Did Japan test an atomic bomb in Korea in 1945?

Robert Kneff of the Marmot’s Hole blog has a neat article in the Korea Times re-telling the little known allegation that Japan tested a nuclear bomb in what is now North Korea shortly before the end of WW2. To be fair, I’ll excerpt the same portion as the Marmot’s Hole did.

It is common knowledge that on October 9, 2006 North Korea tested a small nuclear bomb. But there is debate as to whether or not this was the first atomic bomb test done in Korea. Ever since the end of World War II there have been rumors that Japan, just days before its surrender, tested a small atomic bomb off the coast of modern Hamheung.

I came across this story while doing research on one of my Western gold miners in northern Korea.  This gold miner used to take his gold to the smelter at Konan – in the Hamheung area – and the story eventually encompassed other Westerners working at the this Japanese industrial center including one who, after he returned to the United States, was arrested by the FBI following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  This scientist was deemed so valuable that he was allowed to continue to work in a top secret plant and was eventually one of the scientists sent to Korea to investigate the possibility of Japan building and testing an atomic bomb in Korea.

This story always starts the same way – regardless of who publishes it – so why should I be any different?

Allegedly, on the evening of August 11, 1945, a number of ancient ships, junks and fishing boats were anchored near a small inlet by the Japanese. Just before dawn on August 12, a remote controlled launch carrying the atomic bomb known as “genzai bakudan” (greatest fighter), slowly made its way through the assembled fleet and beached itself.

Nearly twenty miles away, observers wearing welders’ glasses were blinded by the bomb’s terrific blast. “The ball of fire was estimated to be 1,000 yards in diameter. A multicolored cloud of vapors boiled towards the heavens then mushroomed in the stratosphere. The churn of water and vapor obscured the vessels directly under the burst. Ships and junks on the fringe burned fiercely at anchor. When the atmosphere cleared slightly the observers could detect several vessels had vanished.”

While this is a good story, there isn’t really any reason to believe it, and no serious evidence aside from this single interview with an anonymous source, which itself may very well have been fabricated in the first place. One detail that jumps out to me as peculiar is the alleged name of the bomb, genzai bakudan, which according to the article means “greatest fighter.” Except of course that translation is total nonsense. In no possible way that I can think of does either genzai or bakudan mean either “greatest” or “fighter.” Bakudan in fact means bomb, which while reasonable as part of a name for a-well- bomb, is completely different from what was claimed. And genzai means either “present time” or “original sin”, neither of which really makes much sense at all.

On another note, this has reminded me that I need to finish the post I started writing on the book “Let’s drop an atomic bomb on Kyoto”, about why Kyoto was not nuked in the war, that I picked up at a used bookshop near Waseda several months ago.

40 thoughts on “Did Japan test an atomic bomb in Korea in 1945?”

  1. The major proponent of this theory in Japan is Uno Masami. Yes, the “Jews control the weather” Uno Masami.

    The major proponent of this theory in the US, Robert Wilcox has used it to argue something to the effect that it’s great that we nuked ’em first. Researchers have been unable to locate some of the “smoking gun” documents that he claims to have found in various archives.

    Japan had scientists working on atomic energy before and during the war (putting them in such illustrious company as Greece and Norway). The rest is science fiction.

  2. I thought the reason Kyoto wasn’t targeted was because American brass didn’t want to destroy a city that had so much cultural heritage. I could have sword I read letters in the Hiroshima museum detailing this.

    @M-Bone I’m glad to know I’m responsible for the recent streak of sunny days in Tokyo. I guess my big honker is good for something!

  3. 現在 doesn’t just mean “present time” but also means “modern”. So the best translation of 現在爆弾 is “modern bomb”, imho.

  4. Your post title seems to conform to the iron cast rule that all questions in headlines can be answered with a firm “No” – cf Will robots do all the work in the future? Will Afghanistan be a success? Does Our Man have the foggiest what he is on about? etc etc

  5. The story of Kyoto not being targeted due to historical legacy is a myth, based on some interesting bits of truth. But please no more about that now, I’ll post on that next week.

  6. Ben,that theory Hervard scholar Langdon Warner lobbied to remove Kyoto from bombing target was debunked in the book Roy was about to mention.

    Kyoto was on the list of potential A bomb target,thus avoided air raid with fire bomb.

    Marmot hole is a great site to get certain idea on how colorful expat residing in Korea sees the host nation.But I take any discussion on that site regarding Japan with grain of salt.

  7. To be fair, the second half of the Korea Times article does mention the lack of real evidence for the story, but naturally they start off with the juicy part. Even as a madeup story though, it’s an important one to know about. There is a quite a bit of significance to the historical myths that people keep alive.

  8. The lack of evidence is implausible enough — an atomic project, much less a test, would have been an issue in the surrender discussions, don’t you think? — but the idea that Japan would test the weapon in August of 1945 rather than use it just boggles the imagination.

  9. “There is a quite a bit of significance to the historical myths that people keep alive.”

