New Nuclear Weapons?

Should the UK renew its nuclear deterrent? In short: no.

In long:

Currently, the UK has four submarines capable of carrying nuclear weapons, of which one is constantly on patrol. Submarines carry 40 warheads which can be loaded onto 16 missiles. These Trident missiles have an estimated range of 7,000 miles, meaning that you could park your submarine in the Mediterranean and nuke everywhere on Earth except Australia and Hawaii. Each missile can hold eight warheads, which can then be fired at separate targets within a certain (classified) radius. This is called a Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle, or MIRV. Each warhead has a destructive capability of around 100kt – or eight Hiroshimas, to use the now popular metric. So at any second the UK can incinerate almost any population with the destructive power of 128 Hiroshimas. Turn 40 megacities to ash. Scorch the Earth.

USA Peacekeeper MIRV

USA Peacekeeper MIRV

The UK government will shortly decide whether or not to update our nuclear deterrent by replacing the missiles used to deliver nuclear warheads. This will also marginally reduce our number of operationally active nuclear warheads to a paltry 120. Government papers explain the cost of these weapons and give two main arguments for keeping them:

1)      Everyone else is doing it

2)      Fear of the unknown

You will recognise the first argument from Primary school and dismiss it as childish. This post deals with the second. The papers also include pleasing doublethink such as “Renewing our minimum nuclear deterrent capability is fully consistent with all our international obligations. It is also consistent with our continuing commitment to work towards a safer world in which there is no requirement for nuclear weapons”, as well as chilling threats such as “We are now able to give an assurance that the UK will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties [sic] to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In giving this assurance, we emphasise the need for universal adherence to and compliance with the NPT, and note that this Strategic Defence and Security Review assurance would not apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations”. I will argue why I think these positions are incorrect, and that even if I am incorrect, that people deserve a fair choice over this issue.

Scalpels and Sledgehammers

Nuclear weapons are far too imprecise and expensive for effective military use. Tests at Bikini atoll (the swimsuit was named after the first explosion) demonstrated that huge fireballs, whether generated above or below the water, were remarkably ineffective at sinking ships. It took two atomic bombs to sink just 15 ships in 1946 (although nearby crews would also suffer heavy losses due to radiation). These ships were positioned in a formation tighter than any used in combat, so the damage caused would be even lower in a real world situation. Likewise formations of aircraft are widely spaced and would sustain limited damage from a huge explosion. Ground formations are denser, but if you were fighting an enemy with nuclear warheads would you let them ball up? Despite their enormous power, nuclear warheads produce a single sphere of destruction, and most spheres are overwhelmingly filled with empty space. For military use a series of small scale and accurately targeted explosions is far more effective (economically and tactically) than one big bomb. The only two types of viable targets for nuclear weapons are production centres and population centres, which are almost always the same thing: cities. The only cost-effective use of a nuclear weapon is a war crime.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima

MADness

The main argument given for having a preposterously large stockpile of war crimes on hand 24 hours a day is not to use them, but to deter other countries from attacking the UK. Looking around at the devastation that has plagued Northern Europe for the last half century, it is abundantly clear that we’ve needed it. In fact, I can’t think of any comparably developed countries that have been invaded anywhere in the last half century. Most of them don’t have nukes. The ridiculous nuclear arsenals maintained selfishly by a small number of states puts humanity at risk of what should be everyone’s deepest fear: nuclear war. I don’t think that nuclear war would make humans extinct, but it could easily destroy modern civilisation. Additionally, millions of innocent, conscious, feeling human beings would die wretched and terrified and screaming.

States which possess nuclear weapons are behaving in an incredibly childish way in a desperate bid to get or maintain authority. The ownership of these weapons is an implicit threat over the rest of the globe, used to further the agenda (s) of the nuclear states. Some Politics students may aseptically call it the purest form of state power, but I call it cowardice. Nuclear states are just the kids who bring a katana to school so that no one fucks with them. Unlike at school, these katana kids then joined a knife crime advocacy group to try and prevent other kids getting similar weapons. The greatest gift from the nuclear states to the rest of the world is the perfect definition of hypocrisy: Their joining the NPT. The NPT is supposed to work on the agreement that states without nuclear weapons will not develop them, in return for the states with nuclear weapons disarming. Despite signing the NPT the recognised nuclear states (USA, UK, Russia, China, France) are making no progress towards disarmament (see http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2013/06). So, given the sort of language we saw in the UK government’s own paper, it is really a group of nuclear bullies who have no intention of disarming trying to stop other states from getting them.  India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are not signatories of the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons. India’s response is a reasonable one: the NPT creates nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” by distinguishing between states which tested weapons before 1967 and those which tested them afterwards, for no logical reason. The abject failure of the nuclear states to uphold their end of the bargain makes it more understandable for other states to develop nuclear weapons, making the world a more dangerous place for everyone.

