Written by Jason Kerr
Christopher Nolan’s biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer—the scientist credited with the invention of the atom bomb—raked in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office this summer. The three-hour film told the tragic story of Oppenheimer’s life before and after the A-bomb, but not without controversy. Although Oppenheimer primarily focuses on the physicist and his own perspective of history, the film has faced some criticism for neglecting to show on screen the act of the U.S. dropping atom bombs on Japan and almost completely avoiding the mention of the consequent suffering and few hundred thousand casualties. Japanese expressed outrage on social media and exacted an apology from Warner Brothers after the entertainment company made posts playing into the “Barbenheimer” meme that encouraged fans to watch both the comparably pink and cheery Barbie and the apocalyptic Oppenheimer on the same day. Japan didn’t ban Oppenheimer—but as of writing the primary company that releases Hollywood films in the country has set no date for its release.
Given what Oppenheimer chose not to display and with how many millions of Americans watched the film, as someone who studies history I thought that I should shed light on a period that I perceive as not as well-known: the aftermath of the Second World War’s conclusion in the Pacific. What happened in Europe is familiar. The Allies defeated Nazi Germany and liberated those within their horrifying captivity. The United States began to rebuild much of Europe with the Marshall Plan all while the stage was being set for the Cold War against the Soviet Union. However—at least from what I can tell—knowledge of the events in the Pacific and specifically Japan is less widespread.
The U.S. deployed devastating A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August 1945 respectively, and on the 9th the Soviet Union declared war and quickly launched an attack on Japan’s imperial territory of Manchukuo (Manchuria) in China. The Japanese emperor Hirohito went on the radio less than a week later and addressed his subjects in a centuries-old Classical Japanese speech—comparable to if the president made an announcement in Shakespearean English, or perhaps an even older form of the language. Hirohito characterized Japan’s conquests as necessary for freeing Asia from Western colonization but then admitted his country’s war effort was unsustainable in the face of a “…new and most cruel bomb…” that could “…lead to the total extinction of human civilization.” The archaic wording—combined with the fact that Hirohito never uttered the word “surrender” in his address and only vaguely stated that Japan would accept the Allies’ terms that they had decreed at Potsdam—caused confusion for millions of Japanese who had prepared themselves to either win or die and had just heard the voice of their supposedly divine ruler for the first time.
If what had happened wasn’t clear to most yet, it certainly was by the time the surrender ceremony and ensuing events occurred. Japanese officials boarded a U.S. battleship on September 2nd and signed an unconditional surrender against the backdrop of an American flag that Commodore Matthew Perry had brought to Japan in 1853 when he forced the country open for trade. The Allies all occupied Japan but the United States took by far the greatest administrative role. The victors set up the office of the “Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers” (SCAP) and Truman selected General Douglas MacArthur for the job. MacArthur took unfettered authority of the occupation and described his position as “absolute control over almost 80-million people.”
Over the next few years, the U.S. worked to end Japan’s ultranationalist and militaristic society but ultimately failed to prosecute many in the imperial government. MacArthur demoted Hirohito from his divine status but stressed that a complete end to the monarchy or the U.S. punishing him would result in extreme outrage from millions of Japanese. The U.S. instead used Hirohito as a uniting force for the citizens devastated by the defeat and occupation, parading him around to public appearances. He was exempted from the military tribunal for war crimes and stayed emperor until his death 1989—his grandson Naruhito ascended to the throne in 2019. The Tokyo War Crimes Trial did sentence some ministers and generals for their atrocities, but not nearly all of them. For example, Kishi Nobusuke presided over the structure of Japan’s brutal rule of Manchuria but only went to jail briefly before entering politics with the end of U.S. occupation and becoming the prime minister. He also participated in the dedication of a shrine honoring executed war criminals in 1960 and helped found Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that still dominates politics there. Kishi’s grandson Abe Shinzo was president of the LDP for many years and served the longest term as prime minister in Japanese history from 2012–2020.
MacArthur and his retinue did create a new constitution for the country that has seen no amendments to this day. One article of the document explicitly forbids Japan from engaging in offensive wars or maintaining forces whether land, air, or sea. The government retains the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF)—but the LDP has sought to redefine “self-defense” to include fighting abroad on behalf of attacked allies. The constitution includes guarantees to equality under the law and prohibits discrimination, largely thanks to a then 22-year-old Jewish-American woman named Beate Sirota who had served as a translator. But laws against maligning the imperial household still exist, and the U.S. forbade criticism of the SCAP and prevented images of the atomic bombs’ destruction from circulating during its occupation.
The United States and Japan signed two more treaties—collectively known as “Anpo”—in 1951 to end the occupation. Japan officially relinquished the remaining parts of its empire (although it was permitted to keep some of its nineteenth-century gains like the large northern island of Hokkaido), but the U.S. retained the right to own military bases all over the country and held jurisdiction over its airspace. American forces controlled Okinawa for nearly twenty years after the treaty and still maintain a large presence there and on other Japanese islands today. During the next few postwar decades, the United States greatly valued Japan as somewhat of a staging ground and projection of power into Asia amidst the Cold War and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Scores of students and other citizens unhappy with the enduring U.S. military presence voiced their opinions in a series of significant protests. They most feared a nuclear war close to or involving them considering the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as the conflicts in Asia. Another incident saw an American hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll give radiation poisoning to all the crew members of a Japanese fishing boat; consumers became convinced that their fish had been radiated due to U.S. nuclear tests in the Pacific.
Soon enough Japan became similar to how we think of it now once it had a miraculous economic boom—but not before having a tempestuous postwar history that saw its sovereignty diminished during an occupation period that still has clear consequences today. In Asia as in Europe, the United States utilized its power after WWII to heavily influence the world order. MacArthur ruled Japan by fiat, prosecuted only some of its war criminals, created a liberal constitution banning offensive war, and permitted the American military to establish many bases there. The historical relationship Japan has had with the U.S. and as a victim of nuclear weapons (along with other incidents such as the 2011 Fukushima disaster) make the nation quite unique. Although Oppenheimer pointedly addresses the physicist’s own internal suffering, it only implies the destruction the A-bombs wreaked and less Americans are aware of what happened in the postwar Pacific compared to Europe.