A conversation with the former mayor of Hiroshima on nuclear weapons By Joseph Mazur
The city of Hiroshima will forever live in the memory as the site of the first use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Since the end of the Second World War, peace has largely reigned between the nuclear-weapon-owning nations, perhaps because of the unthinkable consequences of a modern nuclear war. Tadatoshi Akiba is a former mayor of Hiroshima, active in the campaign for global nuclear disarmament. Here, he talks to American mathematician Joseph Mazur about the prospects for controlling the future use of these terrifying weapons.
Some years ago, I had an exemplary existential dream. An iconic mushroom cloud rose from a nuclear bomb dropped close to my neighborhood. I sprinted around and over the embers of small fires and the debris of mangled steel like a flying spirit, looking for anyone who might impossibly be still alive. Nobody was. Why did I, a relatively young person in the presumed safety of America, have enough subconscious anxiety to have such an upsetting dream and still chillingly remember it decades later?
I was just three when two atomic bombs were parachuted and detonated in mid-air over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My generation grew up in the 1950s, that decade of extraordinary American prosperity when our biggest fear was that ICBMs might target some US cities. We learned to duck under our school desks when we heard the first wave of air-raid sirens. But that was seventy years ago, when time seemed to move slowly. In those giddy, post-hot-war days, when financial prosperity was booming and uncertainty governed thoughts of doom from Cold War threats, we were, for the most part, a unified country. The news was all about the day or the week. Anything older than a year was ancient history left for the almost unreadable textbooks that hardly made their way into the 1950s high school curriculum. We obediently got our polio shots and conformed to rules, when the truth was as good as it got from local newspapers and the television networks ABC, CBS, and NBC. Time always has ways of speeding up or slowing down, depending on the world outlook and personal anxieties, but in those mid-century decades, there was a sense of pride that we had conquered the biggest horrors of the century. By the end of the Korean War, my parents were under the impression that all terrors had ended.
The unease of nuclear weapon proliferation is now in competition with troubling concerns over climate change. In our selfish present, we view climate change as something from which life will be difficult for some people but not for us, at least not in the immediate future. But we are already in that future when America is struggling with consequential crises. Not just one after another, but many, all at the same time. We are awash with worries, just one of which is the threat of nuclear weapons. Of all the world’s problems, the one involving nuclear proliferation is the most flexibly solvable.
We are at a time when a nuclear-weapons country is amassing troops and equipment at the border of a democratic country. When the Doomsday Clock, that metaphorical gauge of how close we are to destroying the world, was reset to 100 seconds to midnight,1 I spoke with my good friend Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayor of Hiroshima from 1999 to 2011, to discuss the status of nuclear weapons and his thoughts for the future. He received a Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed as the Asian Nobel Prize, in 2010 for his lifelong role as a world leader in the campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Our conversation has been edited for length.
Joseph Mazur: You and I were born in the same year, just a few years before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the age of three, we could not have understood what happened on August 6 and 9, 1945. You might have heard the word genbaku, while I heard “Enola Gay”. Being seven thousand miles away from each other, we got the news from our parents in different languages and very likely with different emotions. For me, I can remember that something big happened that day. Of course, I didn’t know quite what. I knew what a bomb was, because I was a war child, but nothing about the extent of the destruction and loss of life. Could you tell us where you were, whether you can remember anything that your parents told you at that time, and how memories of the event unfolded as you matured to adulthood?
Tadatoshi Akiba: Joe, I did not know anything about Hiroshima and Nagasaki before ten years old. One of my oldest memories goes back to a hot summer day in 1945 when I waited for my mother to come back to the veranda where I was standing. An air-raid siren warned my mother to iskenderun escort rush to my younger brother, born in January, to carry him in a wicker basket to the bomb shelter dug in the front garden. I had to wait for her to come back, because the veranda opening of the house was too high for me to jump down. I was terrified.
Later that summer, the city of Chiba, a suburb south-east of Tokyo, was the incendiary bombing target on July 7. A squadron of 129 B-29s devastated the central part of the city, killing and injuring more than one thousand residents and destroying close to nine thousand buildings.
