In the 20th century nation states and their empires vastly increased the energy resources, technology and labor forces at their command. War became mechanized and industrialized on such a scale that losing a war no longer meant only military defeat. Entire cities and civilian populations could be wiped out in a short time. This gave rise to new thinking about how leadership could preserve itself in case of a sudden devastating attack. During the Cold War, when nations had to respond to the possibility of nuclear war, they built large networks of underground shelters that would allow for military and civilian leaders to have “continuity of operations.” A little-known chapter of this history is that of the Matsuhiro Imperial General Headquarters which was built by Japan during the final year of WWII. It could conceivably be called the world’s first fallout shelter, or first continuity of operations center, built for the imminent arrival of the atomic age.
We might assume that the Americans and the Soviets were the first to think on such a scale about preservation of government, but the nuclear age was actually born in 1938 when Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman showed that uranium atoms could be split and that they would release tremendous amounts of energy. All through World War II, all sides of the conflict were worried that the enemy might be the first to attack with a nuclear weapon. Japan tried to build a nuclear weapon, and they worried that America might beat them to it. Nothing is known for sure about what they feared and what they knew about America’s progress with the bomb during the war. An NHK documentary claimed that Japanese military intelligence knew about the Alamogordo test in July 1945, and knew about some unusual preparations that were going on with a team of B52 bombers in the South Pacific over the next few weeks.
In addition to these vague fears of a new kind of weapon, major cities had already been devastated by air raids and military planners knew that Tokyo would be vulnerable to a devastating attack. Conventional warfare had become vastly more destructive than it used to be, and this was reason enough to worry about ways to protect the nation’s leadership functions.
In response to these fears, in the fall on 1944, Japan began to build what may have been the world’s first continuity of operations headquarters in the mountains of Nagano. It was a massive underground network of tunnels designed to shelter the government, the military leadership, and the imperial family. At a time when human and material resources were scarce, and the war was sure to be lost, the military leadership made this project a top priority. Thousands of laborers were conscripted and brought from Korea. There is a lack of definitive knowledge about the undertaking because all of the records about it were destroyed right after the war. In addition, within Japan there has been little interest in knowing more about the project because of its potential to embarrass the imperial family, for whom treasure and lives were wasted to build the headquarters. The Matsuhiro Imperial General Headquarters became just another of many delicate historical controversies about the Pacific War which most Japanese people would prefer to forget.
The English Wikipedia page describes the Korean slave labor that was dragooned into service to build the headquarters. It tells of workers who died in the tunnels, and of the sex slaves brought in to protect local women from the influx of single men. The tone is generally focused on the tragic waste of lives and resources for a project that had no hope of preventing eventual defeat.
The Japanese Wikipedia page has a decidedly different view of the enterprise. It points out that the Korean workers were tough and good-hearted. They helped with farm work too and enjoyed good relations with the locals. There was even some inter-marriage. One negative thing described is the locals’ resentment of the Koreans’ favorable treatment. Because they were working on a project of national priority, they got a larger rice ration at a time when many people were starving. Whoever wrote this may have failed to consider that the workers were simply regarded as machines with high fuel requirements. The tunnels wouldn’t get dug without the required energy input. Most amusingly, the writer notes that because Koreans had no Japanese names, they couldn’t legally open bank accounts. Apparently, many local people kindly offered to lend their names for this purpose. The article concludes that at the end of the war these honored workers were sent back to Korea with a generous payment.
A rare English language description of the Matsuhiro project can be found in the book The Day the Sun Rose in the West: Bikini, the Lucky Dragon and I. This is a translation of a book written by Matashichi Oishi, the survivor of the 1954 Lucky Dragon incident – the Japanese tuna boat that was showered with heavy fallout from the American Bravo H-bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll. The book is mostly concerned with his long battle to restore his life, to gain compensation and proper health care, and to teach future generations how individuals have been victimized by their own nations’ military and development policies (my previous posts about this book are hereand here). Matsuhiro interested Mr. Oishi because it stands as a grand example of a government’s tendency to protect the interests of a few to the expense of the many. It shows a government’s inability to admit failure, cut short its losses and do what is necessary to protect its own people. We presently see the Japanese government doubling down on its investment in nuclear energy, in both its intent to restart its nuclear power plants and its attempts to export nuclear technology, and it does this while denying the horrific costs of its nuclear disaster and its ongoing potential for causing greater harm than it has already.
