Let’s hope this party isn’t a blast
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 11, 2009
THE CASUALTIES OF WAR are devastating enough when they occur during the heat of the conflict, but are a shocking tragedy when they recur without warning more than a half-century later.
The people of Okinawa need no additional explanation. Their islands became a charnel house in 1945 when they were the only extensively populated part of Japan to be invaded by Allied forces. Yet it is still possible for the Okinawans to be killed or maimed today because of that war, almost 64 years since the day it ended.
That’s because Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (the army) estimates that 2,500 tons of unexploded bombs and other munitions remain underground, which they think will take another 80 years to remove. From the surrender to the end of last year, the SDF had disposed of a total of 1,378,060 unexploded devices, more than 30,000 of which were collected and defused in 2008 alone.
The worst single incident involving these munitions occurred in August 1948, when an American ship tasked with removing them from the island of Iejima blew up, killing 106 and injuring 73 on a nearby ferry.
Incidents occur even in the most commonplace settings, however. Last January in Itoman, a workman was operating a power shovel during a minor construction project. The removal of the earth caused a hole to open under a hidden artillery shell. The hole collapsed, the shell detonated, and the workman was buried in dirt and bloodied by shards of glass.
In fact, the explosion hurled rock and earth for several hundred meters and shattered glass in the windows of a nearby kindergarten. The people in the neighborhood thought it sounded like thunder, but a nearby 74-year-old survivor of the Battle of Okinawa knew exactly what had happened. He remembered what exploding shells sounded like.
It’s astonishing to consider, but from the end of the war through this fiscal year, which ends this month, the financial liability for the disposal of any of these unexploded devices found during construction work or for other projects was split equally between the national government and the municipal government in which the munition was found. The Ministry of Finance has allocated enough funds in the new budget, however, for the national government to assume the entire expense starting next month, a step welcomed by the municipalities.
But just as astonishingly, the new allocations will apply only to public sector projects. The national government will pick up all the expenses if, say, an unexploded bomb is discovered when a local town is laying new sewer lines. The government won’t foot the bill if something turns up during private-sector projects, such as the excavation work to build an apartment house.
This is such an unusual policy that even local Okinawan government authorities are hard put to find a rationale for it. Several municipal officers have stated publicly they see no reason for a distinction to be made.
Not only are unexploded bombs still causing problems more than 60 years since the armistice—the Japanese government is still incapable of making level-headed decisions about the war after all these years.
Afterwords: This is also a problem in Germany, as one might expect. Here’s an excellent article in the English version of Der Spiegel about a bomb disposal expert, and another about the work to remove unexploded bombs at the Tegel Airport in Berlin.
The German expert thinks it wouldn’t be so difficult to find and remove all the unexploded devices, but the government won’t pony up for it unless they have to.