Remembering the A-Bomb: 70th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Written by Kathrin Maurer, Associate Professor at Department for the Study of Culture
August 6, 1945. The sun rose into clear blue sky of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki promising a hot summer day. Nothing in the pristine sun dawn indicated the horror to come. Little Boy fell at 8:15 through this sky; three days later Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. The skies turned black; the cities and the people were almost eradicated.
“Many people on the street were killed almost instantly. The fingertips of those dead bodies caught fire and the fire gradually spread over their entire bodies from their fingers. A light gray liquid dripped down their hands, scorching their fingers. I was so shocked to know that fingers and bodies could be burned and deformed like that. I just couldn't believe it. It was horrible. And looking at it, it was more than painful for me to think how the fingers were burned, hands and fingers that would hold babies or turn pages, they just, they just burned away.” Akiko Takakura was 20 years old when the bomb fell. She was in the Bank of Hiroshima, 300 meters away from the hypocenter. She miraculously escaped death despite over 100 lacerated wounds on her back.
The Atomic Dome in Hiroshima in 1945
We know these survivor stories of the eyewitness, the gruesome testimonies of the so-called hibakusha. We read them, we heard them on documentaries, we saw them on TV. This year on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing, their stories will be told again. They will be told at museums, conventions, conferences in Japan. As a researcher of memory culture and museums of WW II, I have been interested in the following questions for some time: How does one memorize the A-bomb in Japan today? Do the younger generations still remember the stories of their great grandparents? How are the stories told? What kind of memory culture is practiced seven decades after the bomb fell?
When I visited the museum park at the Hiroshima Peace Museum in 2013 for the first time on a research trip, I thought that the memory culture seems quite alive and young. Groups of yellow-hatted school classes stood on the paths as they listen to their teachers. They were armed with pencils and questionnaires, for they should rally through the park and ask tourists in English where they are from and what they think about world peace.
A school class at their visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Photo: Kathrin Maurer
Two Japanese school girls questioning tourists about their experience at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Photo: Kathrin Maurer
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum focuses on the concept of peace as it intends to keep the memories of the bomb alive. Peace education is central to many historical museums about WW II in Japan, such as Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and others. When I filled out the questionnaire and gave it back to the giggling school kids, I felt at that time that the concept of peace makes things much easier. Who would not pay a tribute to world peace on this topography of destruction? Who would not paint a rainbow of hope with colored pencils or take home a folded paper bird? But what about questions that one cannot put so easily on interview sheets or on origami art pieces? What about the other side of the narrative? What about the story about the perpetrators, Japanese imperialism, and the Pan-Asia doctrine?
During my first stay in Hiroshima in 2013, I thought that this this side is completely silenced and invisible. In fact, in terms of memory culture Japan seems to be quite different from Germany. Whereas the question of guilt, apologies, and reconciliation with the former enemies were often central to Germany’s governmental policies after WW II, and is one reason for Germany’s rich memorial culture, in Japan a state-supported memory culture seems to be absent.
However, after researching some historical museums and spending some time at Hiroshima City University and Tokyo University in Japan in 2013 and in 2014, I realized that this country is far from being a culture of amnesia. Dispersed groups, such as research institutions, teacher unions, citizen’s initiatives, and student groups do keep the memories alive in ways that they also address the individual beyond serving a state ideology. The Hiroshima Peace Institute, for example, has conducted research on peace discourses, modern warfare, and international relations by breaking a linear narrative based on the enemy/friend dichotomy.
I visited a fascinating exhibition about the work of Robert Jungk, the writer and journalist who wrote critically on issues relating to nuclear war. The work of these initiatives and exhibitions sets Japan’s history of war into a global context and thus pluralizes the perspectives on the past and its actors. Although the controversial Yasukuni shrine (a shrine that commemorates everybody who had died for the Japanese imperial Army) still plays an important role in Japanese politics, it is no longer the only channel for memorializing the war.
The Kyoto Museum for World Peace features as multi-perspective and international approach to the history of the nuclear war. There is the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM) in Tokyo that features currently an exhibition about the so-called comfort women, who were women and girls that were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WW II. The Hiroshima Peace Institute, the WAM, and the many private initiates all work on opening the story of WW II into a multi-perspective narrative that embraces the stories of women, victims, soldiers, kids and even the perpetrators. Whereas the WAM is a new museum, many other “alternative” museums are in desperate need for funding.
When I visited the art museum of the painter couple Iri and Toshi Maruki, who besides winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, are world famous for their mural paintings from the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was saddened by the state it was in. At a deserted place, the paintings seem almost covered by the dust of the last decades, with poor lighting and few visitors. Certainly, a contrast to the museums in the glitzy Roppongi district in Tokyo that mostly feature pop and consumerist art and are quite affluent.