The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Explosive Issues

The BBC has apparently said sorry for making a joke about a man who survived the atomic bombings in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What I can’t see is why. See for yourself here.

I talked at length with my wife the other night about this, and what she failed to see at the end of it, like the majority of Japanese people probably, is that the joke was not about the man himself (who was called Tsutomu Yamaguchi and incidentally lived to the ripe old age of 93) but the ironic unluckiness of both these events befalling him.

It’s not funny that he got bombed twice of course not but it funny that he lived through two of the most iconically terrible events of the 20th Century.

When I say this, I am not suggesting that atomic attacks are funny or the loss of life in both cities was in anyway a laughing matter. But, I’m sorry, it IS funny that there existed a man who managed to crawl out of the wreckage of the Hiroshima attack, by all account quite badly burnt; take a train home to Nagasaki (leading some to suggest the real target of the humour was Britain’s rail network) only to be bombed again a few days later.

The segment of the QI show, hosted by Steven Fry, where the joke observation was made was called  “the unluckiest man in the world” and surely there can be no argument about that: his luck that week was terrible, and something his family are reported to have laughed about themselves. Yet as the show pointed out, with some awe, he could also be called the world’s luckiest man for surviving two nuclear explosions.

The humour I enjoy in his story is not in any way directed at him but at the unbelievable timing of these events in relations to his life.

British humour does not travel well it seems (ask Ricky Gervais) but while I might agree that laughing at misfortune is not in and of itself funny or clever, and the British sense  of humour is not to everyone’s taste, this particular misfortune was just too unlucky for anyone to not see the dark irony within it. Indeed I believe the Japanese would and do laugh at similar situations daily, what they cannot do, and what we British can do, is laugh at even the harshest, most horrible subjects, for nothing more sometimes than the obvious absurdity they still contain; plus the ability laughter has to dispel their seriousness and power over us.

The problem is what the Japanese people will not do at all is see the atomic attacks as anything other than a mine of misery and pity. Ian Buruma in his book Wages of Guilt, even went so far as to call the reaction to the event of August 6th 1945 a “Hiroshima Cult”.

The Japanese take the atomic attacks very seriously, demanding of the world, rather too much and too often if you ask me, that that we understand their status as victims of an unbelievably cruel weapon and promise them the horror we visited upon them will never be forgotten and repeated. I say too much because this is certainly preaching to the converted; while I don’t doubt the genuine and visceral hatred ordinary Japanese have for war and the fear of atomic war particularly there is a feeling here that the country’s unique experiences in 1945 gives it the monopoly on issue of atomic displeasure and the invocation of the almost sacred word of “Hiroshima” can sometimes cover less benign and honourable motives like Olympic bids and Security Council ambitions that are in no way related to the issues of the attacks. Talking (arguing) with my wife the other night she was surprised and not a little thrown-off her outrage to learn that CND started in the UK in 1957 (after I’d explained what CND was as she’d never heard of it!) and that Greenpeace, often a considered a dangerous eco-terrorist cult in Japan, also has an anti-nuclear stance.

What happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible of course, indeed some consider them war crimes of the highest order and though my opinion is mixed on that point, given the apparent inability of the Japanese to accept defeat and the government of the time’s stated ambition to more or less commit mass suicide in fighting against the inevitable, the bombing did have the desired effect of quickly finishing the war. Arguments abound that negotiations were in place to surrender anyway and the real reason the bombings took place was no more than an experiment in the new potency of the Cold War. The evidence for this is pretty strong with the target of Hiroshima chosen and prepared beforehand  (primarily by the absence of traditional bombing attacks, despite the presence of a large army base there) so that the effects of the new weapon could be better observed. When the US picked over the rubble and corpses of the attacks to realize what their new weapon could do it was more than hoped the leaders in the USSR would sit up and take notice.

The suffering of the Japanese people did thus, in my opinion, manage to defuse the Cold War and that is something all Japanese people, even those that did not suffer the bombings themselves, can be justifiably proud of. What I don’t think they can do to share in the victimhood, that belongs to the people who suffered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone. I can fully understand why the daughter of  Yamaguchi san might find the jokes hurtful and in bad taste, and I’m sure The BBC and Steven Fry are genuinely sorry to have caused such offense, but then again she could not possible understand the humour as it is being reported here and indeed were it not for the ersatz indignation being played out on TV and in the newspapers she would propably never have known about the existence of the show and the “joke” in the first place.  More importantly I cannot see what right representatives of the Japanese media and government have in telling the BBC what it can and cannot broadcast to its own population, most of whom I’m sure, despite equally understanding the horror of nuclear war and feeling deep sympathy for the Japanese people and for Yamuguchi San himself in particular, will probably have found the irony of the situation he lived through hilarious.




One response

  1. A very thoughtful post Damon. I think you are right about British jokes not being understood abroad, especially those with our sense of irony.
    I’ve met Steven Fry-a lovely bloke, clever, witty and charming. I’m sure he would be dismayed that the joke caused such upset.

    I do hope the japanese people can forgive out British sense of humour.
    The events themselves were a tragic waste of human lives and we must all make sure we never forget that, whatever the rights and wrongs and despite the,(slightly), amusing plight of that poor man who survived both horrendous events.

    January 26, 2011 at 5:15 pm

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