• Hiroshima in the Age of Virtual Remembrance

    In my Tokyo apartment in August, I sat at my desk, dressed in shorts and a ragged t-shirt, and prepared for my visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. I opened the web page of FUTURE MEMORY’s “3D PORTRAIT OF A MUSEUM,” a project of the artists Akira Fujimoto and Cannon Hersey, and found myself at the end of a digital hall. A photograph, one that I could not yet make out, rested upon a wall at the long hall’s end. I began to click and moved closer to the saintly glow of a black-and-white portrait. One more click and I was face to face with a young girl, her face and dress splattered in blood, her arm in a cast. Her right eye appeared slightly closed, perhaps swollen, as she stood with a blank expression. I looked out the window of my apartment and saw the busy street below, which is often traversed by school children adorned in bright yellow hats. Back on my screen, I read the caption off to the side of the photo: Yukiko Fujii, 10 years old, survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. She died, in 1977, from cancer-related to radiation exposure.

    To witness this suffering from the comfort of my apartment felt exceedingly voyeuristic. Experienced through a screen, in my home, and against a banal tableau of scattered books, papers, and coffee cups, on my table, the atomic trauma existed without the overwhelming and at times deafening grand narratives of destruction, rebirth, and peace that I recalled from my in-person visit to the museum. The silence of other museum goers, the gaze of the guards, and the weight of witnessing pain in the physical space of its occurrence were all absent. I was alone, with Yukiko, or at least a document of her in a singular, traumatic moment.

    The act of visitation to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum online is thus a solitary act that dislocates the objects and portraits from crowds, but also from the spatial bounds of Hiroshima and narratives of the museum itself. This means that the museum’s grand narratives — of largely Japanese civilian suffering, at the hands of the American atomic bomb, but also of Japan’s “reckless” wartime leaders and of war itself — are subjugated to personal stories of individual trauma. Hersey and Fujimioto have further dislocated the effects of the atomic bomb through FUTURE MEMORY’s “NO NAME SERIES,” which includes three-dimensional renderings of everyday items that survived the atomic blast and are now housed in the museum’s collection without any known owner. A melted and bent fountain pen, for instance, exists without any means of identification via ownership, but also, in its virtual display against a black abyss, without a grounding in the museum’s hallowed halls. By transposing pictures, spaces, and objects to virtual space, Hersey and Fujimoto have effectively detached the memory of the atomic bomb from the memory’s central space–the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum.

    In the present, memories of violent wartime death often remain dislocated from the dead as individuals, and enshrined into sites of memory — spaces of “identification,” for Reinhart Koselleck — as national mythologies. Perhaps, as Andreas A Huyssen  postulated of museums and monuments in 1995, this is related to the allure of, “the material quality of the object” in a world of “the fleeting image on the screen and immateriality of communications.” What we can perhaps call an age of virtual remembrance has thus manifested for atomic trauma as a focus on personal stories, grounded in Hiroshima (more so than Nagasaki), but explicitly, though not implicitly, dissociated from the dominant and grand national story of the bomb in Japan.

    Here is but one of many byproducts of our turn to virtual this and virtual that, of which the COVID-19 pandemic has quickened and necessitated. This has ranged from the seemingly banal (virtual coffee shops) to the educational (virtual museums) to the somber and heartbreaking (virtual bereavement). In the realm of war memories, the pandemic has thus helped to accelerate the adoption of new technology and platforms, from Twitter to 3D modeling.  The shift has been exceptionally evident in this year’s 75th-anniversary commemorations of the atomic bomb in and of Hiroshima.

    On August 6th, 2020, the day the Americans dropped the bomb on the city in 1945, atomic remembrance and commemoration reach their height in Hiroshima, and thus the event offers a logical, if not essential, starting point. Most years, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony is composed of ritual in the memorial park, attended by tens of thousands from Japan and abroad. This year the ritual remained largely unchanged — an offering of water to the dead, speeches by politicians, a moment of silence, and prayer. The event, for the now only 785 guests, was punctuated by temperature checks, social distancing, closed spaces, and hand sanitizer. As in previous years, the ceremony was live-streamed online and on TV, but something about the footage, this year, with a small crowd, changed the sensation of watching.

    The differences, however, crystalized at night, with the virtual toro nagashi, which translates to “floating lanterns” and is a ceremony that, in relation to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima,  dates from 1947. Children, though some adults as well, construct wooden and paper lanterns, lit with small candles and inscribed with messages of peace. The participants carry the lanterns, which bathe their faces in a warm glow, down to the foot of the Motoyasu River. After they place the lanterns in the grasp of the currents, the colored objects flow against the backdrop of the lit atomic dome, as colorful specks of light in the overwhelming darkness of the seemingly black water.

