The Myth of the Vanquished: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
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American Quarterly 55.4 (2003) 703-728



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The Myth of the Vanquished:
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Benedict Giamo
University of Notre Dame

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IN MASUJI IBUSE'S DOCUMENTARY NOVEL, Black Rain (Kuroi Ame) , a conversation among factory workers in the atomic ruins of Hiroshima just prior to the Imperial broadcast and surrender raises questions about the bomb. The questions—and conjectures that follow—are interesting for what they reveal and what they conceal:

Wouldn't it have been possible to surrender before the bomb had been dropped? No—it was because the bomb was dropped that Japan was surrendering. