I recently visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum where they unveiled a completely new series of exhibits on the atomic bombing. This is the second revamp since my first visit to the museum in 1981, the other coinciding with the 1995 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings.
History Lite to Heisei Awakening
The 1981 version, in a more modest facility, presented a bare bones account that left me with the impression that the atomic bombing came out of the blue, like an unpredicted natural disaster. Although uncomplicated by any analytical interpretation or context, the scenes of devastation were viscerally powerful. The awakening during the Heisei Era (1989-2019) of Emperor Akihito’s reign occurred after Emperor Showa’s (Hirohito’s) death in 1989. While he was alive it was difficult to delve too critically into a Holy War fought in his name.
Suddenly in the early 1990s, scholars and pundits exhumed the horrors that Japan unleashed across Asia between 1931 and 1945. This dramatic shift towards a more contrite view of Japan’s shared history with Asia influenced the 1995 Hiroshima narrative. Moreover, as Robert Jacobs, professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University, explains, “a driving force behind the revision in 1995 was the Asian Games being hosted here in 1993. During that event, many Korean and Chinese visited the museum and it came under very heavy criticism for the omission of any context to the attack. While the timing may have corresponded to the change in Imperial eras, here, people always talk about that revision as a response to the games and the increase in tourism it heralded.”
Near the entrance, the 1995 version ensured that visitors learned that Japan had engaged in imperial aggression in China and elsewhere, and that Hiroshima was a military headquarters for troops involved in those campaigns and was engaged in military-related manufacturing. Since this museum is the most visited site for school trips in Japan, it is an important forum for educating Japanese youth and thus the added context was helpful. One still encountered the horrors of the atomic bombing, and the anti-nuclear message was unmistakable, but Japan was also implicated for instigating a war that provoked the nuclear nightmare. Yet, for some visitors, the contextualization veered uncomfortably close to a rationalization for an atomic inferno that claimed 140,000 lives in Hiroshima alone by the end of 1945.
The newly renovated facility gleams, designed with Japanese panache. One ascends to the second floor and enters a room with a very long, large black-and-white photo on the wall capturing a street scene from pre-bombed Hiroshima, followed by a similar curving photo showing the smoldering aftermath. In the center of that room is a large diorama with a map of the city where a looping video simulates the bombing with the sound of the engines heralding the approach, and then the nose of the B29 appears just before the entire scene explodes into a fireball, followed by smoke billowing from the ruins. Along with other patrons I lingered and watched this riveting video several times.
Visitors proceed down a long, darkened hallway where at the end there is an illuminated photo of a bandaged girl. This second section features artifacts of children killed in the bombing with panels telling us who they were and what they were doing when the blast struck. Images of cute children are juxtaposed with the remnants of lives unlived, an unnerving contextualization that lingers. It is a dark windowless space for contemplation of the unimaginable. There are witness testimonies interspersed with pieces of twisted metal, tattered clothing, singed school bags, a fragmented Buddha statue, demon’s faces, and a child’s tricycle with large photos of the victims connecting the items with individuals, conveying a startling poignancy that eludes the grim statistics. The curation succeeds in capturing the “inhumane nature of nuclear weapons” and promoting the agenda of “No more Hiroshimas.”
Foreign born victims of the bombing have been brought into the new narrative as three non-Japanese are highlighted on wall panels with big photos above their stories: a Korean, a student from Malaysia, and a German priest. Yet, in my view, Koreans still don’t get their proper due. We learn that nuclear weapons don’t discriminate and that the casualties included, “Tens of thousands of Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, as well as Japanese-Americans [who] were living in Hiroshima at the time, including those who had been conscripted or recruited from those areas.” Not untrue, but somewhat misleading since Korean forced laborers were by far the largest foreign-born ethnic group working in Hiroshima’s factories and estimates of their deaths from bombing and radiation range up to 20,000. Thus, placing a plaque (“Away from Home”) in a corner commemorating all the “destroyed lives” of foreigners in Hiroshima, including American POWs (a handful), German priests (a few), Russian families (three), and students from Asia, is an improvement on the museum’s previous narratives, but inadequate. The lumping together of such disparate groups whose only commonality was not being Japanese, and whose varied experiences and stories remain largely unraveled and unappreciated, fails to dignify their humanity in the way the room does so admirably for Japanese casualties.
According to Robert Jacobs, who participated in advisory councils for the 2019 renovation related to the foreign hibakusha (“atomic bomb survivors”), “several committee members advocated for very direct and specific panels on the Korean hibakusha. They got very serious pushback from several older members who strongly asserted that there were many hibakusha living abroad and we should restrict the panels to them as a collective rather than singling out the Korean hibakusha.”