Don't be that girl UK

Don’t be that girl UK

Cost-Benefit Analysis for the UK

The question of whether we might ever have a situation in which using a nuclear weapon is the best and only option (possible scenarios outlined in my last post) is very difficult. Thankfully, that is not the pertinent question when it comes to deciding whether the UK should maintain a nuclear arsenal. The real question we have to answer, which is somewhat easier to answer but much more difficult to phrase, is this:

is

[X x P(X)]  + [Y x P(Y)]> [A x P(A)] + [B x P(B)]+[C x P(C)]

X = Benefit of using a morally correct nuke

P(X) = Probability of nuke use being morally correct and the only option

Y = Benefit of threatening other states with a nuke

P(Y) = Probability of other states being threatened

A = Cost of nuclear war

P(A) = The probability of nuclear war occurring if the UK owns nuclear weapons

B = The cost of a terrorist attack using stolen weaponry

P(B) = The probability of UK  nuclear weapons being stolen

C = Diplomatic cost with countries who disagree with the UK maintaining nuclear weapons

P(C) = Probability of countries resenting the UK’s maintenance of nuclear weapons

This a simple analysis pits the benefits of owning nuclear weapons to the UK multiplied by their probabilities versus the potential costs to the UK multiplied by their probabilities. If the left hand side is larger than the right hand side, we should keep nuclear weapons, and if not, we shouldn’t. It is reasonable to think that A>X, as nuclear war is pretty much the worst thing imaginable. Also, P(A) is probably larger than P(X): in the last 50 years we have had a number of near scrapes with nuclear war (the Cuban missile crisis, a false alarm in 1983, and a misidentified scientific rocket in 1995 are probably the closest) – although these incidents concerned the USA and Russia,  they demonstrate that all that stands between us and nuclear war is a couple of accidents. Accidents do happen and have happened, repeatedly. I cannot think of any examples of 20th century history (or world history, for that matter) in which the use of a nuclear bomb would have been both morally correct (see https://gaijinsgrumblings.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/hiroshima-or-how-i-learned-to-loathe-the-bomb/ for my take on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and the only option.

The other terms in this equation are more difficult to evaluate. Threatening the use of nuclear weapons is of course illegal, but ignoring international law is easy and you don’t have to specifically threaten someone with your katana, just for them to feel threatened when you see it on your hip. Terrorist threats are very unpredictable, but the UK’s woeful record of safety using other nuclear materials does not fill you with confidence. So sadly we cannot answer this question satisfactorily with simple logic. In my opinion, nuclear war has the potential to be so damaging that it completely overbalances the left hand side, even without considering terrorist threats. There is a certain public goods game feel to this equation, and it is tempting to think that maybe states stay nuclear as they reap selfish benefits whilst everyone shares the cost of possible nuclear war. It is important to remember that in the event of a nuclear conflict our possession of nuclear weapons would make us a target. If America and Russia began fighting, where do you think Moscow would aim next?

(here)

(here)

The Right to Choose

For me, the unfathomable human suffering caused by nuclear weapons, and the just all-round shittiness of holding them to threaten everyone else is enough to persuade me that the UK should not renew its nuclear deterrent, but this is only my opinion. There is also the logical argument, which is not clear-cut, but I think still suggests that holding nuclear weapons is actually more dangerous than giving them up. However, this is a controversial issue and (many) people may disagree with me to varying degrees.

This got me thinking about democracy. This in turn led to the sad realisation that the key determinants for most voters are party loyalties and policies which are short term and have immediate effect upon them personally. Taxes, planning permission, benefits, education, hospital care, etc. Something as abstract and unimaginable as our apocalyptic nuclear arsenal is a footnote at best when competing with other issues. Sadly, western ‘democracy’ means that we only get to choose a certain formula of policies that are decided by political parties, rather than on policies individually – despite the fact we could do this easily. This means that many people who don’t actually want a nuclear deterrent can indirectly vote for one. For instance, a pensioner might (understandably) prioritise whether or not they can afford heating for another year over whether or not we own nuclear weapons. At the next election I would like to vote against updating our nuclear deterrent. That means I won’t vote Conservative, and Labour are still deciding their stance, which only leaves the Liberal Democrats. Having recently been a student, I’m contractually obliged to desire punishment of the Libdems, and so am left in a pickle. What if a Conservative supporter doesn’t agree with updating our nuclear arsenal? Vote Libdem?

