Remembering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:  wars over popular memory in Japan and the US

Author: Candy Chu

Sub-editor: Yiwei Deng

Since the bombing of Hiroshima, how to remember this incredible event has been strongly contested in Japan and the US. While the hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombs) wish to publicise their memory for pacifist purposes, bureaucrats have been using  the memory of the bombings for their own political agenda. Therefore, this essay contends that Hiroshima has become an abstract, malleable concept in Japan and the US subjected to manipulations for political and social purposes. This essay has three main sections; the first part will focus on how Hiroshima is memorised in Japan. In this first section, I trace how hibakushaused their memory of the bombing to advocate for peace. I then discuss how as hibakusha have been passing away, far-right politicians in Japan manipulated hibakusha’s memory for their political endeavours. In the second section, I look at how America’s Left and Right movements during the 60s-80s trivialised Hiroshima and exploited Hiroshima to serve their political ideologies. In the last section, I examine the effect of the trivialisation of Hiroshima in shaping the way the US views violence and wars. 

Hibakusha often wrote about the indiscriminate violence of the bomb which physically, socially, and psychologically damaged a person permanently. In Tōge Sankichi’s anthology,  Poems of the Atomic Bomb, Sankichi began his anthology with a prelude that describes the  indiscriminate violence of the A-bomb, that killed every ‘human beings [he] had contact with’  the ‘fathers…mothers…old people…children’.Sankichi also emphasises the psychological death  he experienced after witnessing the horrors A-bombs. The psychological trauma is further highlighted in Hara Tamiki’s book Summer Flowers. He wrote of the trauma he had suffered from witnessing the human destructions brought about by the bomb: even ‘normal human voices terrified [him]…that cry immediately called to mind the wailing voices of those dying on the riverbed’. In addition, he  suffered from the bright light of the bomb, commenting that he would see the bright light  flickered ‘at odd times’. The individual sufferings culminated into social  demoralisation since the bomb has robbed the citizens of their livelihoods and future, so they  had to endure an indescribable ‘grief…and hatred’. These hibakusha detail the bomb’s indiscriminate violence against individuals and society, in an effort to prevent Japan and the world from becoming another Hiroshima or Nagasaki. 

These storytellers and survivors use the violence they had experienced or witnessed to  re-evaluate the causes of such a tragic event. This led to a series of literature that criticises world  leaders for their lack of, or unnecessary actions, but ultimately these  criticisms were  written to reflect on how to advocate for peace. In Sankichi’s anthology, he made it clear that the United States of rushing to ‘drop the atomic bomb’, even though  Japan’s defeat was ‘simply a matter of time’. Accusations against the Americans were quite common; however, in the 1990s the Japanese started to question why it was  Japan that  entered the  war and questioned the Japanese leaders’ imperialist ideologies. To understand the  cause for the bombing of Hiroshima, the poet and hibakusha, Sadako Kurihara argues that the  responsibility of the bombing rests mostly on the imperialist Japanese leaders who led Japan  into war. In her poem, “What Did They Fight For?”, she suggests the meaninglessness of the Japanese imperialism ideology that led to the deaths of countless Japanese soldiers who were the  ‘husbands [and] sons’ of different families. She further criticises the Japanese leaders for their  atrocities in Asia during their invasions, which caused ‘countless nightmares’ in the name of  the ‘red-on-white flag’. She voices her criticism of the imperialist ideologies  of the Japanese leaders and argues that they dragged innocent lives into a war that would cause 200,000 people to be ‘burned alive’ in Hiroshima. In another poem, she also criticises the Japanese populations at the time for staying silent, and the Japanese leaders for censoring anti-war sentiments, by throwing pacifists ‘in jails’. Here, what is noteworthy is the evolution of traumatic memory into a campaign against nuclear weapons, wars, and violence. However, the works of the hibakushas are often cherry-picked and regulated by politicians to serve their political agenda. 