My family lived in a safe area of the city, and only a few incendiary bombs reached there. However, I remember clearly the beautiful and, at the same time, horrifying sparks that the bombs created when they hit the road next to my house.
These memories have been vivid in my mind and helped me imagine the tragedies of war everywhere in the world.
Mazur: How did people in Japan learn about the extent of misery in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombing?
Akiba: We did not hear anything about Hiroshima and Nagasaki until much later, because the “Press Code” by the General Headquarters was in effect. As a result, no information about the atomic bombings reached us. Even the hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) had difficulties obtaining medical information about their injuries and other damages to their bodies.
Finally, in 1952, when the peace treaty between Japan and the US went into effect, the Press Code lifted. That is when we learned about the indescribably tragic and catastrophic results of the atomic bombings.
My neighbourhood bookstore carried the Asahi Graph, the Japanese equivalent of Life magazine, on August 6, 1952. When I picked up the volume and saw the inside, I was sickened by seeing a picture of a young woman lying on her back with her face entirely burned. I could not sleep that night.
Mazur: Wow! I’m astonished to learn that most Japanese did not know about the misery and destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki until seven years after the bombings! In my high school days, we learned that the reasoning was that many more people from several countries would have died had the war continued. You spent a teenage year in Chicago on a high school exchange program in 1960. The topic of the bombing must have come up at some time during that year. How did you process an understanding of what happened from a US point of view?
Akiba: On a Saturday in 1955, the entire elementary school I attended watched “The Children of the A-bomb”, a film based on essays written by school children in Hiroshima lucky enough to survive the bombing. One harrowing scene after another affected me so much that I could not get up to go to school for two days. I reacted to the noise of airplanes for more than a month.
I started learning English in junior high school, and the first serious reading was John Hersey’s Hiroshima. I continued learning and thinking about war and peace, especially atomic bombs.
The most significant shock came when I sat in my American History class at Elmwood Park Community High School in 1960. I was an AFS foreign exchange student there and spent one school year enjoying every minute of it.
In the spring semester, we learned what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The emphasis was not on the tragic and heart-wrenching consequences, but the justification of the acts. Three points justified the atomic bombings. One was that Pearl Harbor was first. The second was that the bombings ended the war early. And the third was that they saved both American and Japanese lives. Had the war continued, a quarter of a million Americans would have died, and so would another quarter of a million Japanese.
I tried to persuade the teacher and the other twenty students – justification aside – that we need to look at unspeakable human tragedy and loss. For that, I was bullied. I was bullied for that, until my wrestling team buddy stood up to defend me: “It’s not fair to bully one person, Tad, by all of us.”
At that time, Japanese schools did not teach modern history. We did not learn about the Japanese responsibility for starting the Pacific War, nor what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in our formal education. Omission of the vital part of history from the school syllabus continued for a long time.
Mazur: With SARS-CoV-2, climate concerns, and so many other world problems in the news and at dinner conversations, we seem to be in the stage of complacency concerning nuclear weapons. Do you see a way of replacing the complacence of nuclear weapons with critical thinking in the news and at dinner conversations? In other words, how can we educate the public and their leaders to be as engaged in a goal to abolish nuclear weapons, or at least de-escalate the number of nuclear weapons worldwide?
Akiba: One factor behind complacency is the deterrence theory. We might understand the danger of nuclear weapons, but few among us have learned the truth from the testimonials of hibakusha who had gone through a living hell.
Deterrence theory supporters argue that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter the evil intentions of those countries adana escort that might otherwise attack us. They claim nuclear weapons offer protection with hopes they will not be used. Without knowing how to deter foreign aggression in realistic terms, most of us have no alternative but to accept that claim. So the half-truth spreads throughout the world to become solid faith in nuclear weapons and the deterrence theory: “Nuclear weapons are there for peace. Having nuclear weapons guarantees your safety and security.”
I believe that the world will wake up and actively move toward peace if we succeed in conveying what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the scientific facts about the result of nuclear exchanges, 2, 3, 4, 5 and resolve nuclear weapons issues within the framework of rule of law.
