughter survived. People’s skin grew into strange lumps, and 20 years later their eyes were still growing cataracts. Trying to block out what they had seen.  The Americans set up a station to monitor, but not treat, the radiation sickness and the cancers that followed. They chose not to share this information with the Japanese doctors treating people. Children born after exposure in the womb suffered from microcephaly, and require extensive help to survive. They were innocent.

SONY DSC

The last panel is a picture of the first plants to grow after the blast. We emerge wet-eyed, blinking, stunned, wretched. The peace park stretches below us, and a neatly dressed security guard thanks us for coming. The walls on the way out contain drawings by hibakushas, showing the attack as they remember it. One woman draws a column of dishevelled people dressed in rags, shambling past fire and holding their arms like zombies due to the skin tatters. Her caption says that what most affected her was that they were silent, and stumbled towards nowhere, stunned, like wounded dumb animals. There are visitor’s books for notable visitors. Gorbachev has been, but no US president. No UK prime minister as far as I can see. The queen has turned up. An American diplomat has hurriedly scrawled one line: “with utmost sympathies” which really pisses me off. The people sitting above the buttons that control all these terrifying weapons should see what they do to the little people.

For a few years I have hated nuclear bombs, and felt that there is never a morally justifiable occasion to use them, but here everything is amplified. I begin to feel incoherent anger, and injustice, and sad that children are born into a world such as this one. This all sounds a bit whiney and teenage, but it doesn’t feel that way, if you know what I mean. In Hiroshima you are not able to imagine what it was like, as such, but you can begin to realise just how far you are from being able to imagine it. You have to start climbing Everest to understand how high the summit is.

The inscription on the memorial cenotaph reads “Let all the souls here rest in peace; for we shall not repeat this evil”.

Very upset, we left, and Hiroshima was beautiful and the sun was shining and children were playing on the grass. That was something, at least.

http://www.web.net/~cnanw/setsukostory.htm

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/radiation.aspx

Legacy

Legacy

Train Rides and Suicides

The first 4 paragraphs of this are not particularly cheery, so be warned (or skip them).

A Different Train

A Different Train

Today our train killed someone. There was a horn blast and a juddering as the emergency brakes kicked in. We were one carriage from the front but there was no sound, no clunk, which I had always imagined when thinking about trains hitting people. Up until this point it hadn’t really registered that I’d thought of it. The front two carriages came to a rest at the platform of Oimachi station. Everyone continued to look tired and bored; the girl opposite was still gurning, asleep, with her head lolling at 90 degrees. A couple of minutes passed with hurried PA announcements and the thin hope that we’d stopped in time. I and two gaijin colleagues sat quietly, waiting. We knew, but didn’t want to say it out loud. Reluctantly I asked N-san to translate what was going on: “an accident”. People on the platform began crowding towards the front of the train, and some on the train did likewise. A teenage baseball team in matching blue tracksuits began to point from the platform at something underneath us. Others peered too, hands pressed to mouths, iPhones up. It was uncomfortable to think about what could be beneath us. A body? An arm? A splatter of blood on the silver train? Sirens wailed and coalesced. A fireman in powder blue overalls ran past trailing yellow tape with kanji.

Unrelated Geometry

Unrelated Geometry

Soon they opened the doors of the front carriage and we began filing out. There was a black shoulder bag on the floor of the platform just outside the doors. My mind raced to sketch out the lonely salaryman stereotype that couldn’t bear another Monday. The truth is I don’t know who died, if they were male or female, old or young. Hell, it might have actually been an accident. But it probably wasn’t. I don’t know what horrors lay under carriage two, or what the corpse they dragged out looked like. What does a train do to a human? The imagination provides when the eyes lack. We didn’t want to see, but there were plenty who did. A crowd were arced around the front of the train, while fireman carried a silver ladder and an orange stretcher towards it. Too many people were watching. On the street above the tracks was an unbroken line of black silhouettes, dotted with facemasks, looking down on the scene. “Drawn by the dread of it” jumps out from a poem in my English GCSE. The lights on the train shut off.

Grid

Grid

We are quiet and inane and unsure of what to do, standing on the platform well back from the crowd. The rescuers unfold a white sheet and a large green plastic screen, and we head upstairs to avoid what so many are waiting to see. A train delivers more spectators to the opposite platform, and doesn’t leave the station. We need to get the next train on this line, and I feel guilty for thinking about how to get home. Overly sweet vending machine coffee is comforting, and B-san asks why the hell don’t they evacuate the platform. Good point. We wait upstairs, not really talking. There doesn’t seem to be much to say, and talking about other things feels like a slight. A-san needs to get to Yokohama to meet a phoneless friend, so grabs a rice ball and heads back down to get on the train heading in the opposite direction. Shortly after, a member of staff blocks people from going down to the platform, at last, and needs answer a large number of questions before people heading downstairs accept this. His snatches of Japanese reveal that the platform is closed so the police can take photos, rather than because someone has died.

