Qui, o là… secondo…


Miura Tamaki was 52 years old when, in 1936, she finally sang Madama Butterfly in her native Japan. The soprano had already performed the role of Cio-Cio-San, she would claim, some two thousand times in Europe and the Americas—surely a record for typecasting—but Japanese musical audiences, understandably, had been slow to accept Illica and Puccini’s orientalist romance, preferring to keep it at a figurative or literal distance. A 1930 performance by the Japan Opera Association went so far as to thoroughly alter and even cut many of the exotic, quasi-Japanese touches in the score and libretto, downplaying the opera’s attempted evocation of Japanese atmosphere in favor of an unassuming realism. A reviewer in the Hōchi Shinbun approved: “Now we can watch Madam Butterfly in peace.”

Miura’s approach was different. At the outset of her career, she had written that Madama Butterfly’s version of Japanese culture was “not merely extremely strange but rather infuriating.”Nevertheless, her Western celebrity had been predicated on the legitimacy she lent to Madama Butterfly, her nationality providing a veneer of authenticity, her authority bolstered by the approval of Puccini himself, who, upon meeting Miura, had supposedly pronounced her the embodiment of the Cio-Cio-San in his imagination. (Mari Yoshihara has explored the irony of Western audiences judging Miura, a career-minded divorcée who defied Japanese expectations for women, to be a quintessence of Japanese femininity.) Miura’s first Butterfly in Japan, performed in her own Japanese translation, promised “a new standard for the opera”: Cio-Cio-San’s faithfulness was not born of naïveté, but of honor and commitment, her tragedy not a consequence of cultural misunderstanding, but of American treachery. It was an interpretation, as Arthur Groos has written, “noteworthy for its reflection of the conservative, and ultimately xenophobic turn of Japanese society in the 1930s”. Once the Second World War broke out, Miura adopted Japanese government proscriptions against Western music, putting her Butterfly on the shelf.

After the war, however, Miura returned. Despite her rapidly failing health, she gave a farewell recital in Tokyo in 1946, full of European repertoire—Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (again, in her own Japanese translation), Home, Sweet Home. She then made a series of recordings for radio broadcast, a sort of apostrophized review of her life and career. She performed the Butterfly arias one last time, and once again reminisced about her meeting with Puccini, re-emphasizing her role as a bridge between East and West. When she died, only a few weeks after those final recording sessions, press coverage was extensive. Japanese newspapers that once chastised Miura for her rejection of traditional female duties had followed her struggle and decline in sympathetic detail, tragic parallels with her most famous role, both personal and national, seeming to play out in real life. The story had shifted once more.

In a fascinating study, Kunio Hara has analyzed this complicated re-negotiation of Miura’s significance and reputation in Japan:

[T]he equation of Japan with the dying Miura, and by extension with Cio-Cio-San, also put the Japanese people squarely in the position of the victim. Such a stance prevented Miura and Japanese commentators from dwelling much on the atrocities their countrymen had perpetrated outside of and within Japan toward non-Japanese populations and each other during the war. The overlapping tales of Miura, Cio-Cio-San, and Japan, therefore, captured the inwardly-focused sense of shame, regret, and victimization shared by many Japanese during the early stages of the Occupation. At the same time, Miura’s renewed engagement with Madama Butterfly symbolized a renewed embrace toward cosmopolitanism and a commitment toward the cultivation of peaceful cultural life.

Stories that get told and re-told are, in essence, about power. Butterfly, with its overtones of colonialism and paternalism, its overly neat division of the world into irreconcilable East and West, has always been a particularly fraught example. But such stories are, always, shorthands—for the assumptions and desires and dreams of whoever tells them. They’re assertions of narrative control over a lived experience. And when, in discussions of the cultural and political connections and contradictions among Japan and the United States and Europe, Butterfly pops up (and it almost always pops up), it’s worth asking over what, exactly, the storyteller is trying to assert control. This is especially true when the story pops up in a particularly and inappropriately formidable context.


As a curious (in more ways than one) 12-year-old, one of my favorite books was a hefty piece of speculative fiction called The Third World War: August 1985, by General Sir John Hackett, and “other top-ranking NATO generals & advisors,” as the cover read. First published in 1978, The Third World War imagined a Soviet invasion of western Europe that escalated into a global conflict between the Sino-Soviet bloc and the American-European NATO alliance. My dad had a copy. A lot of people in the late 70s and early 80s had a copy: it was a bestseller. (An expanded and revised quasi-sequel soon followed.) Hackett, an Australian-born, high-ranking British Army officer, intended the book to be a cautionary tale; he hoped to build public opinion and political support for increased support of NATO’s conventional forces, as opposed to what he saw as a European over-reliance on nuclear deterrence. So it was propaganda. But it was well-researched, well-informed propaganda—Hackett’s co-authors included four other retired British military officers, the British diplomat Sir Bernard Burrows, and Norman Macrae, a journalist, futurist, and long-time fixture at The Economist. The result was authoritatively-detailed, acronym-laden catnip to a technologically-minded and slightly obsessive 12-year-old boy.