If only it could be heard

If only it could be heard

The question of whether our country should maintain a large number of devastating weapons is a very important one, and now is the perfect time to ask it. Morally, it dictates if our country is to become much more capable of committing great evils than acts of good. Financially, it is extremely expensive, at an initial cost of £25-30 billion and a lifetime cost of £100 billion. £100 billion does not include renewing the warheads, which will come around 2020-30. Critically, we are at the right time (the arsenal apparently needs updating) to decide whether to maintain these weapons. After we have sunk the initial £25 billion into updating the weapons it will be a lot more difficult to justify getting rid of them (blame psychology). Initially, I thought that the best outcome would be for Labour to decide to abolish our nuclear deterrent, storm the next election, and finally the UK could grow up a little. Now, I think that the best outcome would be a simple referendum. The AV referendum cost £75 million, which is expensive. However, if a nuclear weapons referendum cost a similar amount (though if we have an EU referendum you could have it for almost free) this would still only be 0.075% of the financial price of our nuclear deterrent. This issue is important enough and expensive enough for the citizens of the UK to decide, rather than the political class who do such a bad job of ruling them. I have absolute faith that we, collectively, would make the right decision. If not, I could emigrate.

I would be so proud if the UK became the second country on earth to renounce nuclear weapons, and avoid being the Nth country to use them.

Referendum Question

I would suggest a referendum be attached to the EU referendum, if it occurs, to save money, and be worded thus:

“The UK should update its nuclear deterrent at a lifetime cost of around £100 billion: Agree/Disagree

Additionally, if the UK does not update its nuclear deterrent would you prefer?

A) Maintaining the aging weapons we have

B) Total nuclear disarmament”

This wording avoids splitting the vote of those who want complete abolition and those who wish to maintain the weapons without updating them.

What You Can Do

Petition for disarmament: http://www.cnduk.org/campaigns/no-to-trident/scrap-trident-petition

Petition for a referendum: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/40986

Pressure labour policy makers: http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/agenda-2015/policy-commissions/britain-global-role-policy-commission/scrap-trident-replacement-support-negotiations-for-nuclear-weapons-convention

Ask your local mayor to join Mayors for Peace: http://www.mayorsforpeace.org/english/index.html

Spread the word.

Links:

Close shaves: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Arkhipov

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norwegian_rocket_incident

2010 report on defence: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/62482/strategic-defence-security-review.pdf

2006 White Paper on our nuclear deterrent: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/27378/DefenceWhitePaper2006_Cm6994.pdf

Public Opinion Polls: http://www.cnduk.org/about/item/399

Political polls almost always have small sample sizes and methodological errors. Regardless, it is worth pointing out polls of UK public opinion consistently show opposition to nuclear weapons (I know this list is from the biased CND, but could find no reviews in favour through google…let me know if you do)

Other things to do with £100 billion: http://www.cnduk.org/scraptrident/

Yes Minister on nuclear weapons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX_d_vMKswE

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.

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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

Welcome to the Jungle

The Okinawan and Me

The Bug Catcher from the Pokemon Games…

Yakushima is a sub-tropical rainforest clinging to a volcanic island, with 10 times the rainfall of the rainiest place in the UK. The ferry is eerie and empty; we sit in the corner booth of a deserted coffee shop. The ofuro is empty, the noodle bar closed. We lie on the deck in the sunshine and read David Copperfield, hoping to see a whale and muttering about how little wildlife there is compared to the Scottish islands. Towards the end of our quiet voyage, we are disturbed by a portly fellow from Okinawa. A wide-brimmed hat sat on top of his heavily tanned head, and jiggled slightly when he spoke, which together with his slightly bottom-heavy appearance, gave the faint impression of one of those toy clowns that you can’t push over. He had helped us out at the ferry ticket booth back in Kagoshima, so we got up and he pointed out to us the outline of Yakushima against a thin sea mist. While the island draws closer, we chat, and find that the Okinawan is an entomologist at Ryukyu University, tracking the spread of an invasive ant species through the Southern Islands. Promptly, he disappears, and returns with a textbook on ants and a small jar of formaldehyde (in a breast pocket) containing the species in question. Soon, the nearer ridges of the island darken, whilst the valleys remain steeped in mist. It’s a little bit like the opening island shots in any of the Jurassic Park Films.

SONY DSCWe ask the Okinawan about what is essentially an American occupation of Okinawa, and he is reasonably balanced, disliking the noise and crime that they bring, but aware that around half of the island’s economy is based around the US military. The Americana that has followed them to Okinawa (drive-ins, malls, and diners) apparently draws tourists from the Japanese mainland. We ask what he would recommend seeing in Okinawa, and he recommends staying away from the bases and seeing the less spoiled North, where you can see remnants of the Ryukyu kingdom. There is a street that he warns about visiting repeatedly, explaining that it is nice during the daytime but that there are regularly guns fired by US servicemen at night, without telling us what town it’s in. He tells us that with all the construction for the military bases their reefs were destroyed. I feel a strange mix of anger and shame when I hear that.

