Odyssey Hiroshima, Nagasaki: Interview with co-author Robert O’Connor
Odyssey’s Hiroshima, Nagasaki: an Illustrated History, Anthology, and Guide [ISBN 978-9622178601] by Magnus Bartlett and Robert O’Connor – out in all good bookshops, and Amazon, July 2015.
Questions: Odyssey Edge Blog — Answers: Robert O’Connor, co-author Hiroshima, Nagasaki.
1. What originally drew you to Odyssey’s Hiroshima Nagasaki book project?
The project came about because Magnus thought it up and really got passionate about it, and since he has a publishing company, one can do that. I’d already planned on going to Hong Kong to work on my own ongoing projects, mostly involving the Great Lakes of North America. As time went on, Magnus started having me work more and more on this idea of a Hiroshima/Nagasaki book, to the point that the two of us went to the peace ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, something I never thought I’d do.
While we were waiting to go back to Hong Kong, Magnus said to me “I think you have a vision of the book in your head, and I want you to get it out on the page,” which I did over the course of the next month. By the time I went back to Chicago in September I started telling people “I’m writing a book about Japan.” I never thought I’d be writing a book a year ago, and I have to say the whole process has been exhilarating and I look forward to do it again.
2. Would you consider your own views of the history of H&N to have been “revised” since beginning research on the project?
When I started this project I knew very little about Japan, and absolutely nothing about Nagasaki’s role in trade with the outside world during the Edo period. That’s the biggest change for me.
As far as nuclear weapons, I still think they’re a danger to the world, and they should never have been used. Now I’m a lot better at articulating why, bringing up things like the Bombing Survey Group, which said Japan would’ve surrendered even if we hadn’t dropped the bomb, or the petition by the atomic scientists (which, full disclosure, included my grandfather) which asked that the administration not keep the bomb a secret, or demonstrate using it, since it was so powerful.
“Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts,” the SBS concluded, “and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that . . . Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” — quoted in Christopher Hamner, The Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
3. Do you think this book will encounter resistance from any quarters in the US or Japan? In the future do you think there will be a new consensus?
We’re 70 years removed from the end of World War II. I think we can now start looking back on what happened with a little more objectivity. I know objectivity is a word that’s laughed at, especially in the journalism world nowadays, but I’m a big believer in describing things removing your own opinions/biases from your perceptions of it. We should be able to look back on something most of us didn’t witness first-hand and ask serious questions about what happened, without worrying about questions like “what would you have done” or “what about you and yours.”
It is a tall order to ask people to see something as destructive as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with objectivity – There are some Americans who still have strong feelings about the Civil War – but we’re at a point where we can start.
Most Americans believe dropping the bomb was justified, and while attitudes are shifting, it’s one of those things people are pretty set in their minds about. Nobody would be ruined if everyone changed their minds, but there are organizations that don’t want to talk about the civilian casualties of war because they believe it tarnishes the memory of the people in the armed forces. Those groups might raise objections, but that’s part of the point of the book, to provoke discussion.
4. Regarding the history of the Manhattan Project and atomic bombings, which do you regard as the best in-depth history books to read?
The first one to recommend is Gar Alperovitz’ The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki. They both tell the history of the Manhattan Project and the decisions that led to the use of the bombs using primary documents.
Richard Rhodes has written a lot of great books about the atomic bomb, most prominently The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Greg Mitchell’s written two books on the atomic bomb Atomic Cover-Up and Hiroshima in America (with Robert Jay Lifton).
Doug Long’s website (doug-long.com) is a great repository on the lead up and aftermath of the bombings using government documents to construct what happened at the upper echelons of government and the military.
5. What are your recommended reads for further back into the history of these two cities and Japan in general?
Marius Jansen’s The Making of Modern Japan is a monumental work, and it has a nice big reading list, so if you want to start anywhere, start there. They’re a bit older, but the histories of Japan by James Murdoch and George Sansom are also informative if you want a general overview of things. The Cambridge History of Japan is a more recent general overview.
Donald Keene is always interesting, and his book Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912 is a great look at that transitional period in Japanese history. It also includes poetry by the Emperor, which he wrote throughout his life.
David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob van Zoet takes place in Dejima and tries recreating the world of the Dutch who traded there. Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème and John Luther Long’s Madame Butterfly are novels about temporary wives, and the latter was the inspiration for the opera, though they’re very much products of their time (especially Madame Butterfly).
