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The Devils of Hiroshima

Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars

by George L. Mosse
Oxford University Press, 264 pp., $22.95

The Bomb

by Makoto Oda
Kodansha International, 216 pp., $18.95

The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat

by Robert Jay Lifton, by Eric Markusen
Basic Books, 346 pp., $22.95

Cannon and firearms are cruel and damnable machines; I believe them to be the direct suggestion of the devil.”

Martin Luther


I have visited Hiroshima twice. On both occasions I had the embarrassing, inappropriate, even offensive urge to laugh. This was not because there is anything especially comical about Hiroshima. It is in almost every respect a normal Japanese city, so normal, in fact, that marketing people like to test new products there, for what they like in Hiroshima, it is thought, they like everywhere else in Japan. The pride of the city is its baseball team, the Hiroshima Carps, and the gastronomic speciality of the region is oysters. They make cars in Hiroshima, as well as ships and Buddhist altars. The fourth industry is Peace, or nuclear disarmament, or, as irreverent Japanese sometimes call it, the pikadon shobai, the flash-bang business, pikadon being an onomatopoeic phrase describing the effect of the A-bomb, which exploded over Hiroshima at 8:15 AM, August 6, forty-five years ago.

Visitors to the city are informed by the Hiroshima Peace Reader, a pamphlet published by the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, that “Hiroshima is no longer merely a Japanese city. It has become recognized throughout the world as the mecca of world peace.” It is as a mecca of world peace that Hiroshima causes that embarrassing urge to giggle—a nervous giggle, of the kind that afflicts some people at funerals, where the seriousness of death can be rendered slightly comical by an exaggerated air of reverence, of ceremony, of awe, where what ought to be moving becomes sentimental, and so seems absurd.

The center of peace activity is Hiroshima Peace Park. Nuns gather there to pray, and foreigners dressed as Buddhist monks recite mantras, fingering their beads. There used to be an old Hiroshima woman who became a Shinto priestess to defeat the dark power of the bomb with special herbs. There is a retired professor of philosophy, known as the “Human Reactor,” who sits for hours, sometimes days, praying for peace in front of the Hiroshima Cenotaph. When a girl asked him whether he could stop war by simply sitting, he answered, “A chain reaction of spiritual atoms must defeat a chain reaction of material atoms.”1 Then there are the ubiquitous groups of uniformed Japanese schoolchildren who, like little missionaries, approach foreign visitors with the question: “Do you love peace?”

In his latest book, Fallen Soldiers, George Mosse describes war cemeteries, especially those of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as “sacred spaces of a new civic religion.” The religion is based upon what he calls the Myth of the War Experience. The myth presents war as a glorious drama in which men sacrifice their lives for the nation. As he puts it: “War was made sacred, an expression of the general will of the people.” Mosse traces the myth to the French Revolution, but also to Christian images of death and resurrection. Ghastly death in the slimy mud of trenches is transformed, in solemnly manicured cemeteries, into a symbol of transcendental beauty. Remembrance of the glorious dead will rejuvenate the nation and spur it on to renewed greatness.

Hiroshima’s Peace Park, in the center of the city, under the epicenter of the A-bomb, is not such a place. It is a pity that Mosse finds no room for Hiroshima in his book, for it is a curious spot; in every respect a sacred place of a new civil religion, but not of the same type as the Madeleine, or the Hessendenkmal in Frankfurt, the memorial to Germans who fell against Napoleon. Hiroshima’s Cenotaph does not celebrate God, King, and Fatherland. It is a simple replica of an ancient clay hut, shielding a coffin that contains a register of the names of people who died because of the bomb. On the lid of the coffin the following words, composed by one Professor Saika, are inscribed: “Please rest in peace, for the error will not be repeated.”

Whose error is unclear. Part of the Hiroshima myth is that the bomb simply happened, like a deus ex machina, a blinding bolt from the sunny sky of August. Somewhere behind this bolt is a dimly perceived, demonized America, although not nearly so demonized as the bomb itself, which seems to have had a mind of its own, like a wrathful god. The idea that the bomb might have had something to do with the war that preceded it, with Manchuria in 1931, with China in 1937, with Pearl Harbor, Manila, Singapore, Java, or Hong Kong, does not impinge on the religious Hiroshima mind. Last year some local anti-nuclear citizens’ groups and visiting junior-high-school students from Osaka urged the mayor of Hiroshima to put this right and include, among the many harrowing exhibits of Hiroshima’s suffering, some indication of Japan’s wartime aggression—some hint, perhaps, of the nerve-gas attacks on Chinese, or the bacteriological experiments in Manchuria? The mayor seemed amenable to this until right-wing patriots put pressure on him to nip such unpatriotic ideas in the bud. The same patriots had protested earlier against the ambivalent inscription on the Cenotaph, wishing to make it very clear that the “error” did not mean Japanese militarism. And so a small monument was erected to explain that the error referred to war in general.

What, then, is the civic religion of Hiroshima? It is nothing less than world peace. It is a message hammered home so relentlessly, through memorials, monuments, pagodas, fountains, school-children, missionaries, parks, symbolic tombs, special exhibits, sacred flames, merciful deities, peace bells, peace rocks, peace cairns, statues, and signs, that, in the words of the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani, “even the doves are bored with peace.”