I hadn’t thought about The Third World War in years, but after I started reading a new volume that covers a lot of the same ground on 21st-century terms, I revisited it, along with this article by Jeffrey Michaels of King’s College London, which provides more depth on Hackett’s book, his thinking around it, and the process by which it came to be. For one thing, the fictional war’s denouement changed. Hackett’s original conception avoided any nuclear attacks on cities, thinking that such weapons would be only be used tactically in sea or space battles. But, in the published version, the Soviets, facing defeat at the hands of American and European conventional forces, detonates a nuclear warhead over the British city of Birmingham. NATO responds with its own nuclear attack, destroying the then-Soviet city of Minsk, leading to a political crisis in the USSR that hastens the end of the war. This plot twist—a little surprising, given Hackett’s goal of boosting NATO’s conventional fighting capacity—did make for a dramatic climax, with the attack on Birmingham being perhaps the book’s most famous set-piece. (The chapter, actually written by Royal Engineers officer David W. Williams, drew heavily on a then still-secret Ministry of Defence study of the effects of such an attack.) But the imagined nuclear exchange also attracted some of the book’s most consistent criticisms, with reviewers unconvinced that either the Soviets or NATO would show such restraint in either their targets—smaller industrial cities rather than political or cultural centers—while deliberately avoiding further nuclear escalation.

In an early draft of the chapter describing the NATO retaliation (quoted in Michaels’ paper), Sir Bernard Burrows offered more explanation. For NATO to bomb Moscow or Leningrad would have been, in Burrows’ opinion, too provocative a response. “An important provincial city was required,” Burrows wrote, “far enough from the capital so that no direct physical effects would be felt there, but near enough for immediate political repercussions on the seat of government.” Minsk ticked off those boxes, but Burrows also explained the city’s possible “deeper significance, of which those in the allied targeting section may or may not have been aware”: Minsk, Burrows noted, was where Lee Harvey Oswald (“or his look-a-like”) had lived after defecting to the Soviet Union, before he returned to the US and, eventually, assassinated John F. Kennedy. The idea prompted Burrows to some psychological speculation:

A study might be of interest, hopefully rather ephemeral, on the secret motivation of those who select nuclear targets. Was the choice of Nagasaki for the second American bomb in World War II influenced by atavistic memories that this was the home of Cho-Cho-San in Madame Butterfly, and by the unconscious desire to wipe from the map a monument to the shameful behavior of Lieutenant Pinkerton, USN?

If a random person raised this question, I might find it of passing, albeit rather tasteless, interest. If a former UK permanent representative to NATO and inaugural member of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group raises the question, I’m intrigued. Did Burrows suspect (or know) something that he couldn’t or wouldn’t divulge?


Here’s the thing: nobody really knows how and why Nagasaki became a target for the first atomic bombs at the end of World War II. It’s well-known that Nagasaki wasn’t even the primary target on August 9, 1945; the B-29 Bockscar, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney, had planned to bomb the city of Kokura, but finding it unexpectedly obscured by either clouds or a deliberate smokescreen (or both), flew to Nagasaki instead. But, even as a secondary target, Nagasaki only appeared on the target list late, and under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

Officials didn’t even start thinking about where to drop the bombs until April of 1945, when a Target Committee first met at the Pentagon. (The committee was nominally chaired by the Manhattan Project’s military head, General Leslie Groves, but this first meeting was largely run by Groves’ right-hand man, Brigadier General Thomas Farrell. Among the civilian scientists on the committee were William Penney, who ran the British atomic bomb program, and the legendary polymath John von Neumann, who would later formulate the massive-proliferation, ICBM-based deterrence framework known as Mutual Assured Destruction.) The Committee’s criteria were particular: a large enough city, ideally untouched by conventional bombs (the better to both demonstrate and gauge the atomic bomb’s impact and effects), but also with enough military value to (in theory) justify what was anticipated to be a substantial loss of civilian lives. Those requirements left the committee in something of a race against Army Air Force General Curtis LeMay, whose firebombing strategy had been leveling Japanese cities, one horrific firestorm after another, “with the prime purpose in mind,” as the minutes of the Committee’s first meeting noted, “of not leaving one stone lying on another”. At the end of the meeting, the Committee had decided that seventeen Japanese targets were worthy of further study, with Nagasaki well down the list.

