My host at the Institute for Asian Cultures at the Sophia University in Tokyo– whose research theme this year is “Nationalism and Cultural Heritage”– urged me to visit Hiroshima, and I’m grateful that he did.
The name “Hiroshima,” like those of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, and more recently Srebrenica, Halabja, Kigali, and Darfur are conversation stoppers, bringing either a nervous change of subject or futile expressions of collective guilt and/or grief.
Yet Hiroshima, in the bustling, busy present, is much lighter and more beautiful than I imagined. Unlike the grim, gritty frozen un-reality of Auschwitz or the still raw rage and sadness of Srebenica, this western Japanese port city calmly goes about its business, as a city not only with a UNESCO World Heritage site, outdoor morality classroom, and formal memorial to the victims of war—but with a cause.
At lunchtime, on the bridge that links “Peace Island” to the east side of the city, the white-coated doctors and nurses of a local hospital solicited signatures from passers-by for a petition to support the city’s 2009 Peace Declaration to ban all nuclear arms.
Yes, we’ve all seen and heard it before. Nothing special about that. But at Hiroshima, inside a strikingly modern museum, an extraordinarily powerful narrative unfolds—illustrated with facts, models, photos, documents, seared children’s clothing, grotesquely melted artifacts, and irradiated human flesh.
That story is how a medium-sized industrial city both embodied and was incinerated by runaway nationalism and regimented, industrialized terror and violence of the modern world. And it happened so suddenly: at 8:15am on August 6, 1945, when a US air force B-29 called the Enola Gay released a newly perfected atom bomb and detonated it precisely 2000 feet above the city’s heart.
Everyone knows that general story; Wikipedia can add most of the other relevant facts-and-figure details. What I want to speak of here is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum’s interpretation of the meaning of that event—which is one of the finest public presentations at a “site of conscience” that I have ever seen.
The original museum, designed in a strikingly modern style, opened a scant ten years after the bombing, as the “Memorial Museum of Atom Bombed Relics” on an island in the river whose buildings had been levelled by the bomb. It was part of a larger peace park, yet its exhibits– like the A-bomb itself– were designed for their shock and awe effect.
The tatters and ruins, the watches frozen precisely at 8:15am, the burnt and bloody children’s clothing, melted housewares, grisly photos of radiation burn victims, and even shreds of the victims’ bodies are all still there, of course, as incomparably graphic illustrations of the effects of nuclear devastation.
But today’s renamed and renovated Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (opened in 1995 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the bombing) gives those relics a context, a story, that shows a seemingly unstoppable process of dehmanization– a perfect storm of morally unbridled technological development that began in the late 19th century and reached its climax at 8:15am on August 6, 1945– in which a modest fishing port became an industrial city, an industrial military center, and eventually the ultimate target in an industrially designed war.
How ironic that one of the only buildings in the city to survive the blast was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, where the products of Hiroshima’s laboratories and factories were once proudly displayed. As an architectural monument it is a rather ho-hum example of early twentieth-century commercial style. But as an iconic symbol of the incinerated lives of those caught up willingly or forcibly in the race to build ever more powerful things, regiment lives, and concentrate power ever more intensely, it is, even as a crumbling hulk, an industrial exhibition hall indeed. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.
The Dome and the museum do not look backward only, but remember forward, urging action. Its story does not end, as usual for a heritage site, in the relationship between past and present, between former crimes or achievements and the society we have built today. The story does not end so neatly, but narratively extends its “history” into the uncertain future that humanity will make for itself.