Visitors do encounter Kwak Kwi-Hoon, a Korean student who was conscripted and assigned to work in Hiroshima, who survived with serious injuries and subsequently became an advocate for Korean hibakusha. His slogan “A-bomb survivors know no borders” confronts the reality that the Japanese government long denied Korean hibakusha the medical care and financial benefits accorded to Japanese hibakusha. It wasn’t until after an Osaka High Court ruling in 2002 that “survivors are survivors wherever they are” that Japan stopped discriminating among hibakusha, providing allowances to overseas survivors beginning in the 2004 fiscal year. However, the amount provided is less than what hibakusha in Japan receive and doesn’t fully cover medical treatment for overseas beneficiaries. Reacting to this ongoing discrimination, Kwak Kwi-hoon told the media that the government should equalize treatment in line with the court ruling and “not torment and discriminate against them through prolonged trials.”
Moving on in this section, visitors see the eerie shadow of someone etched into stone by the nuclear flash and learn about the black rain that exposed many to high concentrations of radiation. Large photographs capture the ominous “spots of death” that appeared on the skin of those who had been exposed to high levels of radiation, signaling their imminent death. Some survivors lost all their hair while others were scarred with horrific burns and keloids that remained painful and debilitating reminders of August 6, 1945. And, there was the social stigma of being a hibakusha — someone poisoned by radiation — and fears that the grim reaper was never far and that any children would inherit a Pandora’s Box of illnesses. We also encounter orphans and elderly survivors all alone, reminding us of the unending torments of their disappeared families.
One of the more positive aspects of the exhibit is the belated recognition that many survivors suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While Japanese society values gamanzuyoi (perseverance), often embracing uplifting stories of people overcoming adversity against the odds, the reality for many was far less heartening. Many hibakusha suffered from listlessness, an inability to concentrate, and found it hard to hold down a regular job. Many were haunted by the memories of lost relatives and friends, some of whom perished slowly and painfully from ghastly wounds and the nightmarish scenes of mass death they had witnessed, while others suffered from survivor’s guilt. This syndrome was termed buraburabyo (chronic fatigue) in Japanese, and many suffered from recurring bouts of this crippling lethargy. This aspect of the exhibit underscores how social norms have changed over the decades, as now society shows more compassion to those suffering psychological illnesses, something the collective gaze long avoided.
Visitors proceed along a glass-walled corridor, a bright space that takes some adjusting to after emerging from the sepulcher dimness that precedes. The vista encompasses the Peace Park, Memorial Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, reflecting pool, and Flame of Peace with the iconic A-Bomb Dome looming in the distance. In the center of this corridor is a viewpoint silhouette that identifies these prominent landmarks. I was pleasantly surprised that the monument to the Korean victims is also indicated even though it is behind a tree and not visible from this perch. Their memorial not only commemorates the A-bomb victims but also the lingering discrimination against their memory.
The sad history of this memorial stone is inscribed in the hearts of many Koreans. Back in 1970, Korean residents of Japan, zainichi, applied for permission to place the memorial in the Peace Memorial Park, but city authorities refused. And so it was placed across the road, a glowering monument of reproach. Finally, in 1999, officials found suitable space in the park to relocate the stunning stone sculpture of a large turtle with a tall obelisk rising from its back. It is festooned with garlands of memorial cranes and bears this inscription: “Toward the end of the war, around 100,000 Koreans were living in Hiroshima as soldiers, civilians working for the army, conscripted workers, mobilized students and ordinary citizens. When the atomic bomb was dropped, the precious lives of around 20,000 Koreans were instantly snuffed out.” Their saga is belatedly on display, complicating the victimization narrative while bearing testimony to lingering prejudice and indifference about their fates.
The third section focuses on the Manhattan project, the scientific challenges, and the geopolitical context. This room has 20 touchscreen panels where visitors can access files of information on various related subjects, an area that attracted lots of students during my visit, in addition to dioramas, explanatory panels and even miniature models of the bombs. Here, one encounters a somewhat biased narrative based on errors of omission and some subtle distortions. It is implied that US machinations matter more than Japanese intransigence, and American knowledge of Japan’s efforts to seek a negotiated surrender through Soviet mediation based on intercepts of secret cables should have influenced the US end of war strategy more than it did. There is also a panel that lays out the logic of the various options the US considered before deciding on the atomic bombings, but it provides no probing analysis of the assumptions and calculations that led to the fateful choice.
The panel on the Potsdam Declaration is fascinating but also somewhat misleading. The synopsis of the declaration elides some crucial points, for example asserting it called for the unconditional surrender of Japan whereas the document actually called for the unconditional surrender of the armed forces, a critical detail that suggested who would be held accountable and thus hinted favorably about the fate of the Emperor. This was always a worry for hardliners who rejected unconditional surrender because of the uncertain fate of the Emperor and their martial pride. Moderates such as Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori were inclined to accept the Potsdam terms because they read between the lines and wished to spare their fellow Japanese more unnecessary suffering.