But peace, in Hiroshima, comes with a political twist. For Hiroshima Peace Park has long been a left-wing pacifist counterpart to a right-wing war memorial in Tokyo called the Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine, dedicated to the spirits of men who fought and fell for emperor and country since the nineteenth century, including such prominent figures as General Tojo, hanged in 1948 as a war criminal. Yasukuni, though regarded by worshipers as quintessentially Japanese, is much more like some of the European memorials described by Mosse. Right-wing patriots go there to sing the national anthem, bow in the direction of the imperial palace, and play wartime military marches through loudspeakers. Beside the main shrine is a war museum, which houses a Zero fighter, a howitzer, and the first locomotive to ride the Burma railroad—the same railroad that cost so many Western and Asian lives. Sacred trees bear the names of famous battleships, and even the Kempeitai, the Japanese SS, has a special memorial stone.

Mosse may be right that the cult of the war dead is virtually extinct in Europe, but this is not so in Japan; under protest of Japanese Christians, socialists, and pacifists, cabinet ministers officially visit the shrine. The first prime minister to do so in his official capacity was Nakasone Yasuhiro, who paid special deference to Yasukuni, since it symbolized, in his view, the need to sacrifice for the nation. Prime Minister Kaifu, however, refused to follow Nakasone’s example this year, out of respect for Japan’s former victims—whose propensity, it should be added, to exploit Japan’s war history for their own political ends is sometimes as distasteful as Japan’s willful attempts to forget.

The civic religion of Hiroshima, promoted actively by groups detested by the Japanese right, such as the Japan Teachers’ Union, is a peculiar kind of pacifism, with its own brand of nationalism. The idea is that Japan, after the defeat of the militarist-fascist regime, and after the unique suffering caused by the two A-bombs, had become the beacon of world peace. Then American imperialism dragged Japan back into a belligerent world of cold war and nuclear competition. As though the Japanese of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not suffered enough, the Western imperialists waged war on fellow Asians in Korea and Vietnam. Residual feelings of war guilt and a general sense of having been let down then produced a kind of leftist pan-Asianism. And so the Hiroshima flashbang industry became not only a millenarian peace cult but also a protest against American imperialism; hence the flowers around the Cenotaph from such peace-loving groups as East German trade unions and Soviet-Japanese friendship committees. This, at any rate, was the case until very recently. Now that the left has crashed everywhere, expressions of anti-imperialist solidarity are fewer, such organizations as the Japan Teachers’ Union are losing their influence, and partly because of this the right-wing patriots are making more noise.

The idea of the A-bomb as a modern demon is one that suits the patriots more than the pacifists. Winston Churchill realized this even before the bomb was dropped. In his memoirs the recalls his feelings about using the bomb against Japan:

I thought immediately myself of how the Japanese people, whose courage I had always admired, might find in the apparition of this almost supernatural weapon an excuse which would save their honour and release them from their obligation of being killed to the last fighting man.2

If the A-bomb was not simply a continuation of strategic bombing with a more devastating weapon (the fire-bombing of Tokyo actually cost more lives than either of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but a supernatural, demonic act of wrath, the Imperial Japanese Army would have had to admit defeat in war. As it happened, the diehards could claim they yielded to force majeure. In their view, to have used the bomb was like pulling a gun in a fist-fight; and this demonic conception of the bomb had the added bonus of canceling out Japanese aggression, for nothing, not the rape of Nanking, and certainly not Pearl Harbor, was comparable to the “error” of the bomb. What the Japanese had done in China was to make war; the bomb was, in the words of Professor Saika, the poet of the Cenotaph, “the worst sin committed in the twentieth century.” Again, this was more of a bonus to the patriots than the pacifists, who never denied the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Asia, even though they do not pay much attention to them in the sacred places of Hiroshima.

But the pacifists, no less than the patriots, subscribe to the idea of the A-bomb as uniquely wicked, and the Japanese as uniquely victimized (the roughly twenty thousand Korean victims are only remembered in a little corner outside Peace Park, and their descendents, unlike the Japanese, have not received any compensation). Various reasons, some more plausible than others, are given for the unique wickedness of the bomb: it was an act of anti-Japanese racism; future generations might still suffer from the effects; its technology led the way to the potential annihilation of the human race, etc. The accusation of lethal Japan-bashing avant la lettre is heard often, but has never quite convinced me. Perhaps racism helps to explain the peculiarly vicious nature of combat in the Pacific—when propaganda calls the enemy vermin, it tends to be treated as such—but few Americans would have minded dropping the bomb on Germans, for whom, in any case, it was originally intended. The other two points have more substance. The devastation wrought by one bomb, spreading both immediate and lingering death through radioactivity, as well as the more conventional effects of a bomb blast, added a horrific dimension to an already horrific method of war: the bombing of cities to break morale by terror. Although scientists have found no evidence so far of genetic injury in the children of A-bomb survivors,3 there were cases of deformed babied born of parents who survived the bomb. As far as our capacity to wipe out much of the human race and ruin the ecology of the planet is concerned, of that there can be little doubt.

  1. 1

    Quoted from A Place Called Hiroshima, text by Betty Jean Lifton (Kodansha International, 1985), p. 118.

  2. 2

    Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. IV (Cassel, 1954), p. 553.

  3. 3

    According to a report in The Washington Post (August 14, 1990), scientists writing in the American Journal of Human Genetics claim not to have found evidence of genetic injury in the children of A-bomb survivors who were conceived after the bomb fell.

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