Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

Japan – Honshu II

– second part of my visit to Japan in September/October 2015 –


If you love temples, Kyoto is for you. The city was chosen as the seat of Japan’s imperial court in 794 and remained in that position for eleven centuries until 1869. The city was arranged in accordance to traditional Chinese feng shui. It escaped widespread destruction in WWII and is considered the cultural capital of Japan. In fact, its cultural heritage probably saved it from obliteration. It was removed from the five-city list of targets for a nuclear attack on the personal urging of the US Secretary of War, who had visited the city several times.

Kyoto is home to numerous Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens, many of which are listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. I visit the prominent landmarks like the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Kinkaku temple with the golden pavilion, Ginkaku temple with its sand gardens, the Katsura Imperial Villa. Fushimi Inari Shrine has roughly a thousand torii, the traditional Japanese gates. The Shugakin Imperial Villa is another gem, can only be visited with a reservation but is even free. I visit temples every day and still haven’t seen them all. 

Nara & Himeji

Nara preceeded Kyoto as Japan’s capital. It is home to UNESCO-recognized temples, shrines and famous for the deer, that roam its streets. People feed them with deer cookies. The great bronze Buddha of Tōdai temple is one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen, the bronze bell is equally stunning.

Himeji is famous for its castle. I am not the only person who knows that and so I have to share the castle with many others. I wait more than 30 minutes to enter and inside we move slowly as a single mass of people.


I buy and read several books on Japan’s history while visiting the country. The big question for me is why? Japan took a remarkable turn in the 19th century as the country left the isolationist sakoku (“closed country”) policy behind and started, despite a lack of natural resources like coal or iron ore, a successful modernization. The Russian Empire had never thought it possible to lose against these “yellow barbarians” in the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-05, but loosing they did. The power balance in East Asia had changed. Unfortunately, modernization led to colonial expansion and militarization. Draconian colonial rule followed in Taiwan and Korea, in World War I Japan took control (later a League of Nations mandate) of formerly German possessions in China and the Pacific. In 1931 Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria establishing a puppet state. All in the pursuit not of happiness but of greatness, to become the dominant power in East Asia. In the Japanese view, this was a project for all East Asians, freeing them from Western intrusion. But in the view of other East Asians this was an exchange of Western intrusions to a much heavier Japanese dominance. 

Japan invaded other parts of China in 1937 leading to the Second Sino-Japanese War. This time success did not come so easily and that war dragged on until Japan’s defeat in 1945. From the Second Sino-Japanese War, one step led to another with Japan unable/unwilling to find the exit. To aid the war effort in China, Japan made use of a weakened France in July 1940 to briefly invade French Indochina. This led the United States to stop oil exports to Japan. Having no oil resources, Japan needed to find a solution before running out of fuel. The Japanese answer was a suicidal attack on the US navy in Pearl Harbour with simultaneous attacks on British forces in East and South-east Asia in December 1941. I say suicidal because the Japanese decision makers were totally aware that Japan would not stand a chance against the US economic strength if the US would start to fight back. At the cabinet meeting where the decision was made, nearly every minister came into the meeting with the idea that Japan would lose this confrontation. But no one had the courage to say so, no one wanted to seem weak or unpatriotic. The US fought back, and Britain also fought back. Japan had an early advantage as the US military was weak and British forces were at war with Germany (Japan’s ally) and its forces were already overstretched. Japan penetrated deep into South-east Asia (up to Burma), and into the net of islands that span the Pacific (up to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands). At some point it looked as if Japan would reach British India, Australia or even New Zealand.

A European country had progressed on a similar path. Germany was also playing catch-up to the powers of the world in the late 19th century. It also developed an appetite for expansion and militarization. And it also found itself in an unwinnable war with the whole world. While Japanese forces did not commit crimes like the Holocaust, they still showed themselves ruthless and had little regard for the population of the occupied territories. The Nanjing massacre with up to 300,000 dead, murdered for no reason, or the issue of the “comfort women”, girls forced into prostitution for Japanese soldiers, stand out. You ask yourself why? Why does a country go off the rails in that way? Why are all usual reservations switched off, why disappears all decency?

The United States were surprised at Pearl Harbour but stopped Japan’s eastward advance with a decisive victory (luck and skill) at the Battle of Midway in the summer of 1942. After that, they built up their military power before going on the offensive in 1943 fighting their way towards Japan island by island. One amphibious landing followed the other, fighting was often heavy as Japan had fortified many of the islands and the Japanese tended to fight until the bitter end, not giving up even if the cause was long lost.

Japan could not match the Unites States response. The Imperial Japanese Navy had started the Pacific War with ten aircraft carriers, at that time the largest and most modern carrier fleet in the world. The US had seven carriers but only three of those were operating in the Pacific. After Pearl Harbour the US navy ordered 32 aircraft carriers (of which 24 were delivered), Japan added only five. Japan’s “Zero” fighter aircraft tells a similar story. The plane proved highly superior in early combat achieving rates of 12 US planes lost for every single “Zero” but already by mid-1942 a combination of new tactics and the introduction of better equipment enabled Allied pilots to engage the Zero on generally equal terms. By 1944 it had become an outdated plane but was still Japan’s main aircraft.

