How I Can’t Stop Worrying About the Bomb: Kiyomizu-dera Travel Log

Kiyomizu-dera is my favourite temple in Japan. I had always thought it to be particularly beautiful in pictures – built into the side of Mount Otowa, hanging dramatically over the forest. In the photos I’ve seen, it’s always autumn – awash with red leaves – or spring – covered in blooming pink sakura. When we arrived, in late winter, the trees were mostly barren, but the temple itself still stands proudly out from the gnarled branches. Even without the colourful clothes of nature, the beauty of the human-designed world is unignorable. The buildings are 400 years old, but the temple’s view over Kyoto is perhaps the best there is to be had in the city. Aesthetic sensibilities change, but the image captured by the many minds and hands who brought this wooden platform into being is a vista that still holds up. I hope they believed it would, 400 years later.

The Stage at Kiyomizu-dera.

Great effort has been made in Kyoto to preserve the aesthetic of an older Japan. This of course means preservation of older buildings, but also the banning of colour on new structures and even signage. While I unfortunately forgot to snap any, you’ll see a number of big box retailers and convenience store chains with redesigned exteriors – swapping their otherwise nationally uniform bright blues, greens, and yellows for a far more muted collection of browns, blacks and whites. The overall effect is to prevent the preserved old buildings from feeling like isolated museum pieces – which I find is often the case with heritage listed structures in otherwise modern cities. There’s a certain charm to this anachronism – don’t get me wrong – but it means these buildings can’t help but call attention to themselves. They may be beautiful, but they’ll always look weird, like someone wearing formal clothes or high fashion. You can appreciate the look, but you can’t really see how it’s supposed to work in every day life.

Instead, in Kyoto, the whole district of Gion sinks into a cohesive Edo style. It feels less like an artificial preservation effort, and more like no one has been particularly inclined to update their style in the last four centuries. It is charming, quaint, and quite romantic. My sincere regret on revisiting it for the second time is that I didn’t go out on a nightwalk through the lantern-lit canal-side areas of Gion. That’s a truly beautiful sight, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone travelling through the city.

The streets of Gion.

But, while we’re talking about Kyoto’s beauty, I think it’s worth mentioning a well-circulated, yet still incredibly shocking fact about America’s nuclear attacks during WW2:

Kyoto was high on the list of potential atomic bomb targets – and was for a time, target #1.

It was picked as an ideal location because it had not yet been heavily bombed, so there were many factories there which could yet be destroyed, and, according to the released minutes of the Target Committee meeting:

“From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significant of such a weapon as the gadget. … Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon.”

Ultimately, the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, plainly said “I don’t want Kyoto bombed” – possibly because he had travelled there a few times before and had a personal appreciation for the city. He took pains to explain to others on the Target Committee that it was a city of deep cultural importance, which America would look particularly bad for destroying. Evidently he didn’t feel like he was being listened to, because he ended up taking the issue directly to President Truman – who agreed to take Kyoto off the list, but from his notes, may have only done so because he incorrectly believed from Stimson’s line of argument that the other targets would be military cities.

Truman’s journal reads; “[Stimson] and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one…”

Of course, this was not the case. The numbers are disputed, but the most conservative estimate is that 80% of the 200,000 – 350,000 people killed in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians – and more sympathetic estimates place civilian casualties at closer to 95%.

The Five Storied Pagoda of Hokan-ji Temple.

Reading, now, the attempts of these men to justify their acts isn’t exactly heartening, but it is informative. The idea that one would need to have the nuke go off in their backyard to truly feel the weight of the hundreds of thousands slaughtered suggests a truly deep dehumanisation of the Japanese by the Target Committee. I’m lucky that the countries I’ve lived in have never yet been invaded in my lifetime, so I cannot hope to understand the frame of mind that one adopts in that situation – but I do pray that if such should come to pass, I always remember that the actions of fascists and jingoists within a country do not reflect – and should not doom – the people just trying to put bread on the table.

The Three Storied Pagoda of Kiyomizudera.

Ironically, Kyoto’s placement on the list of nuke sites is one of the reasons it’s so well preserved. Cities on the target list were ordered to be spared from other bombing runs, so that the true destruction in the wake of the nuclear blast could be best observed. America’s firebombing of Tokyo wasn’t particularly discriminate, and massive parts of the city were destroyed, including many important shrines and temples. And yes, some of those sites are reconstructed today, so perhaps Kyoto would have been the same – but for how important it remains to the cultural identity of Japan today, to have tangible traces of history, of continued cultural practice, and selfishly just for how beautiful it is, I’m very glad I’m able to visit and see it in all its preserved splendour.

For more on the decision not to bomb Kyoto, I highly recommend this article by Alex Wellerstein.


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