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We arrive in blazing sunshine, hire camping gear, and take a bus to the island interior. A winding mountain road lifts us further away from the coast, and we are the only people on the bus. Outside we see gnarled Cryptomeria, occasional explosions of cherry blossom, and the radioactive green of new beech leaves. The forest suddenly envelopes the road; we see sika deer and Japanese macaques at the side of the road, and right on cue the national park sign. We begin hiking through the jungle, which is fairly dense but has astonishingly maintained plank footpaths. Even here the Japanese have beat back the wilderness. Despite my initial instinctive scorn at this ‘mollycoddling’, I was soon thankful for it, as hiking in a jungle is insanely tiring. 4km is quite tough, rather than a stroll. We take a detour to see Yayoi sugi, an ancient Japanese cedar. The sugis are given names if they are over 2000 years old, and there are around 100 named sugis on Yakushima (plus doubtless some undiscovered ones). It is amazing to look at a living thing that was here, waiting, in this exact spot, while Rome rose and fell. That they have stood here, indifferent, through all the triviality and gore of human history. That they were 1000 or so when Genghis Khan sent the Middle East back to the dark ages (it never really recovered). Their forms are twisted, their bark is sagging, and their trunks are mostly hollow. Their gnarled, dead white limbs poke up out of the forest, like broken fingers. Finally I understand what bonsai are trying to imitate. The ancients.

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SONY DSCWe walk through streams and trees, and startle a deer before reaching the mountain hut where we are staying. The only other inhabitant is a crouched Japanese man, stoking up an illegal fire and rubbing his hands together. We dine on stale garlic bread, bananas, and peanuts, then sleep, serenaded by our companion’s sonorous snores. At 6am we are awoken by keen hikers, eat yoghurt with muesli, and begin waterproofing: it is raining domestic mammals out there. The forests of Yakushima are almost monochrome; everywhere is green. Bornean rainforest feels almost like a cathedral, with a high ceiling, huge straight pillars, and a drab understory of logs/pews. The trees in Yakushima are gnarled, twisted, and low. The higher light levels and high humidity allows moss to cover absolutely everything. Boulders and roots alike are felted with emerald green, until it becomes unusual to see the grey of stone, or the brown of wood. Wood itself does not seem to be quite solid. It behaves like a viscous organic sludge, rippling in every direction, and dripping off the huge rocks that litter the mountainsides. You can almost see the forest sliding chaotically down the hill, branches colliding in slow motion. Princess Mononoke was set here, and Yakushima has the same timeless feel, and used to have the logging.

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Kodama

Manic Fear

Manic Fear

Rain in a rainforest is a completely different creature. It begins suddenly, and gets so hard that the air becomes a strange grey with the amount of water falling through it. You have to laugh as it sort of pours down over you, and fills the air with loud low hiss. The saying in Yakushima is that it rains 35 days a month. We have brought umbrellas (hiking in the rain with an umbrella is strangely comforting, I promise), and weave them awkwardly through the tight forest, very thankful that our faces are dry. A tattered and soggy map is lying in the mud, which we pocket. Soon the path has turned into a small river, but we are headed upwards so think that we will be safe up there. Three-quarters of the way up, the lightening starts. Thunder booms through the thick air, huge and hollow. It is the loudest storm of my life. We stride onwards, faces lit periodically white, counting the delay between light and sound. The noise and speed of the thunder increases, until I feel like we’re in ‘nam. A signpost to Taikoiwa rock points left, and we head for the viewpoint. The gradient is enormous, and it is dark, like early night, at 9am. There is an animalistic joy in struggling, scared, through the forest. We put our umbrellas down at the rock, and I walk out to see thick air and flashes and the ghosts of ridges in the distance and the sudden realisation that I am the highest thing in a very wide radius. One photo for posterity and I run back, terrified.

The View fomr the Lightening Rock

The View fomr the Lightening Rock

There is a tremendous sound, a high jagged ripping sound that is devastated by the thunderclap, which seems to shake up from below. We plunge back through the forest, descending with the water, and wondering how far you need to be from a tree that’s struck by lightning.