    This year’s toro nagashi was virtual — “online toro nagashi — enacted with virtual lanterns, with messages inscribed via app, set down a virtual river. In the Hiroshima Municipal Baseball Stadium, the organizers set up screens and rows of real lit lanterns, though unmoving, and stripped of the surreal, ghost-like, and ephemeral qualities. Though some participated in person, some 6,349 individuals from 10 countries participated via the web over the month of August.

    The event transcended the spatial confines of Hiroshima — no longer did the participant, whether a hibakusha (survivor of the atomic bomb), family members of the deceased, or tourist, have to be physically present at the atomic dome. And without the weight of the crowd or physical lanterns, the event transformed, for many,  into a solo affair. Yet the virtual river was still a proxy for the Motoyasu, the lanterns as simulations for actual ones built in the city in years past.

    For the atomic bomb, virtual memory has thus manifested as old forms, rituals, and spaces, retrofitted to new technology. Take Hiroshima Timeline, a Twitter-based project created by a team of 11 individuals, of varied ages, from Hiroshima, along with NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. While the project deploys 21st-century forms of media, the experiences and text are drawn, slightly edited, from traditional forms of memory–diaries. The promise of the project is novel, if not simple, and encapsulated in the project’s tagline: “What If They Had Social Media in 1945?”

    Three Twitter accounts are each based on an individual who lived in Hiroshima in the early 1940s and kept a detailed diary. The tweets, written in Japanese and sent throughout the spring and summer of 2020, are each premised on the diary entry on the same day in 1945, reformulated into contemporary Japanese, and condensed into just 280 characters–though most tweets are far shorter. The accounts focus on the humdrum of everyday life, set against the backdrop of the war, with an array of tweets that retell the story of the bomb and the horrific aftermath.

    At 8:16 am, on August 6th, 2020, the project’s account of Ichiro, a journalist in Hiroshima in the 1940s, tweeted, “It exploded! Something” (「爆発したっ!何か」). In vivid and horrid details, he tweets a seemingly minute-by-minute record of the bomb’s aftermath; at 9:14 am, he writes, “The children are lifting their hands, with peeled skin, like ghosts” (「皮膚がめくれた両手を幽霊のように挙げている子供」). To read the tweets is to forget that this is a historic event from 75 years ago, for his tweets read, in less than 280 characters, as if the trauma were contemporary, the explosion now, in 2020, not 1945.

    Hiroshima Timeline has clear links, if only in the use of social media, to Eva Stories, an  Instagram account from 2019 based on the diary of Eva Heyman — a young Jewish girl from Romania killed in Auschwitz. While the stories of the atomic bomb and the Holocaust are tenuously connected–by the temporal moments of the horrid acts and subsequent roles in the emergence of a so-called “global memory culture”–both events have parallels in their transposition to remembrance in the virtual, namely web-based, sphere. In a scene on Eva Stories, Eva and her classmates are told to leave school and, as she walks through a door, a column of Nazi soldiers march down the street, flanked by Nazi flags, draped from windows. “The Nazis conquered us” is plastered upon the story, as if the text on any Instagram story. This is followed by the rise of horrid antisemitism and forced relocation to the ghetto, concluded by a sad clip, prefaced with ample historic context, of Eva on a train to the camps.

    And yet, there are problems when memories move to the web. Hiroshima Timeline’s use of certain language and descriptions for Koreans has led to criticism“slammed as racist,” in the words of the Mainichi Shimbun. In Israel, Eva Stories has been subject to debate, criticized as an act of trivialization. In a recent, and oft-criticized, TikTok trend, young individuals acted as if they were victims of the Holocaust, often overlayed with some brief, though convoluted, backstory and unrelated pop music. As a Jewish individual with extended family lost in the Holocaust, I was pained, disgusted with a trend that I deemed a gross trivialization, which did not honor or recall memories but instead mocked a past. This, I thought, is not memory, but mockery, or content, masquerading as remembrance.

    But again, the TikTok trend may be a reflection of a long-standing and perverse societal interest, if not fetishization, of Nazi Germany. Memories of the atomic bomb, overlain in trauma, have perhaps also transferred to the web in a manner wholly reflected in societal ideas. This has been an act anchored on both Hiroshima and personal stories, now transposed to a 21st-century archive. Now, however, we must ask: how will we remember the trauma from COVID-19, experiences lived against the backdrop of social media and the web? The archive of the event is already made; it is a vast, if not limitless, collection of stories, which future historians must organize, and from which, they must find meaning.


    Top image courtesy of the author.