By April 1945 US forces had reached the island of Okinawa which was considered the last stepping stone before the invasion of the Japanese home islands. The amphibious landing proved easy but the entrenched Japanese were waiting inland. After three months of bitter fighting, 20,195 US soldiers had been killed and about 60,000 wounded. Thousands of Kamikaze attacks, with no chance of survival for the attacker, were flown by Japanese forces. Mostly directed at ships they killed 4,900 US sailors. Out of about 125,000 Japanese and Okinawan defenders 16,000 were captured and 110,000 were killed. For Japanese standards, this is high ratio of captured soldiers, in many other battles the percentage of Japanese soldiers killed was in the very, very high 90s as they would just not surrender.

As the US forces were regrouping and preparing for Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese Home islands, US president Harry Truman was informed that a nuclear bomb was successfully tested on the 16th of July 1945. With authorization to use such a weapon against Japan already given, a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a city of industrial and military significance, on the 6th of August. An area of approximately 12 km² was destroyed. People reported a brilliant flash of light followed by a loud booming sound. Some 70,000–80,000 people, around 30 percent of the population of Hiroshima at the time, were killed by the blast and resultant firestorm. Another 70,000 were injured.

If I would have been the one to make the decision, I would have dropped that bomb as well. And I guess you, if standing in Harry Truman shoes, would have come to the same decision. Militarily, it is a no-brainer.

“The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians. But that attack is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on her war industries and, unfortunately, thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities immediately, and save themselves from destruction. I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb. Its production and its use were not lightly undertaken by this Government. But we knew that our enemies were on the search for it. We know now how close they were to finding it. And we knew the disaster which would come to this Nation, and to all peace-loving nations, to all civilization, if they had found it first. That is why we felt compelled to undertake the long and uncertain and costly labor of discovery and production. We won the race of discovery against the Germans. Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us.”

Truman’s words contain an outright lie, Hiroshima was a city of military importance with the headquarters of the Second General Army (responsible for the defence of all of southern Japan) and several other headquarters but Hiroshima was not just a military base. But the important words come at the end, “we have used it […] to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” That is what you try as Commander in Chief. All happened in a terrible wartime situation, the battle of Okinawa with its high casualties had just finished a few weeks ago, more Japanese died in that battle than would die in Hiroshima but in one case you had 80,000 US casualties and in the other you had none. It was clear that Japan would lose the war, but there were no signs of a Japanese surrender, instead there were propagations to keep fighting at all costs. Japanese soldiers had kept fighting instead of surrendering in hopeless situations. Japanese youths were wasted as Kamikaze fighters. Operation Downfall, with an unknown but possibly massive numbers of casualties, was just around the corner.

Hiroshima after the bomb.
By U.S. Navy Public Affairs Resources Website –, Public Domain

The situation on the ground was terrible. Survivors had massive burns, patterns of clothes were etched into the skin, hospitals (all downtown) had been destroyed, over 90 percent of the doctors and 93 percent of the nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured. The firestorm cloud developing in the hours after the attack reached a much greater height than the mushroom cloud of the bomb itself. There was confusion of what had happened. The Japanese General staff lost all contact with Hiroshima but did not know why. They were sure that no great air raid had taken place. They send a plane to find out, the plane crew spotted the cloud from 150 kilometres away. Japan only truly understood what had happened as Truman announced the nuclear strike 16 hours later. Three days later another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and nine days later Japan surrendered.     

Hiroshima has been rebuilt; in fact, it is an interesting city. The Peace Memorial Park located in the centre of the city exactly where the bomb struck is a tasteful reminder of what happened, across the river, the A-Bomb Dome is an iconic building whose shell survived the blast. It is a moving memorial to a dark chapter in the history of mankind.

I head to a football match. Sanfrecce Hiroshima is playing FC Tokyo. Sanfrecce is an artificial mix from the Japanese “San” meaning “three” and the Italian “frecce” meaning “arrow”. The fans are great fun but the “Three Arrows” fail to score. They lose 0:1.

In Kure I visit the Yamato Museum. The battleship Yamato was the flagship of the Japanese Combined Fleet in World War II. It ended up being run aground deliberately on an Okinawan beach to serve as a fortress in a war that had been lost long ago. Japanese History Museums are open about the past, acknowledge Japan’s failures but they are also dripping with reminders that honour, to fulfil your duty and to fight bravely are ideals. And these are just the ideals that once brought Japan into the mess. Maybe they should be changed?    

Japan’s most famous Torii can be found at the island of Miyajima. It stands picture-perfect in the water. Semi-tame deer are another appeal. The cable-car brings me to a short hike.