Rogue Flower

Rogue Flower

Rain

Rain

Walking along the lower trail, we see a thin Japanese man in a bandana and a purple wind breaker haring towards us. After making the snap judgement that he doesn’t still think that the war is on, we stay put and he tells us pantingly (in Japanese) that he has lost his map. Me and Lune exchange glances, and we give him the fragments of his map back, as well as a new one (we brought spares). He thanks us and we munch peanuts to give him a bit of a head start, to avoid that awkward side by side race-but-not-a-race feeling. Presently, he returns, and tells us that he is scared, and asks if he can come with us. You probably have to live in Japan for a little bit to understand quite how unusual this is. Imagine a British person walking up to you in the middle of the countryside and asking (to walk with you, but let’s exaggerate) move in with you. We say that we are scared too, and agree, exchanging peanuts as a sign of our bond. The stream alongside is now a roaring river, and the rain keeps on falling, while the sky keeps splitting. We see a boulder the size of a house with a small hollow beneath it, and crouch in there, feeling safe for the first time in a while. Our new companion, Tsubasu-san, is on holiday, and works in a bagel shop in Tokyo. Our voices are thin and excited as the world outside rages, and I feel safe with tonnes of damp grey stone above me. A return to the hut is discussed, as the path looks like it may be impassable further on, but we wait a while and the rain starts to slow. Emerging, we descend clumsily through the still heavy rain, and see two guys heading in the opposite direction. I assume they couldn’t get through, but they have come from our destination and this encourages us to carry on. By this point, Tsubasu-san has distinguished himself as a singularly fast and maladroit hiker, who must lead the group. We are happy to follow through the puddles and branches, pointing out the pink electrical tape that marks the trail the couple of times he tries to lead us into the uncharted jungle. We both blocked out this section of the hike a little, but I do remember that it was a miserable trudge.

Water

Water

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

Sumo and Spa Towns

Taiko Tower

Taiko Tower

Watching sumo is like watching cargo trains crash, except the trains are made of flesh and covered with silk nappies rather than industrial waterproof paint. It is a rather unusual choice of national sport, being rather more religious than most sports, slightly more violent than a small number of religions, and far less popular than baseball. Nevertheless, it’s something you have to see whilst in Japan. As a result, me and Lune are stood, rubbing our hands and stamping our feet, at 7 30am on a Saturday morning, waiting for the cheap seats to go on sale. A taiko drummer in a tragically thin yukata pounds out a rhythm from the top of a wooden tower in honour of the coming fights. The arena is a huge rhombus balanced on its point, with the ring (dohyo) at the base, the back row of seating at its wide waist, and a seemingly needless void above that. We snacked and slept on the back row, which wasn’t as far from the ring as I’d feared. The half of the seating closest to the ring is made up of boxes, with tea and cushions for kneeling, the rest are comfortable folding seats, like those in an old theatre.

Flab and Flexibility

Flab and Flexibility

Stretching Off

Stretching Off

Bouts begin with the fighters (rikishi), climbing up onto the raised clay podium which contains the ring. This clay is dried and looks about as soft as concrete. The referee, dressed in a ceremonial kimono in the style of the Kamakura period, holds a spread fan in front of him and announces the fighters from each corner (East and West) in a wailing song, somewhat like a call to prayer. The rikishi stomp (to drive out spirits) in the corners: those who are slightly built manage to swing their legs up into the splits, while the largest fighters only manage to swing bent legs up to knee height. In higher divisions the fighters spread salt over the ring to purify it, returning multiple times in order to psyche out their opponents. This pre-match period can take up to four minutes, far longer than any bout. When ready, the wrestlers face each other, and raise and lower their fists to the ground. When all four fists are touching the ground, the bout begins, so there is an advantage to be gained by tricking your opponent. The fists swing slowly, flutter, then punch the ground.

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Stadium

Stadium

The wrestlers explode forwards and upwards, meeting with a slap then wrenching, driving, and slapping some more. Most bouts are done in about ten seconds, and often end with a fighter hitting the clay hard or being ejected from the platform entirely. In this case those kneeling in the front rows have to move fast or suffer embarrassing eulogies at their funerals. The most common techniques, slapping, driving and thrusting, are very common, but there are occasional moments of balletic grace that stand out. My favourite was a small rikishi who was having his right elbow forced under his body, twisting his torso clockwise. When he was about to be flipped round, his right knee bent, dropping his weight, and his right arm snapped straight, delivering a karate chop to his opponents left foot, and knocking him splay-legged to the floor. There was also amusement when wrestlers showed individuality. A second division fighter beat his chest and roared at the crowd, whilst another grabbed a huge handful of salt, and the crowd began cheering louder and louder in anticipation, cheering wildly as he unleashed a white wave across the ring and the spectators. The yokozuna (top rank) Haramafuji performed a slow motion press-up on his fists to great acclaim. He also won the tournament that day (the second last one). We had notice throughout the day that the hugest sumo were too slow and too weak (relatively speaking) to be effective, which is a little surprising given the stereotype. Haramafuji is also the lightest fighter in the top division, at a feather-like 120kgs…