In retrospect, it is easy to mock the thinking behind the Matsuhiro project, but such madness was not unique to Japanese culture or this historical context. Ten years later American school children were being told to “duck and cover” under their school desks in the event of a nuclear attack, fathers were digging bomb shelters in backyards, and the official policy was to guide the nation in ways to survive all out nuclear war. The civil defense films of the era seemed laughable to many at the time, and the absurdity of them became widely apparent over time. The good question to ask now is what we are doing today that will seem like madness to future generations.
Some might be tempted to say that the Matsuhiro Headquarters would have been seen differently by history if the Emperor had evacuated to it and if a nuclear bomb had been dropped on Tokyo during a fight to the bitter end. Yes, this could be seen a measure of the prescience of the military leadership, but only through the prism of a narrow system of values that favors expending many lives in order to save a few. Defeat would have come eventually in any case. The greatest irony of the story is that in July 1945 when the Emperor was advised to go to the refuge that had been built for him, he refused to leave Tokyo. He still had some influence on decisions, and he intended to keep it. According to the history told in Japan’s Longest Day, the Emperor’s surrender announcement was broadcast only because of the persistence of the Emperor and his allies in the government who got the recording out of the palace and past the military die-hards who wanted every Japanese man, woman and child to fight to the last with bamboo spears.
The excerpt from The Day the Sun Rose in the West follows below:
From The Day the Sun Rose in the West: Bikini, the Lucky Dragon and I:
On January 11, 1997, I was invited to speak about my experience as a hibakusha at a New Year’s seminar of the East Japan Railway Workers’ Union (Nagano branch)… The next day the union’s secretary and its vice-chair took me to the site of the “Phantom Matsuhiro Imperial General Headquarters,” under construction in secret toward the end of the Pacific War.
This underground shelter was for the Emperor and Empress, first of all, and for Japan’s military high command to move to in case of any enemy landing on Japan proper. It was built to make it possible for the Japanese people to fight to the very last person. Construction was carried out at top speed; after nine months, when it was 75% finished, the war ended with Japan’s defeat. It remained unfinished.
What an idea! What scope! What cruelty! Having heard the story, leaving the cave, I turned and for a moment looked back again, as if peeking, at the inside, which was lit dimly by naked light bulbs. From the cave came bitter hatred and groans, in Korean. A document compiled in 1993 by a research group of he JR East Workers’ Union, Nagano branch, states:
The Imperial Japanese Military Headquarters, supreme command of the Japanese military, was established in 1893; it was comprised of the Army Chief of Staff and the Navy Command. It lasted through the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, and down to Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. Although all signs indicated that Japan’s defeat was imminent, the Japanese government and military provided the Japanese people with false information that Japan was winning the war, while at the same time it constructed in secret this underground shelter known as “Matsuhiro Imperial General Headquarters” in preparation for the “final battle at home.”
The plan to move Imperial General Headquarters to Matsuhiro involved key state organs: the Imperial family, government agencies, the military leadership, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation [NHK], and others; the project covered a vast area of over 150 square miles, all of the Zenkoji Flat.
The underground tunnels, excavated in the last nine months before Japan’s defeat, reached eight miles in length; the total cost was 200 million yen, equivalent to about 2 billion yen ($ 19 million) today.
The construction was led primarily by the Eastern Army, Nishimatsu Construction Co., and Kajima Corporation, and a total of three million workers were mobilized. The dangerous underground work, such as dynamiting and digging, was done by more than 7,000 Koreans who in the guise of “conscription” had been brought from the Korean Peninsula and made to do forced labor. They worked in two shifts. If they started at 5 a.m., they weren’t allowed to quit until after dark; they were not allowed to speak Korean, their mother tongue, among themselves. Under strict surveillance, they were exploited, and countless lives were lost.
On October 7, 1947, when Emperor Showa visited this area, he is said to have asked about the site, “I hear that somewhere in this area during the war they excavated tunnels wastefully. Where is it?”
This tragic shelter that the war produced, this cave, that claimed so many lives and cost such an enormous amount of money, is now equipped with instruments for seismological observation and is used in part as a Meteorological Agency observatory.
Effron, Sonni. “Digging up the Past.” The Los Angeles Times. February 9, 1998.
Harrington, Jean. “Two Elements from One: The Most Important Discovery of the Present Year is also the Biggest Explosion in Atomic History – Splitting the Uranium Atom.” Scientific American, October 1939.
Oishi, Matashichi. The Day the Sun Rose in the West: Bikini, the Lucky Dragon and I. University of Hawaii Press, 2011, p. 108-109.
The Pacific War Research Society. Japan’s Longest Day. Kodansha International, 1968.