“The Japanese will someday outgrow their nuclear allergy.” I’ve never forgotten futurologist and Cold War military strategist Herman Kahn saying this to me on his visit to Japan in 1969, when I was his guide and occasional interpreter.

The American author of the best-sellers “On Thermonuclear War” (1960) and “Thinking about the Unthinkable” (1962), Kahn believed that nuclear war was both probable and winnable.

He told me that “tolerable” levels of victims would be in the “ballpark” of the tens of millions.

In fact, Kahn — one of the prototypes that Stanley Kubrick used to create the crazed character Dr. Strangelove (played by Peter Sellers) in his 1964 antiwar film, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” — was urged on during that visit, and subsequently, by elements in the government here who would have liked nothing more than to see Japan armed with nuclear weapons.

At the time, two things struck me about Kahn’s pithy comment concerning a Japan with atomic weapons: the words “allergy” and “outgrow.”

By labeling Japan’s staunch stance against possessing such weapons or even allowing them to enter its territorial waters as an “allergy,” the inference was that, with some testing and remedial care, this condition could be cured. By using the word “outgrow,” Kahn was explicitly calling Japanese convictions “immature.”

However, Japan’s government, virtually synonymous in those days with the Liberal Democratic Party (which held nearly unbroken power until 2009), had forged ahead with the nuclearization of the power industry in the decades of growth after the war without any national debate on the multifarious issues of safety related to it.

This railroading through of lax laws and permissive regulations indicated that the sleepers had been laid; and all that was then needed was to lay the tracks toward nuclear weaponry — and Japan would have come of age.

I was reminded of this history by Haruki Murakami’s brilliant speech on June 9 in Barcelona, Spain, delivered in acceptance of the International Catalunya Prize. In January 2009, in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in Israel, the author had used his podium time to deliver a keenly aimed attack on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In Barcelona, by turning his sights to “peaceful uses of atoms,” he again gave voice to the Japanese conscience of our era.

“This massive earthquake (on March 11) delivered a severe shock to practically all Japanese,” he told his audience in Barcelona. “We think of ourselves as generally being used to earthquakes, but this one has thrown us for a loop. We feel helpless and even insecure about the future of the country. … What brought about this disastrous situation?

“The cause is quite apparent. The people who built the nuclear power stations had not accounted for a tsunami of such magnitude, … the reason being that a profit-making organization does not welcome the investment of the immense amount of money required (to deal with) a huge tsunami that might or might not come once a century.”

Murakami spoke of the depth and breadth of trauma caused by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and the loss of life and damage to landscape and property caused by the tsunami and the nuclear accident that followed. He went on to criticize the government for having failed to strictly monitor the nuclear industry for safety. “We must get angry over this,” he added. “It’s only natural that we do.”

But it was when he turned to Japan’s earlier experience with nuclear disaster — the U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atom bombs in August 1945 — that Murakami’s speech took a radical turn.

“What I want to point out here,” he said, “is that not only did 200,000 people die in those bombings and immediately afterward, but many others were forced to die as time went on after suffering from the effects of radiation. We were able to learn of just how profound the legacy of radiation is to human life and the world because of the sacrifice of those people.”

Murakami went on to link the radiation released in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with that released in Fukushima.

“Sixty-six years after the dropping of the atom bombs, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has been spreading radiation and continually contaminating the surrounding land, sea and air for three months now. When and how this radioactive contamination will be arrested, no one knows.

“This is the second massive nuclear damage that we Japanese have experienced in our history; but this time it comes not as the result of having been bombed by someone else. We Japanese ourselves set the stage for this, we committed this offence by our own hand, we ourselves damaged our domain, we ourselves have destroyed our lives.”

Eloquent and spoken from the heart without artifice, Murakami came down hard not only on Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the nuclear power plant) and on the governments that gave them a virtually unfettered hand in nuclear power development, but also on the entire populace of Japan who, over decades, allowed this situation to fester in their name.

Murakami’s use of the word kakuno (nuclear) in reference to the power plant is telling. As a strict rule, Japan’s nuclear power industry has avoided this word, preferring genshiryoku, meaning “atomic power.” Kakuno in Japanese brings to mind the very same power that fueled the bombs; and the power industry has painstakingly steered clear of any such association, knowing that the Japanese people’s conviction to refuse either the possession or introduction of nuclear weapons in their country is steadfast.

Murakami, armed with such steadfastness, has now linked atoms for war with so-called atoms for peace. “We Japanese should have continued to shout ‘No’ to things nuclear,” he said with vehemence.

His speech was given major coverage in the national media, including in prime-time reports on television and radio. It is no accident that he chose to make this provocative speech on a foreign platform, as he did with his speech critical of Israeli policies in the Middle East. This helps silence the opposition in Japan to these propositions, especially when they are delivered at such prestigious forums.

In addition, by speaking from abroad, Murakami equates Japan’s problems with those of countries around the world. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was able to announce her momentous decision to shut down all of her country’s nuclear power plants within the coming decade, while Japan’s seized-up government seems perpetually ensconced in a sarcophagus dropped over their heads by a profit-at-any-cost industry, an uncreative and captive bureaucracy and an apathetic, meek citizenry fed on a broadly apathetic and meek media diet.

How many more prime ministers must come and go before someone comes along and cuts the Gordian knot, freeing the Japanese from their own sour timidity?

I do agree with Herman Kahn on one thing: It is certainly high time that the Japanese people outgrew their allergy, though I refer to the pervasive condition of “don’t ask, don’t tell and don’t do.” It’s this allergy that has prevented them taking their lives into their own hands as engaged citizens and accepting responsibility for the future of their country.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.