Hakuho Wins a Bout

Hakuho Wins a Bout

Kusatsu is a typical alpine town that seems lost, dropped in Japan rather than Switzerland. Log cabins with snowy sloping roves jostle with those ugly multi-storey hotels which spring up everywhere. Ski-hire shops are still manned by smoking youths with long hair and low trousers. It was popularized by a German who was impressed by the quality of the hot springs, hence the continental influence. My boss (K, just like in MIB) has a holiday home in the mountains nearby, and kindly invited me and Lune to visit just after new year. We took a coach from Tokyo station and had candied sweet potatoes for lunch, which are delicious but a bit too sweet. Winding north on the mountain roads we could see an alien green river below and freakishly steep slopes above. Skeletal trees were somehow managing to keep hold, but the snow couldn’t settle on such steep ground, leaving the hills bristling and lightly dusted with white. Kusatsu is a spa town which produces copious amounts of boiling water, courtesy of the huge volcano nearby. We were reassured to hear that the last major eruption was only 30 years ago. In Yudanaka the sides of the streets had spa water running underneath them to prevent the footpaths freezing, but here there is enough hot water to de-ice all the roads in town, all year round, plus fill over 100 onsen. It also has the first ‘singing road’ that I have ever experienced: strips cut into the road at variable distances produce the town anthem if you drive at the speed limit. The sound was strangely haunting, and reminded me of an echoing organ.

Snowy Mountains

Snowy Mountains

The water emerges in the centre of town at about 99 degrees, belches steam, and runs down wooden boxes which are used to extract sulphur to sell as bath salts. People took photos in front of the backlit steam, while a community minded chap held a silvered reflector for all the people having their photo taken. Onsen are immensely popular in Japan. To illustrate, here is a conversation I had with a (Japanese) friend in Shinjuku a few months back:

‘What do you recommend that I do while in Japan?’

‘You should do onsen! Very Japanese, very relaxing’

‘Cool, and where should I go in Japan?’

‘You should go to Beppu, it has very many onsen’

‘OK, and what do you like doing in your spare time?’

‘ahhh, my favourite is onsen’ *grins*’

So Lune and I headed off to the onsen to bathe with K and her family. Sexes are segregated, so K2 and I (K’s husband) sat outside in a sulphurous pool with our heads cool and our bodies too hot. The locals sit silently, eyes closed, with towels on their heads, folded into neat squares. The water is pH 2, so if you feel a nibbling on your skin you should get out and shower. This is what being dissolved feels like. Although unnerving, the chemical exfoliation leaves you with pleasantly smooth skin.

Their house is a fusion of Japan and European alpine, with a tall pine living room/kitchen, with tatami bedrooms leading off it. We entertained ourselves by playing Uno and Othello with their kids. I was beaten about 10 times in a row by their adorable five year old son. There’s something humbling about taking a minute and careful thought over each move, only to have your opponent briefly stop running around/making faces/playing, glance at the board, and make the move you should have blocked. Later, we saw their daughter practicing Karuta. In this game you must identify one of 100 poems as they are read out, and grab the corresponding card faster than your opponent. Those without formidable memories need not apply.

The temperature was around -15 the first night, so we woke up with ice inside the windows and no water; the pipes had frozen. Thankfully the plumber came to sort it out that day. The view from their balcony is brilliant, with crumpled forest stretching down to a wide plain, above which stands the slightly ominous volcano.

Pro Skier

Pro Skier

Lune learnt to ski very rapidly, and had done a stretch of red by the end of her first morning, albeit mainly due to the design of the park. She rapidly picked up the most essential element of skiing: a fervent hatred of snowboarders. Soon enough, the stuttering scrape of an incoming board stimulated hunched shoulders, bunched fists, and a hiss of “douches”. There is only so much you can teach a Scot, so by the end of the day tempers were frayed slightly, and I was compelled to use a more distant teaching approach…

Kanji, Can't She?

Kanji, Can’t She?

K suggested we paint a new year kanji, which is similar to making a resolution except it’s much prettier and stays on your wall (if not in your mind) all year. Lune chose ‘flight’, while I went for ‘power movement’ (exercise). The lovely kanji kit made me nervous about making mistakes, but I enjoyed the painting, felt very Japanese, and ended up with a good souvenir. We then went sledging on the nearby golf course, laughing and falling and running up hills. All too soon we were getting the bus back and thinking about work the next day. I think I’ve written enough this week, but next week there will be a picture of a cat reading a dinosaur book. I promise.

Zoom Zoom Zoom

Zoom Zoom Zoom

Catching up at Christmas

Do not fear. The cultural impoverishment of our age is drawing to a close. I’m back to the blog. In the past month I’ve been spending most of my time fretting over what to do with my life, writing PhD applications, and feverishly checking them for a spelling mistake Word has not deigned to pick up. Then there were some interviews to prepare for. What I didn’t prepare for was my internet failing 3 minutes into my first interview, resulting in the rest of the interview being a 40 minute international phone call. Explaining the diagrams on the example paper was tricky (no, they changed the interview structure rather than made me suffer that).

