A Shooting in Hiroshima

Paul Dowling


Hiroshima bears some thinking about. The city has constituted its corporate image as the city of peace—rather different, for example, from Nagasaki, which apparently (I haven't yet been there) provides the visitor with a simulation of Amsterdam as a manifestation of is substantial ethnic Dutch population. There is a roughly triangular area in the centre of Hiroshima with one apex at the Aioibashi bridge which was the target for the bombardier of the Enola Gay, the warplane agonisingly bearing the name of the pilot’s mother. Aioibashi bridge is itself at the junction of two rivers (Hiroshima is on a delta) and in between the rivers is the Peace Memorial Park with the Peace Memorial Museum and Peace Boulevard (having Peace Bridge and West Peace Bridge at either end) forming the final side of the triangle. Inside the park is a Pond of Peace, a Flame of Peace, a Peace Memorial Post, a Peace Clock Tower, and so on; a park of peaces. Near the Aioibashi bridge and on the opposite side of the river from the park is the A-Bomb Dome: the remains of one of the only buildings to have been left standing in the city immediately after the bombing—the Hiroshima Prefecture Industry Promotion Hall. outside of this area, the city looks much the same as any other in Japan (apart from the substantial number of bridges and the flat reclaimed land that are consequences of the locating of the city on the delta), that is, a confusion of advertising signs—some illuminated, others not—power cables, architectural diversity, people and traffic. Only the sublime tidiness within the confusion and the presence of kanji and kana really distinguish it as specifically Japanese.


The point of entry to the museum (entry is, unlike almost everywhere else, especially the shrines and temples, very cheap) is to a video and sombre music which can be heard throughout. Thence to a room at the centre of which are two models of Hiroshima—one before, one after—surrounded firstly by a video reconstruction of the bombing and, outside that, a ring of posters including images and text depicting the city before the bombing and the events that led up to it. Dominating this part of the museum is a macabre model of the A-Bomb dome that you can walk inside. The text is surprisingly neutral. There is no ‘we-ness’ in the text that affiliates the authorial voice to Japan. It is the voice of a disinterested commentator that presents the Japanese state as oppressive of its own people and aggressive against others; almost everyone in the vicinity, it seems, was suffering as a result of Japanese militarism. ‘the Manchurian incident of 1931 was taken as an opportunity to start a 15-year war with China … in December 1941, Japan ignited the Pacific war with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii and a subsequent attack on the Malay peninsula’ (Spirit of Hiroshima, guide book). The reasons for the bombing of Hiroshima are presented as logical and emotionally detached: to bring the war to a close before the USSR entered the game so as to limit Soviet influence in Asia afterwards; to test the bomb in a real war situation and measure effects on buildings and civilians (Hiroshima was, for a variety of reasons, ideally suited for this purpose). Up the stairs to more posters and glass cased exhibits of the immediate and delayed effects of the bombing, further stairs to posters and exhibits revealing the current state of the nuclear age and, finally, the activities of the mayor and other Hiroshima dignitaries in speaking for peace and nuclear disarmament.


In the next room is the shop selling a range of books and souvenirs of the city and museum at surprisingly low prices. The cadential shop might be the end of the exhibition, but it isn’t. A further room, very dark, combines exhibits and limited text that close-in on the personal and local damage: exhibits of the clothes that children had been wearing together with their brief and pitiful stories; skin and fingernails that detached from the hands of one boy and that were retained by his mother to show his father; the shadow of a woman who had been sitting on the steps of a bank waiting for it to open; the tricycle of a boy that had, originally, been buried with him by his father; the lunchbox of another. And then bits of bomb material and warped iron doors and roof tiles. Next, a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn to the opposite side of the building and the final room that runs parallel to the darkened room. This room is well lit has seating and includes recorded commentaries and some drawings and paintings by survivors of the bombing. The room windows out onto the Peace Memorial Park and is in a straight line with the flame of peace and the A-Bomb dome.


This is the chronicle of my visit to the museum; let me recast it in the form of my own apprenticeship into the ironies of weapons of mass destruction.


At the centre of the city/museum is the constitution of the ‘tragedy’ as a unique site of apprenticeship into a microcosm of what might be in the context of a dangerous contemporary configuration. ‘We’ have arrived at this point from various directions. The museum dissolves blame in a primeval agentic soup in marking out the trajectories towards the tragedy: Japan’s militarism is a consequence of economic decline, this leads to its stimulation of U.S. belligerence which ineluctably led to the dropping of the bomb. In establishing the trajectories towards the tragedy, the museum incorporates both generalising and localising strategies. The former are constituted as the message of the voice of the disinterested historical narrator; there is no agency in Hiroshima or in the U.S. Agency is restricted to objectified voices of historical characters, the Japanese government and so forth. Localising strategies are established in, for example, the message of the photographer; the latter being almost automatically placed in an objective position in the representational photography.


The narrative moves on to the construction of the tragedy itself as event. Again agency is effaced. Again there is the deployment of generalising and localising strategies. Hibakusha (the victims of the after-effects of the radioactivity released by the bomb as well as the immediate victims) are represented visually and in terms of their possessions—the wristwatch that stopped at precisely 8.15, for example. Research into the condition of the hibakusha is explicated in some detail as is the relationship between the damage done to victims and their distance from the hypocentre.


From here, the narrative moves into the phase of reconstruction and the ironic reinvention of the city as a unique site of knowledge—It is important, I think, that references to Nagasaki are almost entirely eliminated from the museum—and activity in educating the world having, by the industry of its people (the same industry that they showed before the event in prosecuting warfare) narrowly escaped from the hell that, if we fail to learn, is the potential destiny of us all. The facility for pedagogy is extended in the shop which stocks piles of books as well as photographic reminders for us to purchase (at actually very reasonable prices—my Spirit of Hiroshima was a mere 1000 yen (£5)).


The discursive domination of generalising strategy gives way to the localising  strategies constituted by individual stories of, first, the dead and—having rotated through one-hundred-and-eighty degrees to return from the near dead—and then the living. Whilst hearing the latter voices we are able to gaze out at the symbol of a future of peace growing out of the past of destruction that both originate at the centre of Hiroshima. The line from the A-Bomb dome near the hypocentre of the bombing to the museum conjoins opposing vectors; what we learn from the destruction, what we learn from the narrative must surely both lead us towards the Flame of Peace at its centre and at the centre of the garden.


 Near the Flame of Peace stands a monument to Sasaki Sadako. A girl who died of leukaemia at the age of 13 having been born shortly after the bombing. During her illness, she tried to make one thousand origami cranes, the achievement of this task being believed to effect a cure. It failed. Nevertheless, Sadako’s sad story of hope has been concretised in the monument around which are strewn chains (and the occasional collage) of origami cranes (presumably all consisting of a thousand of the birds) that have been sent by children from all over Japan and other countries. From time to time, young girls photograph each other in front of the monument—they giggle and make the conventional ‘victory v’ sign with both hands. This sign—it would seem an almost automatic response by young Japanese girls to the lens of a camera, wherever they are—is not the Churchillian victory, but apparently an emblem of peace.


On past the Monument and the Flame of Peace, over the bridge to the A-Bomb dome itself. In front of the scaffolded ruin a young Japanese father is taking a photograph of his family—the obligatory tourist shot. The mother is holding her baby in her arms.

“Chotto matte”—“wait”—yells her other child, a boy of maybe five or six. He crouches slightly with one foot thrust forward and the other back and carefully aims the toy rifle that he is holding directly at his father.