6. Can you recommend some digitally accessible resources?
Besides Doug Long, who I’ve mentioned earlier, Alex Wellerstein runs a fantastic blog, Restricted Data (blog.nuclearsecrecy.com), about restricted memos and things related to the Manhattan Project. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists runs a useful website to complement the journal, which is essential reading for anyone interested in current nuclear weapons issues and climate change. Their doomsday clock was moved forwarded as the book was being written, so it’s now three minutes to midnight.
7. Are there any themes of the book which the team would have liked to go deeper into?
As far as things I covered but got cut or trimmed, I’ll be putting some of that on the blog in the coming weeks.
For things that could inspire later titles, the Portuguese Empire and the subsequent conflicts with the Dutch and English empire builders are worth several books in and of themselves. It’s interesting seeing how just about every European country had an empire, but went about them differently. Portugal was a very faith-centered empire, while the Dutch was centered on trade.
And related to that, images of the East in the West and images of the West in the East is a topic worth exploring, since we’re still getting it wrong. It’s not just crucial that we understand cultures unlike our own, but with the recent technology revolution, it’s easier than ever to learn about other places. And yet people are trying to keep people in their own corners and discourage dialogue. This needs to be resisted, and maybe more books could help this resistance in their own small way.
8. Beyond the visuals in the book, where can readers explore more photography and art that the book touches on?
Yosuke Yamahata’s photos of Nagasaki the day after the bombing were published in Nagasaki Journey. The Time Life archive has hundreds of photos of the devastation, most of them were never printed in Life, but they’re available on their website. The Library of Congress has a huge collection of military photos, Japanese prints and other objects related to Japanese history and the Pacific War.
Regarding less accessible sources, I came across the book Nagasaki Ukiyo-e, which has hundreds of prints by Nagasaki printmakers during the Edo Period. It’s a rare book, and the prints themselves are even rarer, but it’s worth finding and it’d be great to see it back in print, or build on it somehow.
9. Do you feel there are lessons – or at least important questions – to be found in this Odyssey book for modern affairs?
What I hope people bring away from this book is that the atomic bombs and Japan’s surrender and subsequent occupation changed the country from what it was before. Up until then no one succeeded in conquering Japan, and the emperor was divine. In 1945, The emperor renounced his divinity and Japan was occupied for seven years by the Allies. Japan has come out of this as an important player on the world stage, as it has been for centuries, but is much more humble about its role in the world.
The Emperor gives a short speech every new years and usually ends it with “It is my hope that the new year will be a good year for the people of Japan and the people of the world,” or some variation of it. The President of the United States ends the annual State of the Union Address with “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” If you really want to see the contrast, George W. Bush ended many of his speeches (especially in his first term) saying “God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America,” coupled with the US’ war in Iraq being characterized by its defenders as a way to spread freedom to the Middle East, as if we’re this beacon of goodness that can go in anywhere and just make things right.
You’d never hear such rhetoric coming from Japanese politicians, especially since their own imperial adventures were inspired by the belief that Japan was a civilizing agent.
10. Finally, inside Odyssey you are considered master of finding intriguing connections and odd coincidences — any favourites from this project?
I’ve got two:
Nagasaki is sister cities with St. Paul, Minnesota where I grew up. It’s the oldest such relationship in Japan and the United States. There’s a sculpture in Nagasaki’s peace park called “Constellation Earth” by Paul Granlund, an official gift from the city in 1992. In St. Paul next to the Como Park Conservatory is a Japanese Garden which commemorates the sister city relationship. I also found postcards and photos of a Japanese Garden at Cozy Lake in St. Paul at the turn of the 20th century (Cozy Lake dried up and it’s now a golf course). Cozy Lake was right next to Como Lake, right next to where I went to high school.
There’s also a chain of coffeehouses in St. Paul named Gingko Coffee, named after the tree that’s native to China and Japan. Which leads me to my other favorite connection of the book:
When Ulysses S. Grant visited Nagasaki in 1879, he and his wife Julia planted two trees in Nagasaki in the name of peace. When Hiroshima was bombed, there were two ginko trees that were still standing a few hundred feet from the blast. Everyone thought they were dead, but a few months later they began to bloom. The trees still stand and you can visit them today. In Nagasaki at the Sanno Shrine there are two camphor trees that also survived the blast, were thought to be dead and bloomed a few months later. And of course, as a symbol of peace, the Mayor of Tokyo Yukio Ozaki sent hundreds of Cherry Blossoms to Washington D. C. Their descendants still sit on the Potomac.
Trees are a symbol of peace and rebirth, which are what Hiroshima and Nagasaki represent.