Public Awareness of Nuclear Physics Before Hiroshima

A review of Hōshanō no tankyū kara genshiryoku no kaihō made: senzen Nihon no popyurā saiensu (From the Quest for Radioactivity to the Release of Nuclear Energy: Popular Science in Prewar Japan), by Maika Nakao.

What was the state of public knowledge of nuclear science in Japan before Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Even before the atomic bombings of 1945 seared the fact of the nuclear age onto Japanese public consciousness, and before the construction of the nuclear power industry that led to the country’s most recent nuclear disaster – Fukushima – the historian of science Maika Nakao’s comprehensively, sensitively researched dissertation shows that Japanese consumers of the mass media possessed knowledge of the nuclear age.

Nakao’s work examines the various discourses on the “nuclear” (radiation, nuclear science, and atomic energy) in Japan before 1945 to understand how Japanese people related to nuclear issues from the beginning of the discoveries that transformed the course of the natural sciences in the first half of the twentieth century. Japan in this time possessed a flourishing sphere of popular culture and mass media even as it entered a state of total war in the 1930s. By examining the popular representations of nuclear issues and radiation during this period, Nakao explores how scientific discourse in the public sphere supported Japanese imperial ideology, and sheds light on the relationship between scientists, media and the public in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century. Her work builds on English-language scholarship which has examined American and European popular culture and discourses around the nuclear age across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and provides a valuable comparative perspective as well as an illumination of the Japanese case.

The dissertation is divided into four sections comprising nine chapters which examine the production and dissemination of popular cultural texts concerning nuclear science, radium and radiation from the Meiji to the mid-Shōwa period, i.e. from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Part I (Chapters 1 and 2) probes the relationship between scientists and journalists in Japan as well as in America and Western Europe, particularly England. It examines the first newspaper reports that discussed the emergent phenomena of radioactivity and atomic energy from the 1890s to the 1900s. In the Western sphere, scientists including Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy and William Crookes drummed up public enthusiasm and support for these phenomena by conducting visually striking experimental demonstrations, and by writing reports in language that emphasized the mystique and wonder of atomic energy. Nakao argues that American and European scientists and the mass media operated with similar agenda in creating the public image of atomic science and radioactivity. In contrast, however, the Japanese case shows that the mass media and the country’s core group of elite scientists had conflicting aims. While the former wished to amaze its readers (and sell more copies) by playing up scientific discoveries made by Japanese scientists (mainly physicists), the same scientists were more invested in public education.

Part II (Chapters 3 and 4) examines how scientists, national institutes of science, local governments and a public audience co-produced the craze for radioactive modernity in European and Japanese contexts.  Radium, which forms a case study in Chapter 3, was a fabulously popular element whose supposed health benefits were touted by scientific researchers and companies. It served as a medical treatment both in its mineral form and as a gas (radon, or radon emanation). In Japan, a radium hot spring boom took place which involved geologists and tourism boards promoting the health benefits of soaking in irradiated baths. The place that radium occupied in the public imagination in Japan is also shown through literary examples, such as the poetry of Miyazawa Kenji. Chapter 4 continues the discussion of popular literature and radioactive themes, looking at science fiction in both Eastern and Western societies before WWI to show that a common theme binding the works of these places was the nationalistic notion that atomic energy could serve as a tool for countries to achieve world dominance.

Part III (Chapters 5 and 6) delves into Japanese popular discourse on nuclear physics during the 1920s and 1930s, a period that witnessed the growing influence and independence of Japanese scientists and scientific institutions. This increased social expectations that nuclear physics could be applied in a multitude of ways to benefit the nation-state, and funds were raised for that research, resulting in the construction of the world’s largest cyclotron outside the U.S. These expectations were in part created by the scientists themselves, particularly Nishina Yoshio, a key figure who established a laboratory at RIKEN (the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research) in 1929, and who also headed the Army’s atomic weapons research project. Nishina conducted public experiments with the cyclotron that contributed to burnishing the public image of nuclear physics. Chapter 6 further discusses the discourse in Japan, following the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938, on how public hopes were raised that nuclear energy would soon become a viable source of electrical power – a dream that came true, although almost two decades later. Here, too, the cyclotron at RIKEN garnered attention, and Nakao convincingly argues that Japan’s army and navy developed atomic bomb projects is response to the activities and hype generated around the promotion of the cyclotron.

Part IV (Chapters 7 through 9) examines the opportunities for the development of nuclear science and atomic weapons in wartime. With Japan at war, the country’s media supplied forums where scientists could directly communicate with the public, where the circulation of scientific information and expectations created visions that Japan would and indeed should achieve the goal of building an “atomic bomb” – a term put in quotes to highlight the new, awesome nature of this weapon. The mobilization of scientists to serve this end also spurred a boom in science fiction (SF) narratives published in magazines and books that depicted atomic utopias, which included military science fantasias by Umino Jūzō, a prominent SF author. The penultimate chapter shows how the Japanese public received information about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps counter-intuitively, instead of seeing the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs as devastating weapons, the mass media portrayed them more as glorious scientific achievements; by this logic, Japan’s failure to bring the wartime hopes for its own weapons to fruition thus required even greater efforts to promote science in the postwar period. Nakao demonstrates that this positive image of the bombs even after the atomic bombings were a direct consequence of the images promoting nuclear science that had been created before and during WWII.

Nakao’s richly detailed dissertation shows that before and during WWII, Japanese people already had access to a wealth of information that portrayed nuclear things in a positive light, via a wide range of written texts, images, and scientific activities aimed at the public. This generated high hopes for Japan’s scientific and technological achievements in this realm. Furthermore, such attitudes persisted into the postwar period, even after Japan’s defeat. Previous scholarship on the Japanese history of nuclear culture takes the two atomic bombings of 1945 as its starting point, neglecting the discourses which existed prior to that. Nakao’s work thus provides a fresh perspective for viewing Japan’s nuclear history beyond the orthodox discourse on the Japanese as victims of nuclear science. It also contains a trove of materials and references that provide valuable information on comparing the social, political and economic situations of Japan and Europe with regards to atomic science in the first half of the twentieth century.

Shi-Lin Loh
Program on History and East Asian Languages/Science and Technology Studies
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Unpublished materials (diary, administrative records of RIKEN)
Newspapers (Asahi, Yomiuri)
Popular Magazines (Taiyō, Asahi Graph, Kagaku Asahi, etc.)
Literature (novels, poetry, memoirs, essays)
Tourism promotional materials (brochures, posters, etc.)

Dissertation Information
Tōkyō Daigaku (Japan). 2015. 380pp. Primary Advisor: Hashimoto Takehiko.

Image: Photograph by Author.

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