As hibakusha have been passing away, the Japanese government increases their monopolisation of hibakusha’s memories  of the A-bomb and the war; they manufactured the narrative that Japan is the  unique victim of the war to legitimise nationalistic ideologies. During the 70s, an era that marked the rise of conservatism in Japan, the Japanese government attempted to regulate memories of the war to promote far-right narratives. They did this by changing history books to strengthen  nationalism and the narrative of national victimhood, and through media such as animations. In an analysis of the animation, Space Battleship Yamato, William  Ashbaugh describes the anime as pro-war and pro-right-wing. The animation shows that humanity was on the brink of extinction until they retrieved the spaceship Yamato to  find a habitable planet because of the constant bombing from the Gamilion. The Gamilion’s constant bombing is an analogy for the American’s  bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which concretise the unique victim narrative. It also invokes the Japanese sentiment from the 1930s, which claims that invasions of foreign countries are ‘logical and righteous’ if they are for Japan’s own survival. The animation also  advocates for the conservative political agenda at the time, which aims to remove Article IX of the  constitution which stipulates Japan to ‘renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of  force as means of settling international disputes’. This far-right nationalism is still prevalent  today, such as the recent controversy that Japan allows the rising sun flag display at the Tokyo Olympic  2020; also, in Japanese history books, the invasion of China was changed to a more euphemistic  “advance” into China. Despite the hibakusha’s efforts to advocate for peace, the reality is that  the survivors have mostly passed away, and their memories of the A-bomb and war are subjected  to  manipulations by the Japanese government to push for a far-right narrative that is  overtaking the collective memory. However, manipulation of memory for political reasons is not a phenomenon exceptional to Japan;  it is prevalent in western countries such as the  United States. The bombing of Hiroshima was mostly supported by the  American public, consequentially the indiscriminate violence was  trivialised and endorsed. Immediately after the Hiroshima bombing, the dominant narrative in  America justified the bombing of Japan as a necessary means to end the war. The majority of American veterans and civilians trivialised the event,  while some even would go further and dehumanise the Japanese lives. For example,  a Wisconsin woman’s letter  to Milwaukee Journal wrote: ‘When one sets out to destroy vermin, does one try to leave a few  alive in the nest? Certainly not’. Others focused on scientific and technological  breakthroughs the bombing supposedly brought about. In a Reader’s Digest article from November 1945, it stated that  ‘never in all the long history of human slaughter have lives been lost to greater purpose’. Violence against human lives, especially the lives of the non-westerners, became acceptable for  scientific  endeavours, military practices and saving American lives. The bombing of Hiroshima, therefore, marks the inception of the idea that indiscriminate slaughter of non-western civilians  is accepted, and wars can be ‘good’. The Eisenhower administration reciprocated this public  response with his political agenda, which promises the nation and the world a nuclear future.

Figure 1 Atoms for Peace stamp. Credit to A Stamp A Day and Smithsonian National Postal Museum

The Eisenhower administration pushed for an American led nuclear utopos (the good place that can never be), but the scholar Paul Boyer saw this push as a way for Americans to further desensitise themselves of the violent implications of nuclear weapons to justify their investment in developing nuclear weapons for the arms race, ultimately to continue the  “myth of American innocence”, the belief that there is a ‘good war’ just as the Japanese nationalists believed that war can be justified in the face of survival. In Dwight D.  Eisenhower’s address at the United Nations in November 1953 titled, Atoms For Peace, he  argued that nuclear energy could bring about economic, medical and technological  advancement in societies. In one of his plans, he planned on detonating ‘up to six thermonuclear bombs’ near Cape Thompson so as to create an international trading port there and watch the economy flourish. The American public was captivated by the possibility of a  nuclear utopos, that the implicated violence of such destructive weapons became glorified, and rationalised to the point of irrationality. The administration further religionised nuclear weapons, suggesting that the bombing of Hiroshima was done for God and with pure intentions. The 3-cent stamp (Figure 1) made after Eisenhower’s speech features the nuclear energy circling two worlds, the globe on the left with the US in the centre and Asia including Japan on the right globe. As could be seen from the quote on the edge of the stamp,  the bomb is described as the ‘inventiveness of men’, and the nuclear weapon was conflated with religion as it was a consecration to ‘Him’. The religionisation of the bombing of  Hiroshima, therefore, implies that the bombing had been ‘right’, because it was an act of ‘pure’  intention to consecrate to the Lord. The US does the same manipulations to the memory of  Hiroshima as the Japanese right-wing bureaucrats. Where the Japanese bureaucrats aim to militarise Japan again and promote nationalism, the US similarly wants to justify their actions in Hiroshima to the world and to themselves. Hiroshima has become an ‘empty vessel’  for politicians’ imaginations, and they could fill it up with their own interpretations and pour it into the cups of the public.