The experiences I’ve enjoyed over the past month or so will be sprinkled lightly over future posts to avoid me having to write a novella this week. I recently finished Moby Dick (then the Hunger Games for something lighter, shoot me), which is very enjoyable tale of adventure and obsession (after a slow start). It is fascinating for both answering many questions you never knew you had about 19th century whaling, and for its ubiquitous and potent homo-eroticism, which seems to be present for no other reason than to give you small bouts of giggles whilst reading on buses. Apologies to my snoozing fellow commuters. I also visited the world’s busiest fish market, Tsukiji, and so will describe it in my attempt at an imitation of Herman Melville.

My first new lens

My first new lens

Turret Car

Call me Ishmael. There comes a time in the hearts of most men, upon reaching a certain age, when they suffer a heartfelt yearning for the unknown. To extirpate this ailment, I left without notice at daybreak with a heavy heart and a light pack, and get on a train. The pink flesh of dawn rattles before me as I stare outwards with eyes glazed and bleary. Soon I am perambulating wearily towards Tsukiji. A woman picks up a half-smoked cigarette from the street with chopsticks and lights it. I walk on in broken step, dodging the swarm of turret cars, manned by savages in bandanas, which buzz around the market site. Holding my breath and a nosegay, avoiding a trolley of heads, which substitute for Cerberus, I step hesitantly into the floor.

Poor Eels

Poor Eels

Woodblock Tuna

Woodblock Tuna

Everywhere is noise, blood, and the senseless twitches of dying things. Octopus tentacles clutch upwards, like a final salute to the kraken, before freezing at the – crunch – of a heavy cleaver, and then writhe anew in death. Eels gasp for breath in the blood of their broodmates. Tuna, with sheen of frost and hollow eyes, are sliced like so many logs at the band saw. Oh! For the gentle sights of a charnel house, for the purity of Gomorrah. Never before have the eyes of man been besmirched as within this temple of gore. The labourers, nay, evince pity rather than disgust, for such torturous work can only torture the souls of those who perform it. Sisyphus, in his daily toil, never had to push so vile a load as this. The arcane tongues of the east battle the omnipresent flopping, chopping, sawing until all that remains is the cacophony of hell itself. I long for Queequeg’s manly embrace, for his stolid arms to cover my ears, his musk to fill my nostrils. When it occurs to me that I could be capturing sweet, pearlescent sperm on the nearest whaler, I turn tail. Polystyrene chasms, dripping ice and scales, wend and warp before me, labyrinthine and endless. Handsome smoking sailors moodily puff as I stagger on towards redemption. As Jesus emerged from the desert, so did I from Tsukiji; sweating, tired, and with few designs on returning.

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

My brother (and Darth Sidious) looks forward to sushi

Now that I’ve eliminated most of my readership, I can get on with writing normally about recent happenings (difficult beginning, like Moby Dick). Thankfully, my family decided to come out to Japan for Christmas, so I was very happy to see them and avoid a possibly quite lonely Christmas day (just me and Lune). Their plane arrived at 5am, and to welcome/punish them I took them straight to the aforementioned Tsukiji (after meeting them late by accidentally sleeping in, possibly due to an end of the world party at Pele’s the night before). It was dismal weather and we were happy to get into a sushi bar and out of the rain. The menu choice for veggies (me, Lune and my sister) was limited but present, and I think the carnivores enjoyed the freshest fish in Tokyo. Sushi bars feel a little austere, mainly because the chef stands above you, silently, watching you eat. Especially as a westerner new to the etiquette of sushi (not to mention my family’s colossal ineptitude with chopsticks) this can be a little off-putting. He was very kind, and even lifted out one of his live shrimps when he saw us gawping at it). After a quick soak in the blood of the market, it was time to move on.

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

This shrimp is staring into the abyss

Culture Vulture

Culture Vulture

We changed plans due to weather and headed to the National museum at Ueno, which is filled with a huge variety of Japanese antiques, highlights were the samurai armour and the zen paintings. This all passed the family by as jet-lag was beginning to take hold; me and Lune found various members of the family slumbering on different horizontal surfaces throughout the museum. They needed pepping up, so for lunch I took them to my favourite okonomiyaki (thick unhealthy cabbage omelettes with various fillings that you cook at your table by hot plate) place in Harujuku. Having found this place by chance while lost, I had thought it was my secret gem of Harujuku, but sadly everyone very soon found it recommended in their guidebooks (it’s Sakuratei in case anyone’s in Tokyo). This place also warmed us up with gas fire under the table. My little brother created the okonomiyaki equivalent of the Sistine chapel, and we moved on. Finally to the Tokyo metropolitan building, with free views of Tokyo at sunset (Fuji was resplendent but my camera died), where my sister broke and began sleeping on the floor. People shot her concerned glances as they passed.

