Bombing of Singapore


On 8 December 1941, seventeen Japanese bombers dropped bombs over the island of Singapore, the opening salvo in their campaign against Dutch, British, and Portuguese possessions in South East Asia. Months earlier, Japan had already taken advantage of the defeat of France and the accension of Vichy government to seize French Indochina, and it was from there that their bombers embarked for Malaya and Singapore.

From then on to the fall of Singapore in mid February 1942, the air raids were frequent. Clifford Bottomley, a photographer dispatched by Australian Department of Information, took the photo above of the aftermath of the air raid — two women grieving over a child killed outside a rickshaw station — on 3rd February. Although largely forgotten now, coming as it did in the early part of a war that would produce hundreds of equally piognant, equally heartrending images, the photo recalled an earlier Japanese air raid atrocity in Shanghai.

Bottomley, equally forgotten now, had an eventful war. He covered the Malayan campaign for two months before he was evacuated from Singapore as the colony surrendered (producing another slew of memorable images) to Batavia. The Japanese army followed him, and two weeks later, he was forced to retreat again as Japan invaded Dutch East Indies. Later, he covered the Kokoda Trail, Buna and Sanananda campaigns in New Guinea and was with General MacArthur when he landed at Leyte in the Phillippines. He had a few narrow escapes — having wounded in Sanananda and a war correspondent sitting next to him in a jeep in the Phillippines being killed by a Japanese sniper — and was awarded the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, in recognition of his work during the Leyte Campaign.

When MacArthur Met the Emperor

Japan officially surrendered on September 2nd, 1945. What happened next was an equally interesting story.

General Douglas MacArthur had landed at Atsugi airbase two days before; since the VJ day, he had been asked by President Truman to oversee the occupation of Japan. It was a daunting task. On his drive to Yokohama from Atsugi, tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers greeted him with their bayonets out in one final act of symbolic defiance. Seventy percent of Americans thought Emperor Hirohito should be persecuted; there were protests outside MacArthur’s headquarters by American servicemen and calls in Australian and Russian press to that effect.

However, MacArthur understood that for the transition to be smooth, the imperial rule must persist. Yet, he didn’t make the customary call to the palace; instead, he waited for the emperor to make the first contact. On 27th September, Hirohito finally crossed the palace moat to reach MacArthur’s headquarters at the Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company — requisitioned for its relative intactness and its proximity to both the palace and the American embassy. In The Man Who Saved Kabuki, Shin Okamoto wrote:

MacArthur greeted the emperor at the entrance to the reception room, shaking his hand and saying, ‘You are very, very welcome sir.’ The emperor kept bowing lower and lower until MacArthur found himself shaking hands with him over the emperor’s head. Only the emperor, MacArthur and Okamura, the interpreter went into the reception room. Then the door to the reception room was opened and Lt. Gaetano Faillace, of the military camera corps, took a now famous photograph of the emperor and MacArthur from outside the room.”

Faillace was given one shot, but he spoke up and asked for three. Faillace also adviced MacArthur against a seated picture on a soft couch. First two photos were less than ideal — their eyes were closed in one, and the Emperor’s mouth was gaping open in the other. But even the perfect, final shot posed its own problems: at this juncture, Hirohito was still  akitsumikami or manifest deity (he would not renounce his divinity before the coming New Year’s Day), and everyone was supposed to avert eyes from the veiled imperial portraits in government buildings.

Thus, printing the photo was deemed sacrilegious, not least because of the general’s extremely casual attire and his even more pointed body language. MacArthur’s office itself had to intervene to Japanese censors to have it printed. It ran on 29th September. He had to intervene again when the photo appeared in the New York Times alongside an unprecedented interview with the Emperor — where he criticized his government on failing to declare war on US before Pearl Harbour — and police tried to confiscate the papers.

Outside Japan, too, the general’s informal appearance shocked many. Even Life clutched its pearls and wrote, “MacArthur did not trouble to put on a tie for the occasion”. As for the contents of their 40-minute tete-a-tete, nothing was made public; the two men would meet 10 more times during MacArthur’s sojourn as the American Proconsul. The general never paid a return call to the palace.

Fukushima Nuclear Incident

When I saw conflicting reports over the exploding nuclear power plant in Japan that had been damaged by an earthquake and a tsunami, I wanted to believe much of it was due to media-hype and difference in threat perception between the general public and the nuclear industry. Nuclear power was considered safe by experts, but the general public who grew up watching Homer Simpson bumbling at the Springfield Nuclear Plant always maintained healthy skepticism. Daily aerial photos of the fuming plant didn’t speak to me as powerfully as the image above, which chillingly reminds me of the images of Chernobyl disaster nearly three decades ago. Both the Soviet Union and nuclear industry never recovered from that incident. Today, the question is how bad the situation in Japan is going to get and how precisely the Japanese society will be transformed by this incident.

There are already some signs of disquiet. Yesterday, the Japanese Emperor Akihito gave a television address — the first time a Japanese emperor has given a speech directly to the people on television during a national crisis. Beyond poignant comparisons of the address to the radio address his father gave in 1945 to declare Japan’s surrender to the allies after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a harsh fact that the Japanese public broadcaster NHK instructed its employees to cut into the speech if there were crucial developments in the nuclear crisis. In a country where the Emperor is revered universally, this instruction bordered blasphemy, a potent indicator of the deep cultural impact of the crisis.

It is also undeniable that Japanese culture and psyche too will be greatly transformed by this crisis. In a country where cabinets and prime ministers (31 of them since 1947) came and went, government and industry are effectively run by elite bureaucrats and corporations, with whom Japan always had ambivalent relationship. While revered for Japan’s rapid growth since the Second World War, they were also reviled for elitism and insularity they represented. While the Soviet Union had nomenklatura, Japan’s top civil servants retire to high-paying corporate jobs in a system known as amakudari. Now they seems overwhelmed by the crisis.