The escalator re-opens and we descend to see our train rolling forward, lights on once more. It becomes clear that many people stayed sat on the train to wait out the ‘delay’. This confuses me because I assume the train has to be taken out of service. The train stops once completely in the station, I assume to let out those who wanted to sit on the train… but then people begin getting on again, as the firemen hold up the yellow tape. We look at each other, dumbstruck, and walk parallel to the train for a few carriages (ignoring those peering at the newly cleared track at the site of the collision), before I suggest getting on. It feels wrong to duck under that tape and get back on the same train. The door closes, and the train continues just as before. The PA tells us that the train will be terminating early, and I think good. The rate of suicide in Japan is pretty high, but dropped below 30,000 per year in 2012. 2,000 a year die in front of trains. I’m not going to say what I think about suicide other than it makes me angry.

Pikachu Board

Pikachu Board

Yukatas!

Yukatas!

Before this horrible experience we had the laboratory ski trip to Manza, another ski resort close to a volcano with sulphurous springs. Our hotel seemed to be straight out of a horror film, and designed by someone with very little understanding of, well, anything. Each floor was offset from its neighbours, seemingly by a random distance in a random direction each time. As a result, you had to go up and across on almost every floor (rather than going straight up to floor six, for example) to get to the next one. Architectural grumbles aside, the accommodation was reasonable and the food extremely good. A buffet for breakfast and dinner, and choice. It was only when I became quite stressed at having to pick between six or seven vegetarian options that I realized I hadn’t actually chosen what to eat (except when cooking), for about six months! Imagine the kingdom of heaven but with less religious fundamentalists and more coffee.

The Day with Nice (r) Weather

The Day with Nice (r) Weather

SONY DSCThe ski area was small but fine for a quick weekend, and the snow was perfectly powdered. Sadly the weather was turned up to 11, as Spinal Tap might say. Being of sound body and doubtful mind I assumed it would just be fine to turn up without goggles or sunglasses. Needless to say, after an hour or so of -18, a howling wind, and a snowstorm, I felt pretty grim. What I do need to say is that MY EYES FROZE SHUT. Repeatedly. Sort of like conjunctivitis but less yucky and more brrr. Also slightly more dangerous whilst skiing at high speeds. My eyes would water in the wind and then suddenly wouldn’t open any more. I’d reach up and tug the little chunks off my eyelashes, then see again (briefly). In a very short amount of time I decided to swallow my pride, cough up my yen, and buy some shades…

Every time I visit an onsen (hot spring) I like it more. There’s something very evocative about thick steam, rays of afternoon light, and shambling naked men. The rotemburo (outside onsen)at our hotel  was particularly good, as you could sit toasty whilst your hair froze and your face got windburn. I incorrectly assumed the balcony to this outside bath was out of public view, promptly heard the giggles of some teenage girls,  and began walking much faster. A small boy slipped whilst getting in and grabbed my manhood to steady himself. I sat there, ashamed, feeling like the negative of a catholic priest. He didn’t even look at me afterwards! The shame! Onsen water doesn’t run hot enough. Ahem.

Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo Marathon

The weather brightened up on Sunday morning, half an hour before we had to leave, giving us some great views and making the slumps of snow on the trees glisten. The conditions were perfect, and I was sad to leave, and even sadder by the end of the journey home…

Go Pikachu, I Choose You!

Go Pikachu, I Choose You!

Nasu-San!!

Nasu-San!!

This weekend I watched a huge pulsating sweaty multi-coloured worm writhing and thrashing through the streets of Tokyo. No, I didn’t watch any number of Japanese films. It was the Tokyo marathon, and I went to see the poor bastards soaking through their lycra. I want to do a marathon soon, for the record. The streets were lined with spectators yelling “gambatte” (struggle on). There was a strangely (or appropriately, I guess) martial feel to the whole thing. Tens of thousands of people, endlessly stretching out in both directions, just sweating and panting and scraping onwards towards their goal. There was a large number of pikachus, a small number of AKB48, and one man who rather brilliantly decided to dress as an aubergine. The streets rang out with “nasu-san” as he ran by. Well done that man.

Oh, I nearly forgot. Saw this in a cafe a few weeks back. Just sat by his owner. Both minding there own business. The highs and lows of Tokyo…

CAT UNDER A BLANKET IN A CAFE IN A FLORAL SHIRT READING ABOUT DINOSAURSSSSSS

CAT UNDER A BLANKET IN A CAFE IN A FLORAL SHIRT READING ABOUT DINOSAURSSSSSS