In the final weeks toward the first ever use of an atomic bomb in warfare, a list of Japanese cities was compiled by the US military and scientists as potential targets to bring down the Asian superpower. Each city was carefully selected based on the foreseen impact that such an attack would have on Japanese public opinion regarding the country’s position in World War II, with the expected result of a surrender to the Allies. Among the cities put on the list was Kyoto, the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years until the relocation of the seat of power to Tokyo in 1869. Apart from its historical significance, Kyoto was chosen as a target also because it was home to many factories as well as universities, and dropping an atomic bomb on the city was believed to bring an imminent end to the war.
The U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson noticed that Kyoto was on the list and ordered its removal, but the military insisted. Two weeks before the scheduled bombing, Kyoto was still on the list, and this prompted Stimson to go directly to President Truman. He argued that Japanese bitterness about the complete destruction of Kyoto would make it harder for them to reconcile with the U.S. than with the Russians. The last thing Truman wanted was to push another country in Asia closer to the Soviet Union, hence his approval to remove Kyoto from the list.
On August 6 and 9, 1945, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. Together, the atomic bombs killed at least 120,000 people and forced Japan to surrender on August 15, effectively ending World War II the way the U.S. had wanted. In Kyoto, centuries-old temples, shrines, palaces, and machiya (wooden townhouses) were left unscathed. Despite losing the conflict, the Japanese at least still had Kyoto as a bastion of their cultural identity, one to reflect on in the long recovery of their nation from the debris of war.
Almost half a century later, in 1994, the surviving monuments from Kyoto’s past were listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. That might not have happened without Stimson’s insistence to spare the ancient city from wartime bombing, although a personal reason might have motivated him even more. Some historians believe that the Secretary of War’s effort to save Kyoto was largely attributed to his connection to the city itself. During his tenure as the governor of the Philippines, Henry Stimson spent his honeymoon in Kyoto and he was also known as an admirer of Japanese culture.
Whatever Stimson’s reasons were, the decision made by President Truman has allowed people from all across the globe today to marvel at the ingenuity of Japanese architecture and the restrained yet elegant aesthetics found in the age-old streets and temples of Kyoto. The city of 1.5 million people boasts historical treasures at every corner: from the massive wooden pillars of Kiyomizu-dera to Kinkaku-ji whose gilded exterior compensates for its rather modest size; the imposing sanmon (Japanese Buddhist temple gate) of Chion-in to the endless rows of small vermilion torii (gate of a Shinto shrine) at Fushimi Inari Taisha; the quintessentially Japanese garden of Ginkaku-ji to the chirping “nightingale floors” of Nijo Castle; and a wealth of other heritage sites harking back to centuries past. Being Japan, however, technology is wholeheartedly embraced even in an ancient place like Kyoto. Despite the high-tech check in experience that welcomed us to our hotel, the lodgings were fitted with tatami mats and shoji screens which gave our room a very traditional feel. These little touches reminiscent of the past provided us not only with a cozy place to stay for the next four nights, but also a fitting start for our exploration of Japan’s fascinating former capital.