While the Soviet belief in the messianic might of their empire contributed to the Chernobyl cover-up, the Japanese brief in discretion is equally troubling. Until recently, many Japanese people concealed their maladies from family members to avoid causing alarm, and disrupting calm. Reassurances along the same vein seem to be coming from Japanese authorities, despite the fact that the situation in the reactors seems to be deteriorating.

According to a wikileaks cable, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned Japan more than two years ago that strong earthquakes would pose “serious problems” to her nuclear plants. I am a strong supporter of the nuclear power, but have always been disturbed by the way industry reacts to such warnings. In university, I took a class on nuclear power with someone who is now the head of his country’s civilian nuclear program. He was very dismissive of my concerns over nuclear waste storage and transfers. Everyone else in the class (there were 15 of them) does not seem to be too concerned either, and quite worryingly, some of them actually went into nuclear industry. My professor have always insisted that Chernobyl was an isolated accident that could not have happened outside the Soviet Union. Let’s hope he’s correct.

Nagasaki, August 9th 1945

Interestingly enough, when Hiroshima was atom-bombed, the Tokyo government radio told the people that a “new type of bomb” had been used. The real horrors in Hiroshima were unknown to the wider populace; since the city was utterly destroyed and communications were hard, even the imperial government was not totally of what happened there. Two days would pass before the government met to discuss the new developments. In the wider world, the situation was quickly changing too; the Soviet Union’s declaration on war on Japan threw a wrench into both American and Japanese strategies.

On the American side, the decisions to use two nuclear bombs — to show than American has more than enough supply of such weapons — had been agreed upon since April 1945.  Only the potential targets were debated upon, so that the U.S. could ban conventional attacks on those cities — in part so it would be easier to measure the destruction from the atomic bomb. The top choice was the emperor’s place in Kyoto, but the decision was vetoed by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who spent his honeymoon there and enjoyed the city. (Another thing Stimson considered was that if the emperor were to perish, it would have hardened the Japanese resolve and precluded a surrender.) Top targets became Hiroshima and Kokura. However, August 9th 1945 was a particularly cloudy day in Kokura. The bombing carrying the bomb gave up on Kokura and went on to its secondary target,  Nagasaki.

The Japanese Supreme Council received the news that Nagasaki had been destroyed while they were just debating the terms of surrender. Now,  surrender was not only inevitable, but also the only route for survival. On August 15th,the Emperor’s surrender speech was broadcast over the radio — this was the first time an Emperor of Japan had deigned to speak through a radio.

On the day after the Nagaski Bombing,a military photographer  Yosuke Yamahata took over a hundred photographs of the devastated city. His photographs, taken in an interval of twelve hours in the  afternoon of August 10th, were the most extensive record of  the atomic bombings. In between Japan’s surrender and arrival of the American Occupation Forces, these photos were widely circulated; for instance, the 21 August issue of Mainichi Shinbun printed them. The Western audience would, however, have to wait further seven years before the censorship was lifted and they appeared in the 29 September 1952 issue of Life, together with Yoshito Matsushige’s photos of Hiroshima.  The same year they also appeared in the book form.

The Execution of Leonard Siffleet


Australian Sergeant Leonard Siffleet was part of a special forces reconnaissance unit in New Guinea, then occupied by Japanese Imperial forces. He and two Ambonese companions were captured by partisan tribesmen and handed over to the Japanese.

All three men were interrogated, tortured and confined for approximately two weeks before being taken down to Aitape Beach on the afternoon of 24 October 1943. Bound and blindfolded, surrounded by Japanese and native onlookers, they were forced to the ground and executed by beheading, on the orders of Vice-Admiral Michiaki Kamada. The officer who executed Siffleet detailed a private to photograph him in the act. The photograph of Siffleet’s execution was discovered on the body of a dead Japanese soldier by American troops in April 1944.

As a part of a propaganda effort, it was published in many newspapers and in Life magazine but was thought to depict Flight Lieutenant Bill Newton, VC, who had been captured in Salamaua, Papua New Guinea, and beheaded on 29 March 1943. The photo became an enduring image of the war.

(Siffleet’s executioner, Yasuno Chikao, has been variously reported as having died before the end of the war, and as having been captured and sentenced to be hanged, with his sentence subsequently commuted to 10 years imprisonment. In Europe, the mortality rate of the Allied prisoners of Germans was 1.1%, while it was 37% for the Allied prisoners of Japanese).

Bush Vomits

On January 8th, 1992, U.S. President George H.W. Bush was in Japan as part of his 12-day trade-oriented tour through Asia. At the state dinner for over 100 diplomats held at the home of the Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, the president experienced sudden, violent gastric distress, vomited — as the news reports put it — “copiously” into the lap of Miyazawa and fainted in what was one of the most embarrassing diplomatic incident in the U.S. history.

Earlier that day, the president played an exhausting tennis match with the Emperor and Crown Prince of Japan. A competitive man, Bush nearly killed himself by trying to cover for his lousy doubles partner, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Footage of the president vomiting was broadcast on ABC, and became a fodder for late night comedians. In Japan, a new phrase for vomiting, Bushu-suru which literally means ‘to do the Bush thing’ was coined. The USA Today called it one of the top “25 memorable public meltdowns that had us talking and laughing or cringing over the past quarter-century.” A satiric play and an art exhibit were later made. Mr. Bush is a model of gentlemanliness, manners and Episcopalian propriety, a true Yankee aristo so his mortification the next day on reading the newspapers can be imagined.

What made the incident so piquant was that 48 years before, he had been shot down by the Japanese while trying to torpedo one of their warships. Japanese hardliners still harbor suspicions that the presidential barf had been no accident.