Thomas Wictor

What the Japanese said to me about Pearl Harbor

What the Japanese said to me about Pearl Harbor

I lived in Tokyo from 1985 to 1991. The reason I left Japan was that I was burned out on the culture. Carmen felt the same way. We were tired of the strangeness, the drinking, the deeply unhealthy attitude toward sex, and the inability of the Japanese to form close relationships with foreigners. We were forever gaijin: “outside people.”

What bothered me—as a military historian—about Japan was that most of the Japanese I met eventually talked about World War II, but only in the context of the atomic bombings.

“We’re the only country in the world to be attacked with nuclear weapons,” I heard over and over. Pearl Harbor was virtually never mentioned. The only time I remember it being a peripheral subject of conversation was when my fellow exchange students and I were invited to a Japanese high school in Hokkaido. When we entered the classroom, there was a slogan written on the chalkboard in English, in letters a foot high.


There were giggles from the students as we looked at it. I walked up to the board and wrote under it, “Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

A collective, indignant gasp was emitted, music to my ears. A Japanese teacher came in, read both sentences, and erased them without a word.

I feel no guilt or remorse about the atomic bombings because the alternative was an invasion. We had plans for it: Operation Downfall. It was estimated that millions of Allied service members would be casualties and millions of Japanese would die. The closer and closer we got to the Japanese home islands, the higher the casualties on both sides. In preparation for the invasion of Japan, the United States minted so many Purple Heart medals—awarded to those wounded in action or to the families of the fallen—that they’re still being used today, along with medals produced more recently.

People argue that the dropping of the bombs was unnecessary because the Japanese were willing to surrender, and the Soviets had entered the war. In reality those who start a war don’t get to dictate terms when they’re losing. The Japanese refused to agree to unconditional surrender. Those were the Allied terms. By rejecting the Allied terms, the Japanese brought the atomic bombs down on their own heads.

Refusing to agree to Allied surrender terms was the final act that ensured the atomic bombings, but the attack on Pearl Harbor set the whole miserable disaster in motion. Yet the Japanese who spoke to me never mentioned the fact that they’d bombed us without warning on December 7, 1941. They also refused to discuss the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, Japanese cannibalism, or Unit 731, a bio-chemical warfare research and development organization that dissected prisoners alive without anesthesia, among other mind-warping, bestial sadism.

The movie The Last Emperor was delayed in Japan because it includes actual wartime footage of Japanese troops committing atrocities against Chinese civilians. Though the Japanese have made hollow, qualified apologies for the behavior of their soldiers during the war, they’ve flat-out denied most of their worst crimes. Even more appalling they’ve rewritten history to make themselves out as the victims, since we firebombed them and then nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Several times during my five years in Japan, an elderly Japanese man approached me at a bar or inn and offered to buy me a drink. When he found I could speak Japanese, we’d talk about why I was there, how I liked Japan, and where I was from. Then the old guy would bring up World War II and invariably say the following.

“If we’d had the natural resources and industrial might of the US, we would’ve beaten you.”

No. Dead wrong. The Japanese were the most poorly equipped soldiers of World War II. Their training was garbage. Officers punched non-commissioned officers in the face, and the NCOs then punched the men in the face. Soldiers had to stand at attention while a superior whaled on him with his fists. Physical beatings were everyday occurrences. That’s why the Japanese committed so many atrocities. Each Japanese soldier boiled with pent-up rage.

The Japanese launched futile frontal attacks on emplaced machine guns, charging again and again until every Japanese soldier was dead. They committed suicide rather than surrender. Also, commanders were unable to improvise or think for themselves. One of my heroes is Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who basically won World War II during the Battle of Midway. It was a battle of aircraft carriers. Fletcher was given a nearly impossible task—go out, ambush, and defeat a superior force—and he did so bravely and without drama.

When Fletcher’s flagship the U.S.S Yorktown was disabled, he transferred his command to the heavy cruiser Astoria and kept fighting. In comparison when the Japanese carrier Hiryū was sunk, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi went down with the ship. He was Japan’s best carrier officer, so his suicide was a histrionic, selfish waste that contributed to the Japanese losing the war. Fletcher survived the war and was the only naval flag officer who declined to participate in the writing of the official navy history. He didn’t care about memorializing his role in winning this world-changing conflict.