There are books, photographs, movies, music, paintings, and other means of expression that show and tell the realities of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition, I strongly recommend that everyone should visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki. World leaders, including President Biden and Chairman Kim, should visit the two cities. That would improve the understanding beyond imagination.
Major progress of nuclear disarmament took the form of treaties and court rulings. Now that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a legally binding international agreement, we should utilize it as a tool to create a world without nuclear weapons.6
Mazur: On 3 January, the five nuclear-weapon states, namely, the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain, instead of ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, issued the Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races.7 What can you expect from this?
Akiba: The main points of the joint statement are that the five nuclear-weapon states: (1) agree that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never happen; (2) remain committed to our UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations, including the obligation to negotiate in good faith toward an effective international treaty for nuclear disarmament;7 (3) agree to maintain and further strengthen their national measures to prevent unauthorized or unintended use of nuclear weapons; (4) reaffirm that no nuclear weapons target each other or any other state; (5) intend to continue seeking bilateral and multilateral diplomatic approaches.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the joint statement by the nuclear-weapon states on the prevention of nuclear war and avoidance of arms races. But in the end, he emphasized that the adıyaman escort only way to eliminate all nuclear risks is to eliminate all nuclear weapons. He reiterated his willingness to work with the nuclear-weapon states and all member states to achieve this goal as soon as possible.
Issuing the statement is proof that the nuclear-weapon states cannot ignore the growing support for the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons worldwide. It had to respect world public opinion by stating the principles they must acknowledge, even superficially. From past policies and announcements, we know that the signatories of the Joint Statement would contradict these principles in a claim that the survival of their countries is at stake.
Mazur: The first Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will happen in Vienna next summer. What can we expect from this meeting? I hope that it will accomplish a great deal. At the same time, shouldn’t the world be doing more to tackle such an existential problem?
Akiba: It should focus on practical and productive goals for civil society and urge non-ratifying countries, including the five nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-dependent countries, such as Japan, Canada, South Korea, and NATO member countries, to sign and ratify the treaty.
In parallel, it should include the “no first use” policy, a pledge of not using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states first (NFU).9 We have a good chance of success in persuading the relevant countries, because critical nations have already taken some positive steps or declared a partial agreement to the idea.
First, China has adopted the NFU policy since it first acquired nuclear weapons. Second, the US took concrete actions under the Obama administration to make NFU the UN policy and legislate the NFU policy domestically. Unfortunately, staunch opposition from the Abe administration of Japan succeeded in thwarting such a move.
Third, nuclear-weapon-free zones treaties have already succeeded in having nuclear-weapon states adopt a no-first-use nuclear weapons policy, albeit within limited geographical regions. Such a zone is a particular group of countries that ratify a treaty promising no nuclear weapons on their soils. Ideally, nuclear-weapon states also promise not to attack this group with nuclear weapons.x (This condition is called “negative security assurance” or NSA.) Although nuclear-weapon states ratified only the Tlatelolco treaty, which covers Latin America and the Caribbean, the significance is that nuclear-weapon states did agree to the idea of NFU. The concept of NFU has the potential to spread.
Mazur: Now that the entire Southern Hemisphere is nuclear-weapons-free and it is spreading to the Northern Hemisphere, where should the next region form such a zone?
Akiba: The most probable candidate is North-East Asia. The six parties involved in this idea are the three core countries, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and the three outer countries, the US, China, and Russia. The North-East Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Treaty, if it succeeds, stipulates that the three core countries agree to become or stay nuclear-weapon-free, and the outer three countries guarantee that they would not attack the core countries with nuclear weapons.
Mazur: A plan to create nuclear-weapon-free zones in North-East Asia must be enormously challenging when North Korea is now repeatedly testing highly advanced launching devices.
Akiba: The treaty we are discussing will make North-East Asia nuclear-weapon-free. The burden would be on North Korea, Russia, and the USA; Japan and South Korea do not possess nuclear weapons. China has adhered to the no-first-use policy for some time. North Korea will have to renounce its nuclear arsenals, and both Russia and the US will have to guarantee NSA in this region.