In February 1945 the Japanese military conducted a survey that determined Japan had no chance to win the war but chose to fight on even as they couldn’t protect the people from the consequences of their reckless war. The military appeared ready to fight down to the last Japanese and Okinawans still resent being used as sacrificial pawns in a war everyone knew was a lost cause. But the museum doesn’t complicate the narrative with any indictment of Japan’s military elite, assigning responsibility to the US. This is not to argue the US doesn’t bear responsibility, but the failure to end the war before the atomic bombings and the Soviet entry into the war was not solely America’s fault. Only so much can be packed into a panel so understandably nuanced explanations suffer, but the slant of the narrative is instructive.
The detailed panels on nuclear bomb testing, disarmament, and proliferation are sobering and discouraging. Their inclusion marks a welcome addition to the museum, ensuring that visitors appreciate the arc of atomic history from 1945 to the present, thereby reinforcing Hiroshima’s relevance in the 21st century. The inescapable conclusion is that not enough is being done to put the nuclear genie back into the bottle, posing a grave threat to humanity. Efforts towards eliminating nuclear weapons have made some headway but there has been some significant backsliding. While lauding the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) there is no upbraiding of PM Abe Shinzo for withholding Japan’s support from UN disarmament initiatives and thereby relinquishing the moral leadership conferred by the atomic tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The final section of the museum’s permanent exhibits has some of the most valuable historical context, but by the time visitors make it this far, few spend much time there. Tours are rushing on and students’ concentration may be flagging. On the day of my visit I was the only one delving into the trove of information available in the touchscreen panels. Like the 1995 narrative, Hiroshima is depicted as an important military base and implicated in every significant military campaign since the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. There is a reference to the Nanjing Massacre (eschewing the more euphemistic Nanjing Incident or total denial favored by some revisionists) and a damning assertion that, “the Chinese sacrifice included soldiers, POWs, civilians and children.” Fascinating details about wartime censorship, mobilization, and bamboo spear drills for schoolchildren in preparation for an anticipated invasion, convey the pathos of the era. There is also reference to Japan’s official 1945 “decisive war” strategy aimed at inflicting extensive damage on the US military so that a war weary America would agree to a negotiated peace.
The unambiguous reference to Koreans as forced labor is an inconvenient admission given the current row between Tokyo and Seoul over this issue. Bluntly stated, “many of these Koreans were mobilized for labor service, conscripted to work at Japanese factories and other facilities against their will.” Another file traces the post-1939 evolution of euphemisms for labor mobilization from “recruitment” and “official job placement” to “conscription” and “mass immigration,” finally acknowledging that in the postwar era it “gradually came to be called ‘forced relocation’ or ‘forced labor’ to emphasize that Koreans were mobilized against their will.” Furthermore, visitors learn that this system also applied to Chinese.
The popular, final temporary exhibit, “A-bomb Drawings by Survivors-Facing the Memories,” is excellent and worth visiting before it closes in December 2019. The powerful memories on display in these simple images submitted to the local NHK bureau by an army of amateurs show visitors the horrors survivors experienced and remain haunted by. The last stop is the gift shop where messaged t-shirts (“No Peace, No Life” is popular), various memorabilia, and books (many in English) are on offer.
Start to finish, my visit took about 2.5 hours, probably longer than most visitors, highlighting the concerns of a thirtyish Hiroshima native who shared her critical perspective on the renovated museum. In her view, the 1995 version was preferable and more honest by confronting visitors at the outset with Japan’s culpability. She doesn’t think that highlighting this aspect in any way justified the atomic bombing, but informed Japanese visitors, especially students, about essential context for understanding what happened. In her view, by pushing this context to the end of the tour as time and patience are running out, the museum has made a choice to marginalize this content. So even if there is some startling and implicating information embedded in the touchscreen panels near the exit that interrogates revisionist conceits downplaying Japan’s war responsibility and the issue of forced laborers, only persistent and dedicated visitors will access it. On my visit, nobody else took the time to do so.
The depictions of Japanese suffering are prominently displayed at the outset. Those displays reinforce the museum’s anti-nuclear weapons agenda, but also play to the comforting victim’s narrative that marginalizes Japan’s war guilt. I think in some fundamental ways her argument is a valid indictment, and issues of responsibility are blurred until one discovers the powerful counternarrative at the end subverting that wishful revisionist stance. Overall, in my view this is the best of the three versions and don’t agree that the ordering necessarily serves a revisionist amnesia or downplays past misdeeds. Much more of Japan’s wrongdoing and culpability is acknowledged here, and there is much more on the deprivations and impositions of wartime life endured under the militarist martinets than in the previous iterations. What visitors can now see is lightyears better than the contextually blank version I first encountered, while usefully complicating the 1995 version. Although version 3.0 does genuflect at the altar of revisionism, it ultimately debunks key shibboleths of this reactionary history.