    There’s another myth spread by veteran foreign correspondent Kurata Yasuo on another Harvard scholar Sergei Elisseeff.,that Elisseeff had lobbied to remove Jimbocho,the largest concentration of second hand books in Japan, from the target of air raid over Tokyo.The truth is Jimbocho had suffered huge damage in Great Kanto Earthquake and that gave the book shop owners some lessons which led the area to become one of the few areas in Tokyo to build houses with concretes,thus fire proofed.

  10. Wow, I hadn’t heard the Jimbocho story before-that’s awesome. The Kyoto story at least sounds plausible, but the idea that they would coordinate bombing raids for a district of used book shops is just silly.

    BTW, Aceface gives an awesome tour of Jimbocho. I look forward to getting another one when I have a little more time and cash to spend.

  11. I can’t find the link right now,but I’ve read in either Joongang or Chosun that Syngman Rhee hired a Japanese con artist,whom Rhee believed as a Japanese physicist formerly worked for Japanese nuclear program in Northern Korea.Korean government gave this guy lots of cash and a safe house and wanted him to build a bomb.Couldn’t say how accurate this story, nonetheless interesting one to read.

    Park Chung Hee’s regime hired Austrian born Israeli businessman who had based in Tokyo by the name of Saul Eisenberg to buy nuclear reactor from Canada,later used it to enrich plutonium for it’s own nuclear armament program.
    And Shukan Asahi has done series of report on “Dr Khan of Japan”an ex-diet member and a nuclear physicist for Science and Technology Agency helping North Korean nuclear program,So” Japan factor” does play some role in nuclear development in Korea both imagined and real.

  12. JD makes a great point – on the 11th there were tightly packed formations of Soviet tanks beating the hell out of the Kantogun a few shakes to the north of where the test was supposed to have happened. Lines of communication and transportation to the front were intact and Japan still had working aircraft in the area.

    Sorry Benjamin, individual Jews can’t control the weather, only the council of elders in their floating air fortress. Seriously for a second – this really isn’t any less stupid than the “real” (real fake) Jewish world conspiracy theories.

    Sergei Elisseeff? The “colored people are incapable of real scholarship” Elisseff? Harvard sure has changed….

  13. Should take a look into 「エリせーエフの生涯」倉田保雄,M-bone.Kurata certainly belong to the line of many Japanese who worship any westerners that has Japan connection.Like those who build that statue for Clark sensei in Sapporo.

    Did Elisseeff actually said that? He was one of the earliest student to get education in Todai.Although neither Keene nor Seidensticker didn’t write particulary good thing about him.

  14. “Like those who build that statue for Clark sensei in Sapporo.”
    You mean the guy whose credited for coming up with the idea of putting put potatoes into curry?

  15. “Should take a look into 「エリせーエフの生涯」倉田保雄,M-bone.”

    Will do.

    He is SAID to have said that, either by Keene or Seidensticker. I can’t remember which and I also can’t remember if they were reporting something that they heard second hand. It certainly would not have been odd in the academic climate of the time. He was, if I recall correctly, a fan of Hegel and early 20th century scholars certainly liked the idea that only white people had insight into various world spirits. Of course, if you read between the lines, this sort of attitude comes out in just about everyone from Hearn up to (but not including) Keene’s generation. This is the “Last Samurai” thing – it takes a white guy to tell the coloreds what is really special about them and to remember what they have forgotten.

    Part of this was self-serving, I think – Murdoch and Sansom, for example, got most of their primary material organized and handed to them by Japanese informants but conveniently forgot about that to pump up their reputations. Working in this context, Elisseeff wouldn’t have been alone in assuming something like that.

  16. ”現在 doesn’t just mean “present time” but also means “modern”. So the best translation of 現在爆弾 is “modern bomb”, imho.””

    Really if you want to say “modern” you would use the word 現代. 現在 really does mean something more like “right now”, which is just weird for the name of the bomb. And there would also be some sort of possessive in between, a の, 的, or the like.

    But whether or not “genzai bakudan” makes sense as a name is really beside the point-the important thing is that the alleged English translation is obviously gibberish, which strongly suggests that the interview was a fraud, because if it was real either the interview subject was speaking English and would have been able to provide a sensible translation of the Japanese, or the interviewer was speaking Japanese and would have understood it.

  17. This story is myth. Simply that. There is a similar rumor about Germany, that Germany conducted a test in Thuringia southwest of Berlin in 1945. This story is spiced with the concept that the SS put concentration camp inmates on ground zero as test subjects. This too is myth.

    Kyoto was saved by some American missionary kids who had been in Japan but worked for Naval Intelligence in the war. However the US bomber command in the Pacific under General LeMay was getting antsy, and would have bombed Kyoto anyway if the war had lasted much longer.

    John Toland is a great source on this.

    The entire bombing campaign was unnecessary, and had no effect on the war. Japan’s factories were silenced by American submarines sinking 80% of Japan’s merchant fleet. No raw materials, no operating factories.

