The Japanese Effort – Nuclear Project

Yoshio Nishina, later known as the Japanese “father of nuclear physics,” who had studied under Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. Nishina worked at the institute known as RIKEN, near Tokyo. He succeeded in building the first cyclotron outside the United States in 1937, and completed a larger one in 1944, both because of the assistance of Ernest Lawrence pre-WWII. The IJA officially authorized Nishina’s lab to research an atomic bomb in April 1941. The project became known as Ni-Go.

The Japanese had noticed the disappearance of publications about nuclear physics in the United States. The head of the Japanese army’s research institute for aviation technologies followed in the years 1938–1939 the publications in this field and deduced, correctly, where things were leading. He then tasked one of his assistants to check for potential uranium sources within the borders of the Japanese empire, including future conquests. This man approached Yoshio Nishina, who had studied under Nils Bohr and was then a senior physicist in Tokyo. In 1940, Nishina gathered more than one hundred brilliant students and led initial work in nuclear physics. As part of this work, a large cyclotron was constructed, the plans of which were previously donated to Nishina by Ernest Lawrence.

The Japanese navy also became aware of the subject. In the spring of 1942, a naval committee recommended initiating research about nuclear power for navy ships. Another committee, a secret one, was convened to check the feasibility of nuclear weapons. This one tried to answer two questions: Are nuclear weapons possible at all? And if so, does Japan have the resources for such a project, and can such resources be allocated to it in the course of the present war?

The deliberations of the committee were no doubt influenced by the first setbacks Japan suffered in the war. In early May 1942, a Japanese thrust toward New Guinea was repulsed in the Battle of the Coral Sea. One month later, the Japanese navy suffered a resounding defeat in the Battle of Midway (so bad that the Japanese government tried to hide it from its public), losing four carriers to one American. In August, U.S. marines landed on Guadalcanal, and although the fighting still raged on, it was obvious that it was only a question of time before that strategic island, with its important airfield, would be lost. It appeared that the war might last longer than expected, with a commensurate drain on resources.

The conclusion of the committee was that a nuclear weapons project would last at least ten years and require half of Japan’s production of copper and one tenth of Japan’s electric power capacity. All agreed that such demands would stretch the Japanese economy beyond the breaking point. Consequently, in March 1943, the committee recommended that all nuclear research work be terminated and resources, manpower in particular, be transferred to other fields, especially radar. At that time, Japan already realized that it was way behind in this critical field.

The committee discussed another topic, and this is why the story of Japan’s atomic effort is broached here in a book about technological intelligence. The question was whether either Germany, the principal ally, or the United States, the principal enemy, had the capability to develop nuclear weapons. The disappearance of American publications on the subject was a glaring beacon and worried them all. But the committee reached the conclusion that both Germany and the United States did not have the scientific and industrial resources to get quick results in a project of this magnitude (Rhodes 1988, 458).

The committee was probably right about Germany, at least from the practical aspect. In time, German scientist would have probably overcome the theoretical problems (and mistakes) that hindered their work. But as we know now, theoretical work is not enough. As regards the United States, the picture was completely different.

Looking back, it appears that the members of the committee, erudite as they were in their fields of expertise, apparently did not understand the United States and did not have enough information about its potential resources. Most of them had probably never visited the country, did not appreciate its size, and were unfamiliar with its industrial and commercial culture. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Combined Fleet and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, understood the United States better. When Japan seemed to be sliding into war, the Japanese prime minister asked Yamamoto for his opinion about the chances of victory in a war with Great Britain and the United States. His answer was, “I can raise havoc with them for one year or at most eighteen months. After that I can give no one any guarantees” (Potter 1967, 56). Later, talking to the navy admirals, he modified his assessment to “six months to a year of war” and added that if the war was prolonged to two or three years, he had no confidence in Japan’s ultimate victory (Potter 1967, 58). As things turned out, he was prophetically accurate in his timetables. But few realized that Yamamoto was fluent in English, was once a student in Harvard (1919–1921), and had served as Japan’s naval attaché in Washington (1926–1928). He also meticulously followed American exercises of attacks against the Panama Canal and carrier-launched attacks against Pearl Harbor and was very much impressed (Lowry and Wellham 2000, 17).

Even if that committee had reached the conclusion that the United States was capable of developing nuclear weapons, it would not have helped them. On the one hand, they could not mortgage so much of their resources for this project. On the other hand, after December 7, the American public would not have accepted anything less than a total surrender, and the Japanese could never agree to this. Even after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, a large group of Japanese officers wanted to keep on fighting and was only a short step from an open rebellion against the emperor (Pacific War Research Society 1983, 58, 129, 149).

The Japanese made another mistake, which originated from misunderstanding the American state of mind. The underlying reason for Japan’s aggression was the need for raw materials, and in Southeast Asia these were mostly under British and Dutch control, with some in French hands. In the midthirties, a Japanese naval officer published a book in which he presented a well-reasoned (from a Japanese point of view) theory on why Japan must fight Britain. The United States was barely mentioned in the book, and the author stated that diplomatic efforts should be made to prevent it from joining the fight on the side of Britain (Ishimaru 1936, 191–93). Except for the abstract question of “control” of the Pacific Ocean, there really were no friction points between the United States and Japan, except for the American public’s revulsion at Japanese atrocities in China, which hardly constituted a casus belli. What would have happened if Japan attacked only Britain and Holland? (France was governed by the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Germans, and the Japanese had in effect a free hand in French Indochina.) The Japanese assumed that the United States, an English-speaking Western society, would rush to help Britain and Holland. They also worried about the U.S. Navy, because of that question of “control,” but on the other hand failed to grasp the intensity of isolationist sentiment in the United States, which would have prevented it from initiating a war against Japan. Admittedly, this is a “what if” type of speculation, but it is also an excellent support to the argument that in order to conduct an efficient strategy against an enemy of another culture, it is imperative to understand that social and cultural intelligence is also needed, and not only operational and technological intelligence.

In contrast to the Americans, the Japanese scientific and research activities in the nuclear field were disorganized. In Japan, there was no coordination or collaboration in research between the various military services and the civilian sector, and there was no central guiding hand for the various research activities (Grunden 2005, 79). After the navy committee concluded that Japan did not have the resources to enter into development of nuclear weapons, rumors reached the army that both Germany and the United States were working on nuclear weapons. So with the ink hardly dry on the navy’s conclusions, the prime minister (and minister of the army) called for an acceleration of nuclear research efforts (Grunden 2005, 69). But the Japanese scientists ran into nearly every conceivable technical problem, and the project was finally dealt the coup de grâce when, on April 13, 1945 (a Friday), a bomb from a B-29 destroyed their laboratory complex and ended the Japanese nuclear project (Grunden 2005, 78; Rhodes 1988, 612).


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