Who saved Kyoto from the atomic hellfire?

by Hiroaki Sato

To write yet another essay on Basho’s “pond-frog” haiku, I was recently rereading Helen Tworkov’s “Zen in America” (1994). In the early 1980s I had published “One Hundred Frogs,” an assemblage of English translations and variation of the 17-syllable verse, and I thought to include the one in “Zen” if there were a revised edition of the book.

The translation was in the section on Zentatsu Richard Baker and the translator was Edwin O. Reischauer, with whom he studied at Harvard. As he remembered it, the translation went: “Old pond / Frog jumps in / Watersound.”

That must have taken place a few years before the famous scholar became the U.S. ambassador to Japan in 1961.

What I noticed in Tworkov’s book this time was a note on Reischauer as “the man credited for saving the Japanese temple-city Kyoto from American bombs.” The “bombs” here I took to be atomic bombs, for that was what I had heard — that Reischauer, perhaps with some other American Japanologists, had opposed dropping an atomic bomb on the ancient city.

There were ready reasons for supposing that. The powerful, ruthless enemy hadn’t subjected Kyoto to the indiscriminate, saturation bombing that devastated most other cities all over Japan, some of them dozens of times.

The belief that Kyoto was intentionally left off the target list was rather common, as I readily found when I asked my friend Mayumi Nishida. “I heard the story since the days I was a student,” she wrote. “I heard it from professors at Doshisha”s International Institute of American Studies and its Faculty of Law, so I”ve believed it.” Mayumi, who runs a Japanese-language school in New York, happens to be a graduate of my alma mater, Doshisha, in Kyoto, though she attended it two decades after I did.

But this time something made me pause, and I decided to check the source, if not the veracity, of the story on the Internet.

As soon as I started the search, I was surprised to find that the very question of who had prevented the atomic bombing had become news this year. Even more surprising, the conventional wisdom had been shown to be false in the 1970s by an American scholar who taught at Doshisha.

The first article I noticed was by the BBC dated Aug. 9 of this year. Headlined “The man who saved Kyoto from the atomic bomb,” it said that the U.S. Target Committee during World War II, made up of generals and scientists, had selected Kyoto at the top of the list of Japanese cities for an atomic bomb, but Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, overruled them.

The main source for this story was given as Alex Wellerstein, a historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology. So I checked the name, and the first thing I got was his article, “Nagasaki: The Last Bomb.” Dated Aug. 7, it appeared in the online edition of The New Yorker magazine. It led back to another article of his in the same weekly on July 16, “The First Light of Trinity.” And these turned out to come from Wellerstein’s “Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog.”

Looking further for Reischauer or someone comparable in stature in the nonpolitical sphere, I hit on a letter to The New York Times on Aug. 20, 1995, “Who Saved Kyoto? Some Say Stimson.” It said that Reischauer himself denied the credit was his, noting that how the war secretary kept Kyoto off the target list was “documented by Otis Cary in the Japan Society Newsletter 1978.”

Otis Cary (1921-2006), who grew up in Japan as a missionary’s son and became a language officer with Donald Keene during the war, went back to Japan in 1945 as part of the Occupation. In 1947, he became the permanent representative of his alma mater, Amherst College, at Doshisha. Doshisha’s founder, Jo Niijima (Joseph Hardy Neesima: 1843-1890), was the first Japanese graduate of the college.

I happen to know Otis Cary’s translator and interpreter daughter Beth, so I asked her to kindly send me her father’s article on who saved Kyoto from the atomic bomb. In response, Beth sent me not one but two articles, and both had appeared in the Japan Quarterly, the first one in 1975, the second in 1979.

Cary’s first article, “The Sparing of Kyoto: Mr. Stimson’s ‘Pet City,’ ” reads like a detective story.

The idea of a single American saving Kyoto from bombing started around Florence Denton (1857-1947), a missionary and educator at Doshisha Women’s College who had stayed in Japan throughout the war.

In time, Langdon Warner (1881-1950) replaced her as “the savior” of Kyoto among Japanese people. Warner, a Harvard graduate who had moved to Japan and studied with Tenshin Okakura, became curator of Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He stoutly denied any role in atomic salvation, but monuments were erected for him in Nara and Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, anyway.

Otis Cary says that it was Charles Cole, president of Amherst, visiting Japan in 1953, who told him who “the savior” may well have been. John J. McCloy, then chairman of the Amherst College board of trustees, recalled for Cole how, in spring 1945, when he was assistant secretary of war, his boss Henry Stimson one day asked him, “Would you consider me a sentimental old man if I removed Kyoto from the target cities for our bombers?” Stimson was 78 at the time.

With Cole’s story, Cary’s effort began to ascertain who had actually helped Kyoto escape the atomic hellfire, until, years later, he concluded that Stimson indeed was the one.

To go back to the American Zen master Richard Baker, in one class Reischauer cited Basho’s “pond-frog” haiku, and said, “Well. I never understood it. I still don’t get it.” Baker, who was “in this semi-satori experience of light and bliss” to hear the haiku, left Harvard shortly after that, forever.

Otis Cary’s other article, “Atomic Bomb Targeting — Myths and Realities,” documents the militaristic and scientific process of selecting the cities for atomic targeting in which Kyoto remained at the top to the end. It is an irony that the man who presided over military destruction helped save a number of cultural legacies for posterity for “sentimental” reasons.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator based in New York.