Two weeks later, in May of 1945, the Target Committee reconvened in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s office at Los Alamos, and settled on five targets “which the Air Forces would be willing to reserve for our use”: Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Kokura, and Niigata. The minutes from this meeting make clear that the Committee was eager to maximize all of the bomb’s effects, emphasizing those targets that would yield the largest physical and psychological impact:

Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon. Hiroshima has the advantage of being such a size and with possible focusing from nearby mountains that a large fraction of the city may be destroyed.

The Target Committee’s preferences stayed consistent: Kyoto first, Hiroshima second, and Nagasaki unmentioned, left for LeMay to (presumably) raze to the ground. But those preferences were overruled by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who demanded that Kyoto be struck from the list. Stimson, born in 1867, epitomized the old guard of American politics, having previous served as Secretary of War in the administration of William Howard Taft. A long-time fixture in New York and national Republican politics, Stimson had been appointed by FDR largely to forestall opposition to the US entering the war; despite his age (and FDR’s sometime wish to replace him), Stimson had prosecuted the war with vigor, but, by the spring and summer of 1945, was beginning to wear down. What drove Stimson’s adamancy regarding Kyoto remains unclear. In making his case to other officials and to the new president, Harry Truman, Stimson’s emphasis was, ironically, the same as the Target Committee’s: morale. Destroy Kyoto and its shrines and treasures, Stimson argued, and the Japanese people already would be turned against the US even before any American occupation of the country.

But historians have long wondered if there were other, psychological dimensions to Stimson’s decision. The internet is full of mentions of Stimson honeymooning in Kyoto, which doesn’t seem to be true, but he did spend several days in the city in 1926, when he was serving as Governor-General of the Philippines. Perhaps more important was Stimson’s own morally and politically compromised position—he was uneasy about the increased reliance on massive aerial bombardment, apprehensive at the prospect of the atomic bomb, and desperate to exert some measure of authority over a wave of destruction that he now saw, with good reason, as proceeding beyond his control. (General Groves recalled Stimson objecting not only to Kyoto, but to all of the Target Committee’s recommendations, a sign of Stimson’s discomfort with the thin military justification for the largely-civilian targets.) Once the bomb was ready, it was going to be used, to end the war, to justify the cost of its development, to forestall a Soviet invasion and occupation of Japan, to assert American power as the world moved into profoundly unsettled postwar geopolitics—or all of the above, or none of the above.

(Another story: after the war, a narrative spread that the true savior of Kyoto was Langdon Warner, a Harvard University art historian and expert in Chinese and Japanese art, with the rumor eventually finding publication in the Asahi Shimbun. Despite Warner’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the Kyoto decision, the Japanese accepted the story as true, to the point of erecting memorials to Warner in Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura. They interpreted Warner’s denials as admirable modesty.)

For much of June and July of 1945, Stimson and military officials jockeyed for administrative advantage, the paper trail still keeping Kyoto as a target, Stimson strenuously objecting at every turn. (Groves even attempted a little guerrilla office warfare, slyly keeping Kyoto on the list of cities off-limits to conventional bombing—while pointedly refraining from adding a substitute target.) But it was only at the end of July, at the pivotal US-UK-Soviet conference at Potsdam, that Stimson finally was able to corner Truman and convince him to preserve Kyoto. General George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, had his deputy, General Thomas Handy, circulate a draft order for the use of the atomic bomb. (This and the following documents can be found in the declassified Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946.)

And Nagasaki. That’s Groves’ handwriting, though whether he was making the correction on his own or based on consensus is not clear. (When the new information was collated into a memo by Col. John Stone, a war planning staffer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was part of the Potsdam entourage, Stone indicated that the plan was “drafted by Groves,” but kept the verbs in the actual plan scrupulously passive.) There’s another interesting wrinkle here, preserved in cable traffic between Handy and General Carl Spaatz, the commander of Army Air Forces in the Pacific. Spaatz to Handy:

(Spaatz was in error about Hiroshima, incidentally; a dozen American POWs died in the bombing and its aftermath, including at least two who survived the blast but were beaten to death by angry residents.) Handy replied that the plan and target priority remained unchanged—a reply edited and marked up by at least two other hands, including Groves’ distinctive looping script:

None of this made it into the final directive, but the reappearance of Osaka as a possible target—along with Amagasaki and Omuta, neither of which were on even the Target Committee’s initial list—is striking evidence of how fluid and ad hoc the process had been and had become. That such targets were being specified as “much less suitable” is also interesting; I wonder if the notoriously stubborn Groves substituted Nagasaki for Kyoto as a last-ditch effort to get Stimson to budge, by showing how poorly other available targets fulfilled the Target Committee’s considered requirements.

