At the end of World War II, Kokura, Japan, escaped nuclear destruction not once, but twice. Every August, the modern city’s residents mark the anniversary.
Japanese historian Toshinobu Hibino wishes that the world knew his hometown simply as a flourishing, environmentally responsible former industrial city, a place where sleek bullet trains and monorails glide in and out of the bustling town center. History, however, had other plans for Kokura, a city on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, whose story is indelibly linked with the infamous fates that befell two nearby cities—Hiroshima and Nagasaki—in August 1945.
This week marks the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japan, bringing with it the annual renewed debate over the morality of the decision to force the country’s unconditional surrender by unleashing the Allies’ terrible new weapon on two heavily populated cities that were critical the Japanese war effort. In Kokura, that discussion takes on a special resonance: In the closing days of World War II, the city escaped nuclear destruction not once, but twice.
A near miss
In July 1945, the American military selected four “A” and “AA” cities to demonstrate the devastating power of the atomic weaponry the Manhattan Project had developed. They were, in order of priority, Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki.
Hiroshima was chosen first due to its compact topography, strategic port, and hosting of two major Army headquarters. Should foul weather prevent the use of the American “special bomb” against Hiroshima, the crew of the B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay” was to target either Kokura or Nagasaki instead.
On August 6, the weather over Hiroshima was ideal, however, and the backup sites were not needed.
Kokura’s second, much closer brush with disaster came three days later. Designated as the primary target for the “Fat Man” plutonium weapon, Kokura—a major conventional and chemical weapons production center that was home to the Japanese Imperial Army’s massive Kokura Arsenal—was shrouded in clouds on the morning of August 9. Under orders to only drop its atomic payload on visual confirmation of the target, the bomber crew of the B-29 “Bockscar” circled Kokura three times, with its bomb bay doors open, waiting for a break in the clouds. As air-raid sirens shrieked and anti-aircraft fire lobbed flak at the warplanes overhead, the city’s 130,000 residents waited. Finally, with fuel running low, the crew decided to proceed to the alternate target, Nagasaki, which was 95 miles away.
Residents of Kokura did not know how close they had come to annihilation until months later. In the years following the end of World War II, the idiomatic phrase “Kokura’s Luck” entered the Japanese lexicon, to describe narrowly avoiding great peril without being aware of it. Indeed, U.S. forces were restricted in their bombing of potential atomic bomb targets with conventional weapons, to better study the damage from a nuclear weapon. As vast swaths of cities like Tokyo and Kobe were obliterated by firebombing campaigns in the war’s closing months, killing hundreds of thousands of residents, Kokura emerged largely unscathed.
Life inside a spared town
Following the war, Kokura merged with four other municipalities to form the modern city of Kitakyushu, which now boasts nearly 1 million residents. Acutely aware of its two close calls, the city, as with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, embraced calls for the end to nuclear proliferation. A city spokesman named Shimoda (like many PR officials in Japan, he goes by one name) of the Kitakyushu General Affairs Division told me that the town has also signed on to the “Nuclear-Free Peace City” initiative, part of regional efforts to combat nuclear proliferation.
In modern day-to-day life, there is not much thought paid in Kitakyushu to the former Kokura’s near misses. A visit to the city this week revealed picnicking families and carefree soccer scrums in the humid August weather at Katsuyama Park, steps from the city’s Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Memorial Bell and Monument. The park is built on the grounds of the former Kokura Arsenal. While the occasional passerby stopped by to read the inscriptions of the memorial, the area feels noticeably more relaxed in atmosphere, compared to the solemnity of Hiroshima’s Genbaku Dome.
But the bombs that did not destroy Kokura nonetheless still loom over the city’s history. In the lead-up to the anniversary each year, Kitakyushu dedicates the month of July to lessons on peace at local schools. “A special two-hour lesson is held each year in the town’s junior high schools,” said Toshinobu Hibino, who is a researcher and chief curator of modern Japanese history at the Kitakyushu Museum of Natural History and Human History.
The classroom instruction also educates students on the town’s relationship with Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There is an special kinship between the former Kokura and the two cities that did not escape the bomb, Hibino says—a bond born of their shared history, and where their fates diverged. Several programs exist to foster ties between the youth of Kitakyushu and Nagasaki in particular. Beyond solemn commemoration ceremonies held in the modern Kitakyushu, the “Nagasaki-Kokura Next-Generation Exchange Peace Promotion Project” sees an annual exchange of university-age students to Nagasaki. The Youth Peace Forum Dispatch Project is geared towards elementary and middle-school students and their parents in Kitakyushu—part of a broader nationwide initiative—sent annually to Nagasaki over two days in August.
Shimoda, the town spokesman, confirmed the importance of incorporating Nagasaki’s experience in educating Kitakyushu’s students: “The fact is that the atomic bomb scheduled to be dropped on Kokura was dropped on Nagasaki,” he wrote, somewhat candidly, in an email. Accordingly, the town wants its students to “think about the importance and preciousness of peace,” especially vis-à-vis the fate of Nagasaki.
Asked what he hoped for readers in the United States to know of the town beyond its twin brushes with disaster, Hibino expressed hope that the town’s image may one day outlive its wartime notoriety. He wanted to emphasize another hopeful story: how a gritty industrial city transformed into a showcase of green technology. “In the latter half of the 20th century, the town overcame previous pollution issues accumulated as a manufacturing town…and it’s aiming to realize its [sustainability] goals as an Environmental Future City” he said, referencing the FutureCity Initiative of the Japanese government that seeks to create sustainable low-carbon cities through responsible environmental and social stewardship.
These sentiments were echoed by Shimoda, who noted that Kitakyushu was the first Asian city to be named a “green growth model city” by the OECD in 2011 as part of the organization’s Green City program that seeks to understand the impact of environmentally friendly growth and sustainability initiatives.
Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear war that has ebbed and surged in the years since August 1945 is rising again: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently reset its famous Doomsday Clock back to two minutes to midnight in 2019. A confluence of modern menaces, from climate change to political instability to the deterioration of Cold-War-era weapons treaties, have again pushed the world closer to the nuclear brink. Hibino also offered this perspective. “Rather than saying ‘[Kokura] could avoid the atomic bomb twice,” he said, “I hope [American policymakers] do not forget the meaning of, ‘We were about to drop the atomic bomb [on this city] twice.’”