Oppenheimer’s visit to Japan

    Fifteen years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the father of the atomic bomb visited Japan to speak about science and policy.

    By Ian Laird | July 19, 2023

    Publication Feature with Title
    Kitty and Robert Oppenheimer meet Kiyokata and Tsuya Kusaka in Osaka, Japan. The Kusakas were the parents of Shuichi Kusaka, a physicist who had worked with Oppenheimer. Photo courtesy of Kitty Oppenheimer and the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee Kitty Oppenheimer and the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee

    J. Robert Oppenheimer’s only visit to Japan was for a lecture tour that began on September 5, 1960. Sponsoring the tour was the Japan Committee for Intellectual Interchange (JCII), an organization founded during the formal U.S. occupation of Japan, which lasted from 1945 to 1952. JCII’s mission was to accelerate Japan’s transition to democracy by introducing Western political values, economic systems, and social norms to the country. 

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    Isao Imai, president of Japan Physical Society, wrote to Oppenheimer proposing  a lecture date and location.

    The JCII had sponsored other high-level visits, including one by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1953, but Oppenheimer’s visit presented new challenges. As the “father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer was inextricably linked to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and the death and destruction that followed.  

    The JCII tried to get ahead of potential issues by routing Oppenheimer through Tokyo and Osaka, avoiding Hiroshima and Nagasaki. JCII also instructed Oppenheimer to discuss recent physics and policy developments, but the bombings inevitably found their way into the conversation.

    At one point following a talk in Osaka, an American who lived in Hiroshima approached Oppenheimer and handed the physicist an invitation to visit the city. The American assured Oppenheimer that he would be welcomed and forgiven by the local population. Oppenheimer politely declined, citing the JCII’s recommendation, but a local newspaper reported that Oppenheimer also said, “Had it been my choice, I would have wished to have quietly visited the city.”

    Oppenheimer’s struggle with the moral implications of developing atomic weapons was apparent throughout the JCII lectures. Oppenheimer recognized the irreversible nature of his work and warned of the responsibility that comes with each new discovery. “Indeed, even in pure science with no thoughts of weapons or immediate change in life, a great discovery is a source of terror,” he said to an audience in Osaka.

    He mentioned a few days later at another lecture that his friend and fellow physicist Niels Bohr once joked, “When I have a great idea, I am always close to suicide.”

    Oppenheimer’s lectures often offered a similarly pessimistic view of the world. One was titled “The Future of Civilization in the Scientific Age,” a name that he didn’t seem to agree with: “The title of my lecture is ‘The Future of Civilization’, this was not quite my own doing. I do not use this phrase easily, for I am one of those who share with my many colleagues at home and here in Japan profound doubts of the very existence of a future.”

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    The September 22, 1960, edition of the Asahi Evening News covers of one of Oppenheimer’s Japan lectures. Photo: Library of Congress

    Oppenheimer described an exciting age of technological development laced with words of caution. “We have seen many improvements, but we have also lived through profound moral retrogression,” he warned. “We must remember the two sides, science as it is for the pursuit of truth, to understand nature, to understand ourselves as a part of nature, and science as a source of technology and power to alter the world, to meet human needs, real or artificial.”

    In another lecture, he said: “The legend of the Tree of Knowledge, of Adam, and the legend of Prometheus—they both attest to the danger of going beyond the familiar compass of human life.” 

    Toward the end of his trip, Oppenheimer visited with the Society of Science and Man, a group of Japanese scholars and professors. In talking to this group, Oppenheimer strayed from statements of impending doom and instead focused on how to promote collaboration among scientists and politicians. Scientists, he posited, had a duty to serve as advisors to guide politicians and ensure technology wasn’t misused. 

    “Since the federal government, for good and bad reasons, is supporting science, they must have contact with scientists,” Oppenheimer said. “In recent years [...] it has been possible to create for the president an advisory committee which does not hesitate to talk about major questions [...] it can talk to the president about what it wants.” The advisory committee Oppenheimer was likely referring to was the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, which he chaired from 1947 to 1952. 

    In a different venue, Oppenheimer commented on the human condition. “To cope with our sorrows, to limit and make noble our joys, to understand what is happening to us, to talk to one another, to relate one thing to another, to find the great themes which organize our experience and give it meaning,” he said, “it is what makes us human.”

    Oppenheimer died less than seven years after this trip. He never did visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki. ★