A fallout of silence

Atomic censorship and tranquility

By William Wetherall

A review of
Monica Braw
The Atomic Bomb Suppressed
(American Censorship in Japan 1945-1949)
Lund Studies in International History, No. 23
Malmo (Sweden): Liber Forlag, 1986
183 pages, softcover

A version of this article appeared as
"A fall-out of silence" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 141(34), 25 August 1988, pages 39-40

A longer version appeared earlier as
"Censorship and Tranquility" in
Asahi Evening News, 13 January 1988, page 9

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the two versions.

Censorship runs counter to the principles of freedom of speech and expression in capitalist democracies like the United States, Britain, and Japan, and these days the Philippines. Yet even these countries lawfully suppress militarily or politically "sensitive" information in the name of national security and diplomacy. And for moral reasons they attempt to control or prohibit sexually "offensive" or otherwise "harmful" material. Socialist countries, and politically unstable "emerging" states, regulate all manner of content in mass media and the arts for the sake of advancing their version of responsible freedom.

Monica Braw is aware of all this, and much more. She has gone to the primary and living sources from both the capitalist and socialist camps in her generally readable and objective study of censorship by the United States of information on the effects of the atomic bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

For her book, originally a doctoral dissertation at Lund University, Braw delved into U.S. archives on the Occupation of Japan and the Records of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces, opened to the public since 1977. She also interviewed or read the personal accounts of major Japanese and American witnesses to, and experts on, occupation censorship.

Braw, Swedish journalist, writer and novelist based in Japan, wrote this book as her doctoral dissertation at Lund University. Her extensive citation notes at the end of each chapter will please the scholar without intruding on the general reader, both of which will find her writing lucid and engaging.

The first half of the book is devoted to a general discussion of the bureaucratic and policy aspects of censorship in the occupations of both Germany and Japan.

In Germany, no publishing was allowed without a license, because this was thought to be the most efficient way to root out the fanatics who had led the country down the wrong path. In Japan, however, "There was no clear leader with dedicated, enthusiastic followers. The Japanese were regarded as one amorphous mass, all equally responsible and guilty. The whole of the Japanese people must be reformed. It would not be enough just to refuse certain publishers license. All Japanese, including publicists, must be re-educated."

Japanese publishers were, in general, allowed to stay in business, and the onus of censorship fell on the Japanese themselves, though under the sometimes ambiguous guidance of the Civil Censorship Detachment, which in the summer of 1946 employed 8,734 people, including "90 officers, almost as many enlisted men, several hundred War Department civilians but, above all, [8,084] non-American civilians, among them Japanese and Korean nationals, the ones who did the day-to-day censoring at lower levels, the only ones who knew Japanese."

For the Soviet representatives on the Allied Council, the existence of which was all that kept the "American occupation" from being officially called this, "The censorship question became an example of the lack of real democracy the Americans were fostering" -- because, in their view, "the censorship was not harsh enough." It was, however, especially strict concerning atomic bomb information.

Braw perceives an impression gap, however. Several of her Japanese informants claimed that they had not been allowed to write about the atomic bombings. But some books on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were published during the occupation. Braw wondered if the Japanese she interviewed were wrong, but she found that in general they were right.

Despite the ambiguities of the censorship policies carried out by understaffed local offices of the Press, Pictorial and Broadcast Section, Japanese views on the atomic bombings were censored when authorities judged that the content would "disturb public tranquility." The tranquility was needed to instill democratic ideals like the freedom (and even the duty) to criticize the government -- so long as it was not Japan's former enemy and then occupier-cum-ruler.

Braw concludes that the United States censored material on the atomic bombs for security reasons, but also "to instill war guilt in the Japanese [who had to be made to understand that there were no excuses for defeat and that they had brought the atomic bombings on themselves." They were not to complain about the effects if to do so would disturb the all-important public tranquility.

So inside Japan, "material suggesting that the United States had committed barbarous acts and crimes against humanity were also suppressed, for fear of public reactions." Elsewhere, especially in the Washington bureaucracy, attitudes toward censoring information about the effects of the bombs were confused and mixed. The end result of the censorship was that, "for several years the world did not know what happens when nuclear weapons are used," she says.

"One is hard put not to agree with the Japanese historian Seiji Imahori," Braw added on a more judgmental note. Imahori is quoted as having written that, by silencing the voices of the atomic bomb survivors, "an important possibility to decisively influence the world situation was lost."

Possible but improbable. For how could a global antiwar movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s, based on even the most graphic film and written accounts of the effects of the bombs dropped on Japan, have prevented the arms race between the U.S. and the USSR? How could pleas from Japan, a recent enemy who had itself been working on an atom bomb for use in the war it started by firing first, have affected the McCarthyist U.S., must less the Stalinist USSR?

Still, Braw is a cautious writer who explores her subject from every angle and refuses to reduce it a black-and-white proposition. Although she sympathizes with the atomic bomb survivors, she is careful not to accept outright their claims against the United States, such as that they were used for guinea pigs after the war, with the result that many survivors who might have been saved were left to die. She also calls for further research into many questions that ideological writers consider either answered or taboo.

Note: Only a few copies of this book are locally available directly from the author for 3,000 yen plus 300 yen postage and handling in Japan (Monica Braw, Naka-Ochiai 4-5-16, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 161). A Japanese translation has been published by Jiji Tsushin.