The Left of the 40s through to the 80s  have also used the memory of Hiroshima to push for  their own anti-nuclear arms campaign. American intellectuals who opposed this notion of ‘good war’ and nuclear weaponry focus on the bomb’s effect on physical and  psychological well-being, an example of which John Hersey’s Hiroshima 1946. This report became the centrepiece in every discussion about the bomb on the Left. However, these tales of trauma and critical writings of Hiroshima  were ‘heavily exploited by activist scientists and others’ to gather ‘public support for the  Acheson-Lilienthal international control plan’. Activist scientists began launching fear campaigns that  promoted nuclear test-ban. The American public, therefore, became paranoid with the idea  of an atomic holocaust. Movies such as On The Beach, a dystopia film about the atomic  holocaust became so influential that the Eisenhower administration became ‘especially  concerned’ about its effect on the “Atoms For Peace”political campaign. However, just like  the pro-nuclear movements, the anti-nuclear movements had reduced “Hiroshima” and  “Nagasaki” into an abstract and malleable concept that robs away Americans’ factual  understanding of the violence. These movements in the 40s to  the late 80s in America have shaped the way the Western world think of violence and war in recent time.   The manipulations on the memory of Hiroshima creates  apathy towards violence and war in America and in wider Western societies. The US military developments in recent years exemplify the apathy towards violence and war. The Hiroshima target map used by the Army Air Corps to  study the bombing of Hiroshima (Figure 2) is similar to the strategic map for the 7 October  2001 Operation Enduring Freedom attack of Afghanistan (Figure 3).

Figure 2 Hiroshima Target Map, June 1945. Credit to the National Archives
Figure 3 Aerial Attack map for Operation Enduring Freedom, 7 October 2001. Credit to the  United Stated Military Academy West Point.

These two cartographies have few suggestions of human lives or corporeality since maps of countries and cities are  reduced to mere borders and urban systems. The absence of humans and the presence of  military factories on the Hiroshima map create an impression that the city is only inhabited  by combatants. This is accentuated in the  Afghanistan war, where the map is stripped of all corporeality and Afghanistan becomes a mere  bombing ground. These maps may appear objective at first glance, but they are in fact infused with their  creator’s worldview and values, which have an effect of  ‘palliat[ing] the sense of guilt which arises from its conduct’. Having the Army Air Corps  remember that they only bombed the military targets and blocks helped justify the killings of  the civilians in Hiroshima, therefore creating a sense of apathy towards violence and war. Over the decades, aerial bombings have become even more efficient and even more  distant; wars seem far away, left for the public to imagine.

This essay explores how the US and Japan remember the bombing of Hiroshima and contends  that the memory of Hiroshima was manipulated to serve different organizations’ political  agendas. This essay first explores how the hibakusha remembered the violence of the A-bomb  and how they used this horrific memory as fuel for their anti-nuclear and anti-war  campaigns. In contrast, the Americans justify the violence of the A-bomb  because it ended the war and saved American lives. However, under the heavy regulations of  the Japanese government in the 70s, the Japanese politicians manipulate the hibakusha’s memory to  advocate Japan as the unique victim of war, and therefore a unique need for militarisation to  protect themselves. Such manipulation of memory is also prevalent in the anti-nuclear activists and the pro-nuclear energy/weapons scenes during the 60s-80s. However, in the  process, Hiroshima became a vessel for political ideologies. Consequently, both sides render the public apathetic towards violence and war. The hibakusha’s memory of the horror of the bomb, war and  violence is more relevant and crucial now; Since these survivors fulfilled their duties in  passing down their personal memories to us, in return, we as a world should honour their memories. 

Image credit

AP—Shutterstock.  Nontitle. In Olivia Waxman “How the U.S. and Japan Became Allies Even After Hiroshima and Nagasaki” Time. August 6 2018. https://time.com/5358113/hiroshima-nagasaki-history-reconciliation/.

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2 Responses to “Remembering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:  wars over popular memory in Japan and the US”

  1. Benjamin Cronshaw

    This is a fascinating and insightful article about the Hiroshima bombings and how the memory of the event was used politically (for a variety of aims). Great work of history, including bringing in the maps.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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