The Japanese were defeated at Midway because they followed strict and traditional naval doctrine. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel knew a thing or two about fighting. His quote about the US.

What was really amazing was the speed with which the Americans adapted themselves to modern warfare. Starting from scratch an army has been crafted in the very minimum of time, which, in equipment, armament and organization of all arms, surpasses anything the world has yet seen.

Japanese war veterans I met could never accept the fact that an army of conscripted farm boys, clerks, teachers, truck drivers, steel workers, and stockbrokers mopped the earth with them. They also refused to accept responsibility for their own actions. They were the victims. American policy forced them to invade their neighbors.

I’ve evolved over the years. Once upon a time I thought stupidity was the worst, most destructive trait of humankind. Then I thought it was tribalism. Currently, I believe it’s the refusal to be held accountable for your own actions.

On both a personal level and as a citizen of a nation, I’ve seen that the refusal to be accountable for one’s own choices causes the most damage. People do insane things, such as attack the US, and then they complain bitterly when atomic bombs are dropped on them. They don’t ever admit that their actions were the impetus for the designing, building, and deploying of the atomic bomb. We didn’t invent atomic bombs just for fun.

Japanese military imperialism was evil. There’s no other way to describe it. We had a choice of not dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese and taking massive casualties ourselves, or dropping the bombs and ending the war. Yes, a quarter of a million people were killed in both bombings.

Would it have been more moral to invade and kill millions instead?

The lesson is don’t attack people willing to drop atomic bombs on you. I’ve become someone who believes in the use of overwhelming force. The notion of a “proportional response” is laughable to me. Anyone who messes with me is going to get the equivalent of an atomic bomb. I’m putting that out there in plain English. You can complain that it isn’t right, but that won’t change my approach. All assaults get an atomic bomb in response.

What, exactly, is the problem with that philosophy? We’re talking predation. Why is the onus on me—the target of the predation—to control myself, when the predator gets to do whatever he or she wants? I don’t care if the majority of the world feels that I’m out of line. You’re still going to get my atomic bombs. I’m stating the fact up front, so don’t say you weren’t warned, okay?

Here’s why the theory of “proportional response” is stupid: Predators are unreachable. Those who refuse to be accountable for their actions are irrational. The only thing they understand is overwhelming force. I’ve had Alice in Wonderland conversations with them, in which they spew out blithering, nonsensical, interminable evasions, rewriting history in real time, refusing to admit to things they did or said only minutes before.

By announcing a “proportional response,” you’re advertising your weakness. It serves nobody except the predator. If my country decides that it’s more moral to be weak and fatuous, great. But I reject it. Here’s my own personal philosophy.

“Peace through superior firepower.”

The Japanese I met never copped to their responsibility for having atomic bombs dropped on them. They could’ve given up at any time, but they felt entitled to continue behaving the way they were. Nobody mattered except for them. And now they see themselves as martyrs, the only people ever to suffer atomic bombings.

Well, they deserved it. The victims of Japanese predation at Pearl Harbor are just as dead as the victims of the atomic bombs. It’s not my problem if the Japanese refuse to be held accountable for their actions. The point is they’ll never attack us again.

I’ve been to Hiroshima. Here’s my photo of the Atomic Dome, which stands at the epicenter of the blast.

Along with Gettysburg, Hiroshima is the most haunted place I’ve visited. You can still feel all the pain, shock, horror, and sadness. But if I could take that knowledge back in time and become Harry Truman, I’d still order that the bombs be dropped. I’m sorry for the deaths the bombs caused. It was the fault of the Japanese, who put us in an untenable position.

And you can bet that if we’d invaded and killed seven or eight million Japanese and half a million Allied troops, Oliver Stone would today be demanding to know why we didn’t end the war sooner and spare all those lives by dropping the atomic bombs.

Not using those weapons was the greatest war crime ever committed!” he’d thunder.

Since you can’t win with these people, just adopt a policy that suits you and then tune them out. Their little egos demand that they constantly tell you that you’re wrong and they’re right, no matter what you do, so their opinions on everything are worthless.

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