    I also include the atom bombs having no effect on Japan’s surrender, rather I give all the credit to the entry of the Soviet Union into the war. After all, some 66 Japanese urban centers had been leveled by fire bombing, what were two more? Probably something like a million and a half Japanese civilians died in the bombings. Japan was set for a huge battle to defeat the American invasion of Kyushyu, and most likely Japan would have won that by destroying some half of the US invasion force.

    The plan was then to ask the Soviet Union to mediate a cease fire.

    The air war against Japan was done simply because America could do it, and as an expression of American Army/Navy rivalry at that time. It was primarily a Naval war, but the Army did not want to be left out. Both General MacArthur of the Army, and Admiral Nimitz of the Navy had their backers in Congress.

    Interestingly, the US Air campaign against Germany also failed completely. German military production hit it’s peak in 1944, despite the intensive bombing. The factories were only stopped when actually occupied by American, British, or Russian troops.

    A certain Nishina Yoshio was the prime Japanese researcher on the Japanese atom bomb project, but all evidence shows that it never got beyond theoretical. The same went for the German project.

  18. The thing about missionary kids is just a variant of the more popular myth. But I’ll get to that story later.

  19. Max, as sympathetic as I am to some of your points, the death toll of bombings of Japan including atomic bombings was nowhere close to 1,500,000. That is a reasonable count of casualties (killed and injured).

  20. BTW, not to knock Toland, but his book on the Pacific war came out in 1970, and the book debunking the myths came out at least 20 years later.

  21. M-Bone. I will admit to some guesstimation there. However with March 6 1945 300,000 dead in Tokyo, 200,000 dead in Hiroshima, 100,000 dead in Nagasaki, that gives us 600,000 for those three events. Tokyo was hit numerous times, and Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama and Kawasaki were also flattened. Many other medium sized cities also got bombed, some several times, for a total of something like 68 cities hit.

    I do believe there were a large number of dead. I would have to do some serious research to get a more serious figure, someday I might have the time.

    So that is why I included the escape word “probably”.

  22. BTW Our Man in Abiko, excellent rule of journalism. That could be in the Fake Ap Stylebook.

  23. Post got scrubbed because of a link.

    Max, take a look at the 日本本土空襲 article on Wikipeida Japan. They have a comprehensive list of killed and injured by prefecture based on solid Japanese research.

  24. “@M-Bone: Of course it’s more stupid—what happens to the weather on Saturday?”


  25. “Like those who build that statue for Clark sensei in Sapporo.”

    Yikes! For a minute there I thought Ace was talking about Gregory.

    The Toland thesis was recently revived in an article in THE most respected journal on security studies. It sets out pretty much what Max is saying. I’ve never read Toland, so I son’t know how derivative it is. It uses second-hand interviews, memoirs, cabinet notes, etc to show that the entry of the SU into the war was a more important consideration in Japanese thoughts on surrender than the A-bomb. The article’s main goal, though, is to point out that current thoughts about deterrence and the efficaciousness of nuclear strikes on enemy thinking are not necessarily correct. He doesn’t mention Toland in his references, but I find it a little hard to believe that he hasn’t read him.

    Boys Be Ambitious!

  26. Max, the total for the March 6 raid was probably a bit over 100,000.

    Some leading research and qualitative material in Japanese –
    東京大空襲・戦災誌〈第1巻〉都民の空襲体験記録集 東京空襲を記録する会
    東京大空襲60年 母の記録―敦子よ涼子よ輝一よ (岩波ブックレット) 早乙女 勝元
    東京・ゲルニカ・重慶―空襲から平和を考える (岩波DVDブックPeace Archives) 東京大空襲戦災資料センター

    With major Japanese peace activists and researchers citing 100,000 dead as authoritative, I think that the 300,000 number is likely killed and injured.

  27. Cheers Max.

    Your major point that Japan was already in hard shape in August 1945 still stands.

  28. The genzai would probably be something like 原材, as in 原子材料 “atomic material,” rather than “modern” or “present” or whatever. It’s still as far from “greatest fighter” as you can get.

    Also, whenever I see “Robert Neff” I think it’s this guy.

  29. That is one possibility for “genzai”, but doesn’t it generally mean “raw materials”, not “atomic materials”? Quick Google search doesn’t show it being used in a nuclear sense anywhere, but I suppose it’s possible that it could have been since the abbreviation is at least logical.

  30. Hey, it could be 現座位, Current Seated Position bomb….

    減殺 (gensai) is “diminishment”….

    With Kyoto, what I have read says it was not the academics who got it removed from the list. It was kept safe from conventional bombing when they started to think about targets for the nuke (since they wanted an undamaged city to see how bad-ass it was) but Secretary of War Stimpson, who had visited in the 1920s, got it removed. The “academics” theory (which also includes sparing Kamakura from bombing) has been pretty well trashed. One book I have is basically devoted to trashing it, in fact.

    With the role of the bombs in ending the war, while there is ongoing debate on the military aspects of it, one aspect I don’t see emphasized as much as it could be is the moral aspect – the bombs allowed Japan to take the high road and claim they were ending the war to save humanity, not as they were actually defeated. This is directly referenced in the Emperor’s surrender statement.

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