For Russia and the United States, a no-first-use policy is more negotiable than one insisting on outright renunciation of all nuclear weapons. And within the US, there is a large enough political force that endorses the no-first-use idea. North Korea must make the toughest concession, but the six-country agreement would also assure its continued existence in the international framework.
Among the total of 13,000 or so nuclear warhead inventories of the world, the US and Russia possess 5,600 and 6,200, respectively, while North Korea has less than 50. Rogue organizations might succeed in obtaining a few if, any. Given such statistics, the first concern is with massive accumulations of the US and Russia. Then, what’s the argument that might convince those who have a few to abandon all development plans?
Mazur: Would that come through reasonable dialogue?
Akiba: The only possible means of resolving the most difficult challenges is dialogue. The rational strategy is to draw North Korea into an international arena where civil exchanges find mutually acceptable solutions, instead of threatening each other with inhumane nuclear weapons.
Mazur: Talks are now underway in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that then-President Trump withdrew from in 2018. In those three unhindered years, Iran has made significant advances in enriching enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb. How should we deal with countries working on future possession of nuclear weapons, countries under authoritarian rule that seek more power on the international stage?
Akiba: The situation you describe makes us realize the importance of international political leadership. Civil society must create an environment in which responsible political leaders can exercise their influence effectively. We should also concentrate on changing domestic politics so that nuclear-weapon-states and nuclear-dependent countries would relish rather than reject the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
After creating a North-East Asia nuclear-free zone, we hope to establish another nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Accomplishing that might be more difficult, but the whole process of formulating a North-East Asia treaty would produce an atmosphere and competence that would help overcome the difficulties. It should become apparent that negotiations of this kind offer ample opportunities for neighbouring countries to enrich each other in trade, people and cultural exchanges, science and technology cooperation, and many more.
Perhaps I should put the whole package as “2040 Vision: An Emergency Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons.”11 Its goal is to abolish nuclear weapons by 2040, with the interim goal of adopting NFU policy by nuclear-weapon states by 2030.
My generation might not live until 2040, but we must start somewhere. The “2040 Vision” objective is a dream with a deadline, which I hope becomes a starting point for the younger generation to carry our legacy.
Mazur: When my wife and I visited Hiroshima in 2009, we thought we could be fully prepared by reading everything we could about what happened during and after the bombings. The visit was overwhelming and emotionally far beyond what anyone can know from history books or films. Would ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons be any easier if more influential government officials could visit Hiroshima?
Akiba: Yes. When President Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016, he said, while laying wreaths at the cenotaph for the atomic bomb victims, “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.” He was the first sitting US president to visit the Peace Memorial.
If more leaders of nuclear-weapon states visit Hiroshima, following President Obama’s courageous act, we can expect that the abolition of nuclear weapons will become a shared wish of the world. The reason is that practically everyone who visited Hiroshima told me the kind of emotion you have expressed. For example, when an Oscar-winning actor, Jack Lemmon, visited Hiroshima in 1985, he remarked that his knowledge about Hiroshima before the visit antalya escort was far above average. Still, after visiting Hiroshima, he, like you, felt that he did not know the extent of the damage and suffering until he came to the city. His remark was, “Everybody in the world should visit Hiroshima. One thing I must emphasize is that I did not see any feeling of hatred on the part of Hiroshima citizens toward the United States and Americans. That was a moving experience.” That is why I repeatedly extended invitations to world leaders to visit Hiroshima. A visit from President Biden when he comes to Japan this year would go far in spreading peace in pursuance of a world without nuclear weapons.
About the Interviewer
Joseph Mazur is a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Marlboro College, is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim, Bogliasco, and Rockefeller Foundations, among others and the author of several acclaimed mathematics books that have been translated into more than a dozen languages. The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time (Yale) is his latest book.
About the Interviewee
Tadatoshi Akiba is former Mayor of Hiroshima and a former member of the Japanese Diet. He is also a mathematician with Ph.D. from MIT, but his lifelong commitment has been the abolition of nuclear weapons. He received the Ramon Magsaysay Award (subbed as the Asian Nobel Prize) in 2010.