SONY DSC

The emperor’s birthday is the 23rd of December, and is one of only two days per year when you can enter the inner grounds of the imperial palace. The outer grounds are lovely gardens, so I thought this would be a good and fairly unique experience for them. After a reasonable queue and two security checks, we shuffled past plain clothes agents with earpieces into the grounds. First we squeezed up to a long line of desks to sign the emperor’s birthday card, and then strolled on to enjoy the…exit? Immediately we found we were back out of the inner grounds, and seemingly the only views permitted are a small avenue of trees, then the large square of tarmac for signing the card. A bit of an anti-climax, but we went to the main grounds afterwards to give them their Japanese garden/castle wall fix.

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Sister finds blossom, joy ensues

Guiding your family around a foreign country is sort of like having kids, except they aren’t cute and you can’t solve every problem by producing a drumstick lolly. It was good for mine and Lune’s Japanese to act as their interpreters throughout, but at times their expectations were a little above what we Japanese noobs could handle. The highlights were comments from my dad to the tune of

“so we’re not going to try and translate this kanji then?”

No, we are not. There are thousands of kanji. We (especially me) know very few of them. You cannot translate them by looking harder like Simba at a storm cloud. NOTE: I am very glad that my family came.

Shinkansen!

Shinkansen!

We headed to Yudanaka, an onsen (hot spring) town North-West of Tokyo via shinkansen, the speed of which wowed my family. Not quite as much as the rotating train seats, but nearly. The second train was a private rail company who had had the excellent idea (although it is in the Hunger Games as well) of putting a panoramic wraparound window at the front of the train with the drivers sitting up top. We wound our way slowly into the hills, through suburbs, orchards, and increasingly white rice fields. The Japanese hotel (a ryokan) which we stayed at was lovely. Rooms contained rice mats, sliding paper doors, and yukatas (light Japanese kimonos). I was proud that we were the only family sporting them at breakfast. Upon arrival the proprietor suggested we drop everything and head to the onsen for sunset. We (just) got over our English prudishness, piled into a car, and whizzed at breakneck speed across the valley.

Soon we were naked, gently broiling in the manner of lobsters, and looking out at the twinkling electric lights below. We had missed the sunset but the view was good enough. The nakedness wasn’t really apparent due to the billowing clouds of water vapour rolling up off the hot water. The men’s half made me think of gorillas in the mist. Sitting in a volcanic spring as your hair freezes and snow wafts down from above is a pleasure similar to the feeling you get when listening to rain hiss on a tent roof from the safety of your sleeping bag. A Japanese man was obviously sick of his tent, so jumped out the pool and rolled in the snow, shouting and laughing. He returned quickly. Me and my brother had a cold shower afterwards, because I thought it was a custom. It’s not.

Pick me! Pick me!

Pick me! Pick me!

The main attraction of Yudanaka is its Japanese macaques, the northernmost primates in the world (excluding us of course).They scamper about the snow, looking exceedingly cute, as monkeys tend to when they’re not snatching your lunch. Thankfully these ones had the charming habit of ignoring humans completely, letting you get close without worrying for your safety. I felt sorry for a monkey who was being repeatedly flashed (camera) by a Japanese man with and exceedingly long (camera) lens. The adorable epicentre of this park is the onsen where the monkeys go to warm up. David Attenborough did a feature on the pools once, and if I remember correctly the position one holds in a pool is decided by the highness of your birth (just like the UK then). However, the pool tourists are allowed to visit is artificially maintained, so that may not apply. There was one very large and angry male who went ballistic at a baby monkey who presumably, in the parlance of Carlisle, ‘looked at him funny’. It made a wonderful Christmas morning. On the snowy walk back through the conifers me and my brother tried to use snowballs to dislodge snow from the trees onto our parents.

SONY DSC

Christmas dinner was a Chinese, where the staff were very nice, but didn’t quite understand vegetarians. We assured them that tomato ketchup was fine. In the next few days me and Lune went back to the monkeys (I wanted to take more photos), we caught up with the family at a Hokusai museum (who created that Japanese print with the waves, and perhaps more importantly the pokemon Ho-oh) to find my brother sleeping again, and drunk lots at a sake brewery. Next was a quick stop in Matsumoto to admire the castle, then onwards to Kyoto, except for my sister who left to go to a new year’s party at this point. I hope it was good. I’ll talk about my autumn trip to Kyoto more in a future post. This time we saw Kinkakuji, which has a pavilion covered in gold, and Sajusangendo, which has 1000 life-size Buddha statues from the 12th century, again painted in gold. Kyoto has a wide variety of unbelievably good things to see, but we were pressed for time. Izakaya (sort of like an Asian tapas bar) are quintessentially Japanese, so we had dinner at one. The waiter said “chotto sumimasen, gaijin desu” as we entered to the only other customer, who was steaming like an onsen. This translates as “sorry, it’s foreigners”.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

I have more from this trip, but will leave it for next week as the post is LOOOOONG enough already. I recently bought Shogun 2: Total War so currently enjoy sipping sake whilst conquering Japan in the evenings.