Dai Nomiya: Hiroshima

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A Machine of Remembrance:
Hiroshima from Destruction to Peace


Dai Nomiya

Chuo University, Tokyo, Japan


On May 27, 2016, Barak Obama visited Hiroshima. His visit to the site of the atomic bomb explosion was the first by a sitting U.S. President.  His stop in Hiroshima came after a summit meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) in Ise-shima in Japan.

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima became the first city in humankind’s history that experienced the massive destruction power of nuclear weapons.  In a blink of an eye, the atomic bomb explosion literally transformed a prosperous, lively city into a barren land with tens of thousands of people dead.  Well before the summit, both in Japan and the US, the plan for Obama’s visit to Hiroshima created a heated controversy over whether the American president would offer an apology for using nuclear weapons. The controversy soon disappeared, at least on the Japanese side, as demands for apologies subsided.  Mr. Tsuboi, the president of Hidankyo (Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations), himself a victim of the atomic bomb, had declared earlier not to ask for a word of apology.  When Obama landed in Hiroshima, the city calmly greeted him, not with an enmity, but a silent voice of no-war.

How is it possible that Hiroshima welcomed the enemy of the past, even without demanding a word of apology for the past deed that sent hundreds of thousands Hiroshima residents to death?  Ms. Oshima, a hibakusha or atomic bomb survivor, said: “At first, I hated America, wondering why America did such a terrible deed.  But soon the feeling of hatred disappeared in my mind, because I soon realized that American soldiers also suffered from military attacks that left many injured and even dead.”  “What counts is that we all suffered. That suffering is man-made; weapons do not treat people differentially on the basis of their personal characters nor nationality.”  Ms. Oshima has actively continued to do story-telling of her own experiences, while suffering from symptoms of malaise, such as asthma, low blood pressure, osteoporosis, and leukemia that are believed to be associated with a heavy exposure to radioactivity.  She no longer hates the US nor its allies.  Instead, she hates war.

That war is the source of suffering—rather than a specific nation or attack—is not only how Ms. Oshima sees it, but it has become the prevailing view in the whole City of Hiroshima.  Residents, voluntary groups, local town halls, the city government, and affiliated organizations worked together to remember the mass destruction and human sufferings caused by the destruction.  As a leading voice for the efforts to remember, Ms Oshima’s vision points to the unplanned result of the work of remembrance, which gradually formed into a core conviction during the process of memory construction.

Hiroshima is a gigantic machine of remembrance.  Its work of remembrance allegedly took its first step in the 1960s, when anonymous residents voluntarily started telling nearby children their own stories of atomic bomb exposure and sufferings afterwards, just as a mother tells her own story to her child.  Out of pure curiosity, children listened.  Along with story-telling, recitation activity also started.  Volunteer readers read stories that have been left by hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to and suffering from the atomic bomb explosions.  Years later, keenly aware of the rapidly diminishing population with firsthand experience of the bomb explosion, the city government of Hiroshima decided to take a step.  In 2012, it started a gigantic enterprise, in which it officially recruited volunteers with no firsthand experiences of war, and trained them to become story-tellers as if they had genuine experiences of war.  A three-year training included listening to all registered surviving story-tellers, deciding whose story to inherit, and learning how to recite it flawlessly, along with acquiring comprehensive knowledge about the damages suffered by the City of Hiroshima in 1945.  Through this hibakusha reproduction program, Hiroshima now ensures remembrance of 1945 for future generations.  Hiroshima has thus become a gigantic memory machine of war.

The reproduction of hibakusha puts the numerous experiences and histories of Hiroshima into a human body.  Although this enterprise is an illustrious example of the bodification practice of Hiroshima, similar practices are abound in various districts of the city.  Once you step into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park today, site of the Atomic Bomb Dome, you are almost certain to find story-telling and story-reading activities in the circles of visitors, including high schoolers and foreigners, who are curious to listen to the voices of tellers, an act intended to put Hiroshima’s memory into visitors’ body.  Many of the stories end “Sensou wa iken (war is no good).”  Once you step outside of the Peace Park, you also find in local town halls and elementary schools volunteer groups of mothers, monks, and activists reading and telling stories of the past.

All the stories, written, read, or directly transmitted from the survivors, emanate from the individual.  They are stories born out of direct individual experiences, and recorded from a perspective of the individual; they use the language of the private, not that of the nation-state nor international politics.  Stories of this kind do not demand logical understanding; rather they bring out empathic understanding from the audience.  Empathy stays deep in mind, and that empathy is what is being reproduced.  All the effort in Hiroshima is an endeavor to create a community of empathy with human sufferings from the war.

Personal histories of atomic bomb exposure have taken a central stage of Hiroshima’s memory construction work.  The City of Hiroshima has become now a city of effusive memory based on the bodification of sufferings, a modern gigantic example of what Durkheim observed in years past.  It is not Japanese Prime Minister Abe, but the memory of Hiroshima, constantly reproduced through story-telling and story-reading, that abolished the demand for an apology from President Obama.

To seek a world without wars, Hiroshima shows how our mind is to be framed.  Hiroshima stopped blaming others for its disastrous past.  There are two kinds of peace in the present world.  One is peace based on the logic of the nuclear deterrent, in part a remnant of the Cold War that has persisted to this date along with the nation-states-centered division of the world and uneven development; the other is peace built on the logic of the individual and the language of the private, punctuated by the horrible memories of sufferings.  Hiroshima is the latter.  Hiroshima claims that a war-free world is the future.  Hiroshima’s vision represents the future we want.



Nomiya_Dai - portraitDai Nomiya is Professor of Sociology, Chuo University, Japan.  A member of the Japanese Academy of Sciences, and the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Japanese Sociology, he currently serves in various academic activities.  His recent publications include Summit Protest: Social Movement in the Global Age (2016, in Japanese).


Banner Image: Genbaku Dome (Atomic Bomb Dome). Hiroshima retains a building that has survived the atomic bomb explosion. Photo by Dai Nomiya, 2016.




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