The Land of the Unexploded Bombs

James Simpson looks at Japan’s ever-persistent problems with hidden bombs, with more turning up every day

The Land of the Unexploded Bombs The Land of the Unexploded Bombs

Uncategorized August 23, 2013 0

japan self-defense forces dispose an unexploded bomb at sendai airport. Japan self-defense FORCES PHOTO The Land of the Unexploded Bombs James Simpson looks at... The Land of the Unexploded Bombs
japan self-defense forces dispose an unexploded bomb at sendai airport. Japan self-defense FORCES PHOTO

The Land of the Unexploded Bombs

James Simpson looks at Japan’s ever-persistent problems with hidden bombs, with more turning up every day 

On Aug. 10, a 37-year-old Tokyoite ventured out to Tateyama — a beach and fishing community to the Japanese megalopolis’ south — to escape the summer heat with a swim off ?ka Beach.

Snorkeling in the calm waters 180 meters from the beach, he spotted a buoy-shaped object on the seafloor. He dove down three meters to inspect the object, brushing it off until he exposed its metal body.

It dawned on him what he had discovered — an unexploded bomb.

World War II may have ended 68 years ago, but a lot of ordnance that was either produced in Japan or fell on her soil remains hidden away, waiting to be unearthed. Our intrepid snorkeler reported his discovery to the police the next day and the Coast Guard dispatched a diver to investigate. The munition was 16 inches long and four inches in diameter, not too much bigger than a foot-long sandwich.

The diver took a photograph of the object and sent it to the Japanese military’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Corps for identification. The rounded end and conical rear had left the team suspicious, and the Coast Guard sealed off the area.This happens a lot in Japan.

Anti-aircraft shell. MLIT Kanto Regional Development Bureau photo

How much UXO is there? A lot

Over the past five years, there have been on average 1,500 discoveries of unexploded ordnance per year across Japan.

The Battle of Okinawa left the southern island chain littered with the largest density of nasty surprises, with UXOs accounting for some five percent of the 200,000 tons of ordnance dropped on the island not counting man-portable items such as mortars, grenades and other ammunition. During the U.S. occupation of the island from the end of the war to 1972, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and U.S. military disposed of approximately 5,500 tons, and had discovered an additional 1,500 tons by 2000.

That still leaves another 3,000 tons undiscovered 55 years after the end of hostilities. With approximately 50 tons discovered per year, that is enough to fuel another 60 years of bomb disposal operations. The bomb will far outlast the men who dropped them.

Despite how frequently discoveries are made, there have been very few injuries from unexploded ordnance in recent years, but that doesn’t mean that they are no longer a problem. In a country which relies so much on punctual transportation as Japan, recent discoveries have brought sections of the country to a halt.

Kami-Nakazato bomb. Google capture

Media bomb

Among unexploded ordnance, this one was a superstar.

On April 3, work on a national government construction site in Tokyo came to an abrupt halt. Workers dug up a 15-inch shell from a wartime 80-millimeter anti-aircraft gun — about the same width as a modern AT-4 anti-tank rocket.

A stone’s throw from Kami-Nakazato Station, where nearly 7,000 commuters pass through each day, and right beside the tracks for the northbound bullet trains, an unexpected explosion could have damaged a train, the tracks and infrastructure — or worse, killed a passenger. In full knowledge that making the munition safe would bring Tokyo to a halt, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism gave Japan Rail and the local authorities two months to prepare.

On June 4, after much publicity on the affected lines, a hundred meter safety cordon was extended across the six railway tracks, necessitating the cancellation of 106 trains on the Keihin-Tohoku and Shonan-Shinjuku lines and 53 bullet train services.

Ninety thousand commuters were inconvenienced by the event which was followed live by most major TV stations — no doubt because it occurred in time for the lunchtime news and affected a huge swath of the area in and around the capital.

The 102nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal team out of Camp Asaka, Tokyo, is one of four military ordnance disposal teams around the country and the sole team for the eastern half of Japan. They set to work padding the shell with over a hundred sandbags each filled with one ton of soil.

On the day of the disposal, with the surrounding area cleared, a small explosion safely destroyed the shell, leaving only a brown dust rising from the pile of white sandbags. No one was hurt, no houses were damaged, but the greater metropolitan area was left enthralled by the events.

Sendai Airport after the tsunami. Air Force photo


Over three million people pass through Sendai Airport every year — a government-managed airport serving the region of Japan which is now best known for the 2011 tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people. The airport is very close to the Miyagi coastline and was itself hit by 10-foot waves that wrecked the airport and destroyed 67 of the Coast Guard helicopters stationed there.

Under Japan’s first ever Joint Task Force, the U.S. Air Force was given charge of repairing the airport, particularly the runway. Once the runway was secured, supplies were reportedly flown in on MC-130P transports out of Kadena Air Base, which were able to take the rough landing and adverse wintery weather. A man-portable radio set was used for air-traffic control and the airport began to take relief flights — the U.S. military would ship in two million tons of supplies as part of Operation Tomodachi.

On April 13, just one month after the tsunami, civilian airlines returned with temporary services. It was a success for the U.S. military, but it seems surprising now that during the clean up, the 550-pound bomb lurking under the scraped-away mud and debris would take a year to surface.

On Oct. 29, 2012, it did. The bomb came out to a length of 41 inches, one of many bombs dropped by U.S. planes when Sendai Airport was a military flying school.

Unexploded ordnance has been found in every major historical air base and airport around the country. Due to this dangerous legacy, airport construction crews carry metal detectors to prevent stumbling upon a nasty surprise, but devices still slip through the net unseen.

The airport closed the following day while the military covered the exposed munition in concrete and sandbags so that the airport could resume operation.

Then in November, the military prepared to safely remove the fuse on the bomb using explosives. The 300-meter cordon extended across the runway, so all flights were canceled while the work was underway. In total, 32 flights were axed so that the team could work safely, around half of the airport’s flights that day.

Despite work being projected to take up to seven hours, the bomb-disposal team safely removed the bomb in less than three hours.

With so much of current Japanese defense and aviation infrastructure based upon Imperial Japanese Army and Naval bases, it is clear that similar incidents should be expected in the future. These incidents come at a significant cost in lost earnings to the private enterprises affected — losses that are not compensated by the national government.

500-pound bomb found in Tokyo. Japan Self-Defense Forces photo

A shared legacy

The unexploded ordnance issue is one of the few visible ongoing effects of the Second World War on the people of modern Japan. While diplomatic spats over history with China and South Korea are always taking up space in the news cycle, it rarely has a tangible effect on Japan’s populace, now over a generation removed from the war.

This “Legacy of Tragedy,” as it is sometimes known, is also one of Japan’s own making. A testament to the war machine that existed here 68 years ago, and it is one that is shared with its victims throughout the Asia-Pacific.

In restitution, Japan has contributed government and civilian aid to former occupied nations, particularly Laos and Cambodia, the latter of which was the destination for Japan’s first peacekeeping mission in 1992, partly in an effort to aid the clearance of mines and unexploded ordnance left after decades of war. Japan also contributes towards clearance efforts globally under its Official Development Assistance program and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that a war does not simply end when the troops stand down; the consequences can have long-reaching — and sometimes explosive — consequences.

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