By Lisa Yoneyama
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is located in the heart of the city of Hiroshima, in the vicinity of ground zero. As the most conspicuous reminder of the city's near-total annihilation by a U.S. atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, the park was built to officially commemorate the first use in human history of the new weapon of mass destruction. The August 6 Hiroshima Peace Commemoration, the memorial ceremony sponsored by the city government, takes place in the park annually and brings together tens of thousands of people from throughout the world.
The 1948 Peace City Construction Law, enacted through a local referendum, enabled construction of the Peace Memorial Park. The law expressed the spirit of Hiroshima's postwar reconstruction—namely, as the Peace Memorial City. While the idea of Hiroshima as a symbol of world peace seems almost self-evident today, that Hiroshima should become a symbol of peace as the world's first site of atomic destruction was not so obvious immediately following the war. Citizens and critics publicly debated about what should be done with the incinerated space around ground zero. Some argued that the area should simply be preserved as a mass grave, while others proposed construction of commemorative monuments. Still others wished to leave no reminders of the horrific past.
Historical records show that the most powerful initiatives to construct icons to commemorate world peace and the beginning of the atomic age came from U.S. officials in the Occupation's headquarters. One might assume that US Occupation authorities, as the representatives of the perpetrating nation, would have been reluctant to publicize the bomb's "effects." However, they expressed a strong interest in turning Hiroshima into an international showcase that would link the atomic bomb with postwar peace. According to their reasoning, Hiroshima's new memorial icons could demonstrate to the world that international peace had been achieved and would be maintained by the superior military might of the United States. In other words, if transformed into a symbol of world peace, Hiroshima could offer justification for further nuclear buildup. The Occupation authorities thus welcomed the proposal to convert the field of atomic ashes into a peace park, while simultaneously enforcing censorship on Japanese publications concerning the bomb's devastating effects on human lives and communities.
The original intent of the park's chief planners, however, was never fully attained by its users. In speeches delivered at the annual August 6 memorial ceremony, Japanese business and political leaders have exploited the symbol of peace to emphasize postwar recovery and economic prosperity. In this context, victims of the atomic bombs and other atrocities of war have been remembered as martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the peace and prosperity of the postwar nation. At the same time, throughout the last half century, the park has offered a space for antinuclear protests and grassroots citizens' demands for demilitarization, environmental justice, and the pursuit of democracy. Perhaps most important, the park has never lost its importance as a site for mourning the dead.
Today two commemorative icons dominate the park's ceremonial landscape. One is the monumentalized ruin of the Atom Bomb Dome, an artifact that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has designated a World Heritage Site. Formerly called the Industrial Promotion Hall and a symbol of Japan's modernity in prewar and wartime years, the exposed ruins of the European Secession-style building now ironically mark the destructive consequences of civilization and progress.
The central cenotaph is the park's other significant icon. It is in front of this monument that the annual Peace Memorial ceremony takes place. The line that extends from the central cenotaph to the Dome is the central axis in the park's overall symmetrical design. The two memorial icons are connected in such a way that as one stands in front of the central cenotaph, the Dome can be viewed in the distance through the cenotaph's small, arched roof. The central cenotaph enshrines a list of names of all those who are known to have lost their lives to the bomb. It includes both those who were killed immediately by the bombing and those who died years later from radiation and other bomb-related conditions. In this sense, the cenotaph serves as a kind of tomb for the atomic dead. But due to strict enforcement of the constitutional separation of church and state, religious ceremonies are prohibited at this site. All formal religious rites for the dead take place at another site, the Memorial Mound, located off the north end of the park. The Memorial Mound contains both the unidentified dead and those who have been identified but whose remains are unclaimed. Because these deceased have never been properly memorialized by their families or acquaintances, the Memorial Mound remains an unsettling site that appears to call out for the consolation and prayers of the living. As such, it seems most apposite as a site for religious ceremonies.
Aside from these permanently established memorial icons dedicated to the dead, the park also offers numerous temporary sites of remembrance. The park is built over the downtown commercial and residential district that was instantaneously eradicated by the bomb's detonation. Yet there is nothing in the park that commemorates the hustle and bustle of modern city life. For the last several years on the days surrounding August 6, one survivor has put up a display in which he exhibits photo images of former residents of the downtown district. In fact, such transient sites of remembrance emerge regularly throughout the city. Flowers and water offerings can be found by riverbeds, at the foot of trees, beneath windows, and at street corners. Numerous informal mnemonic sites such as these, which exist alongside the better-known monumental icons, emerge and disappear every year around August 6.
Museum facilities are also located in the park. The Peace Memorial Resource Museum has two functions. One is to relate the history of the municipal community. Through displays of photos, relics, and testimonies, the museum tells stories of the physical, psychological, and environmental devastation caused by the atomic attack. The museum also depicts the city's modern history leading up to the day of the nuclear annihilation. Here one can visualize the development of Hiroshima as a major center of the Japanese empire, as well as a center of militarism, academism, and other elements of modernity. The museum also plays another important pedagogical role. It portrays the atomic destruction of Hiroshima as an inaugural moment of the nuclear age. It informs visitors about the history of nuclear science, the Cold War nuclear arms race, nuclear proliferation today, and the imminent possibilities of total nuclear annihilation on a global scale. In other words, the museum both memorializes the past and imagines the future recurrence of a nuclear holocaust in a different time and space.
While there has been great unanimity about the significance of Hiroshima in alerting the world to the present and future dangers of nuclear war and radiation contamination, there has been great dissension concerning the history of the bombing. Why was Hiroshima attacked? How should we remember the Korean victims who made up at least one-fourth of those who were immediately lost to the bomb? Should the memorials clearly name the perpetrator of the nuclear attack? How should the nuclear annihilation be understood in relation to the histor of Japanese colonialism, imperialism, and military aggression against other Asian nations prior to the bombing? Is it possible to reconcile the contradiction between the Japanese security treaty with the United States and Japan's antinuclear policy? These and other heated controversies have plagued the city's memorial icons and monuments.
For instance, the dominant Japanese historical narrative about Hiroshima's atom bombing has always shied away from naming the United States as the active agent of nuclear attack, and the engravings on the park's central cenotaph have stirred several related controversies. The epitaph reads: "Please rest in peace; For we shall not repeat the mistake." The ambiguity of this sentence, especially in its original Japanese version, has generated debates about whose mistake and which mistake the sentence references. Many have worried that this "we" might refer to the Japanese. If so, the sentence would seem to agree with the US claim that the mass killing was necessary to end the war. The municipal government's official clarification on this issue is that the "we" stands for the anonymous subject of humanity—namely, each and every one of us who visits the park and pledges peace.
Similarly, the museum's references to the city's military history and involvement in colonial expansion have triggered debates. Progressive citizens and schoolteachers contend that current representations of Japanese military atrocities committed in neighboring countries are inadequate and that without a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of war experiences, museum visitors cannot fully grasp the devastating consequences of militarism. In contrast, others argue that the museum should be devoted to remembering the suffering and loss to the local community caused by the atomic bomb and that information about other aspects of the nation's history ought to be kept at a minimum. Similar debates have also taken place concerning the memorial for Korean atomic bomb victims.
Contentious discussions about the commemoration of Hiroshima's atom bombing involve multiple perspectives on not only what should be remembered but also why it should be recollected, from whose perspective, for whom, and for what purpose. Rather than suppressing the differences that inevitably arise around any site of commemoration, Hiroshima's memorial icons have, for the most part, fruitfully allowed space and occasions for such differences to be aired and for difficult issues to be debated openly.
Lisa Yoneyama is assistant professor of Japanese Studies and Cultural Studies in the Department of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory.