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From the ashes: the building of modern Japan.

28 September 2016

While the roots of Japanese culture go back hundreds of years, more recent events have had a profound effect on the people and landscapes of Japan.

Hiroshima Peace Park and memorial.
The Hiroshima Peace Park and museum is dedicated to the legacy of Hiroshima being the first city in the world to suffer a nuclear attack during WWII July 15, 2011 in Hiroshima, Japan © Sean Pavone /

When people go on holiday to Japan, it is often in anticipation of encountering a world that is quite different from their own.

While the roots of Japanese culture go back hundreds of years, more recent events have had a profound effect on both the landscape and psyche of the people of Japan. 

The years of reconstruction after World War 2 changed the way that the Japanese saw themselves while earning the admiration of countries around the globe.

Japan at War

While in their ascendance, the navy and army of the Japanese Empire spread across the Pacific, invading and colonising territories as they went in an attempt to secure both influence and vital natural resources.

However, as the war ground on a handful of key battles led to the military being pushed back and with the loss of Saipan the Japanese mainland found itself under threat from US bombers. 

In a grim reflection of Western Europe, factories and military facilities were targeted for destruction in an attempt to force the Japanese military’s surrender.

Cities Bombed

The most famous of these bombings were those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the morning of the 6th August, 1945, the bomber Enola Gay delivered its payload, the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy,’ to its target, the city of Hiroshima. 

The huge blast combined with the resultant fires destroyed over half of the buildings and killed an estimated 70,000 people, though long term conditions including radiation poisoning quickly elevated this number.

Despite this, the Japanese High Command did not surrender.  Three days later, on August 9th, a second bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki, destroying much of the city and ending over 35,000 lives. 

This second and last use of a nuclear weapon heralded the ending of the Second World War.

While the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are prominent Western World’s memory of the war, the previous, more conventional, bombings are more obscure despite having strong repercussions on the cities and culture we see today. 

In the Summer of 1944 the American Air Force began the strategic bombing of Japanese population centres, focussing on the use of incendiary devices.  This method of bombing had been seen as very successful when attacking cities in Germany such as Dresden and Hamburg. 

Logically, the attacks would be even more effective in Japan where wood was a primary building material.

The result of the firebombing was the devastation of many cities which were targeted by incendiaries with varying degrees of effectiveness. 

The High Command’s will to fight to the end was thankfully broken at the end of the Summer of 1945 whether from the warning of further nuclear attack or the very real threat of invasion by the wrathful Soviet Union.

Rebuilding Tokyo

So how has this affected the Japan of today?   If a traveller finds themselves in almost any major Japanese city during a holiday, they are very much surrounded by the effects of the bombing campaigns. 

The level of destruction means that you are going to find very few buildings built prior to the nineteen fifties, but it also clearly shows the drive that the people of Japan had to rebuild.

Tokyo is the ultimate symbol of this: the bombing of 1945 destroyed a huge swath of the city.  The Tokyo of today has grown out of this tragedy and now accommodates over thirty-three million people in the largest city in the world. 

Several landmarks, including the Imperial Palace were lost, but the development of the city has created new ones such as the Harajuku and Roppongi districts.

 Tokyo, with all of its energy and innovation, has clearly emerged resurgent from the conflicts of the mid twentieth century and this spirit can still be found in people across the country. 

The traits of resilience, perseverance and community spirit were vital for the Japanese during the rebuilding after World War 2 and are still evident in the people today.  Whether it be a natural disaster or an economic slump, the population work together to face the challenges of the modern world.

Related: Things you need to know before you travel to Japan.

Widespread Reconstruction

It was not only the major cities of Japan which were targeted.  As an example, the city of Toyama lost over 99 percent of its buildings from bombing during the summer of 1945. 

While the city’s concrete built department store survived, almost the entire population were made homeless. 

As with the other cities of Japan, Toyama is a bustling hub of commerce and industry again, with a mix of buildings from the late twentieth century, from lightly built houses to modern glass and steel office blocks. 

The people commemorate the bombing through the Kitanippon Shimbun Toyama festival at the beginning of August.  This is one of the largest fireworks festivals in the area as a dedication to the lost as well as a celebration of the rebuilding of the city and the peace that has endured there.

The Spirit of Peace

Nagasaki has a similar approach to reflecting on what was lost in the war: The Atomic Bomb Museum is found directly adjacent to both the Peace Park and Peace Memorial Hall. 

Likewise, anyone interested in learning more about the attacks and their aftermath would be well advised to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. 

While the souls of the dead are prayed for, it is peace that is valued beyond all else, an ideal enshrined in the Japanese Defence Force’s mandate to avoid engaging in conflict on foreign soil. 

Despite the hardships endured by the civilians during and after the war, their focus is avoiding its reoccurrence while working toward a better future.

If you want to see how the Japanese cities might have developed had they been spared the bombing campaign, Kyoto is the ideal city to visit. 

Much as certain cities in Europe avoided bombardment due to their cultural prominence, Kyoto escaped the bombing because of its importance and its lack of industry.  Kyoto is still preserved in many respects with strict regulations curtailing the construction of the skyscrapers you find in Tokyo or Osaka. 

That’s not to say Kyoto has been allowed to stagnate: you will find a range of modern buildings alongside the traditional shrines the city is famous for.

Related: Read our article about traditional Japanese culture in Kyoto.

The late 1940s were a testing time for Japan as it came to terms its place in the world and the rebuilding that was needed. 

While progress was slow to begin with, the Japanese population came out of it stronger and more unified in their attempts to build a peaceful and prosperous nation. 

If there’s one thing you will take away from Japan, it’s the memory of its diligent, polite and kind people.

Discover Japan for yourself on Saga’s ‘Land of the rising sun’ tour.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.