Then again, I can’t help thinking that all these competing and conflicting justifications—the scientists’ wish for a controlled and successful experiment, Groves’ wish for bureaucratic advantage, Truman’s wish to end the war on American terms, Stimson’s wish for postwar goodwill (or an unsullied memory)—were just substitutes for the more primal instinct I sense in Stimson’s mindset: the wish for some illusion that they were still steering the machine of death they had built. In comparison with all this history, Burrows’ passing notion—attributing the target selection to some sort of opera-induced subconscious shame—seems even more frivolous. But human beings made the decision to develop a weapon that managed to surpass even World War II’s level of prolific, mechanized carnage, a weapon with the capacity wipe out the species, then made the decision to use it. Even the most plausible reasoning can feel inadequate to the resulting horror.

I did some due diligence and searched for evidence that one or more of the players in this drama had some particular predilection for opera. Groves’ wife was an amateur singer and a music lover, but it was an interest Groves himself very much did not share. Stimson was a Long Island neighbor of Otto Kahn, the financier and philanthropist who was president and chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, but their interactions seem to have been limited to various non-musical board and committee meetings. I did, however, learn that, early in his career, Burrows had been posted to Egypt and, while there, became close friends with the novelist Lawrence Durrell, then working as the British Embassy’s press attaché. Durrell later made Egypt the backdrop for his most celebrated work, The Alexandria Quartet, a series of four novels telling the same story of doomed love from a variety of viewpoints. When released, the books were notorious for their frank eroticism and emotionally heightened, even overblown language. But the novels are really all about narrative: how human beings tell stories in order to plumb, shape, and justify the past. In the first novel, Justine, the narrator, a struggling writer, joins a gnostic sect run by an Egyptian friend, Balthazar. But when the narrator compliments him on his mystical discourse, Balthazar skeptically demurs: “We are all hunting for rational reasons for believing in the absurd.”


In the audience at Tamaki Miura’s last recital was another writer, Yukio Mishima, his considerable fame still in its early development, his militaristic turn to nationalist politics and his shocking ritual suicide still many years in the future. Mishima transmuted the experience of the concert into a short story that further enveloped Puccini’s opera in shifting and competing narratives. In “Butterfly,” it is Kiyohara, a Japanese army veteran and widower, who attends Miura’s performance. “It was almost a magical feeling to hear a chirping bird coming out of this body weakened by disease and adorned like a table at a wedding banquet,” Mishima writes. “The clarity of her tone was almost a case of possession; she seemed to have opened her mouth in spite of herself for it to come out.” Kiyohara is so caught up in Miura’s legend that he starts to hear, in his mind, her Butterfly intrude on her performance of Die schöne Müllerin. He reinterprets the opera on the terms of his own solitude.

When she sang Un bel dì, vedremo, you could see the color of the sea appear in her eyes. From a crude cardboard ocean, authentic ocean spirits disembarked. Madame Butterfly’s eyes were no longer black like those of the Japanese. By dint of watching the sea, day after day, they had ended up taking on its color. But, as if from a premonition, just before the tragedy of the last act, where even her face, too, could have a sea-complexion, she glanced ecstatically at the blinding glare of the sea in broad daylight. At a ship that brings tragedy. It was Madame Butterfly’s transparent azure eyes that attracted it. What she was waiting for was not Pinkerton. In reality, it was tragedy. It was death.

Kiyohara is inspired to write to a former love, Hanako, a woman he wished to marry, but who married someone else while Kiyohara was away on wartime duty. In his letter, Kiyohara recalls their first meeting, some twenty years earlier, when they found themselves alone in a box at La Scala, watching a younger Miura as Cio-Cio-San. But the letter is a fiction. When Kiyohara runs into Hanako at a party some months later, she reminds him that she would have to be several decades older in order to have been at the opera with him. “You are full of imagination,” she teases him. “That’s wonderful. You could be a novelist.” At the end of the party, the host invites Kiyohara and Hanako to admire the panorama from his terrace; bombs have flattened the city and cleared the view all the way to the ocean. Kiyohara looks, and sees that an American ship has docked in the harbor.

One comment

  1. I hope you tell @wellerstein about this post! I’ve been reading Restricted Data for a number of years. I send people to his terrifying series The President and the Bomb at least once a year.

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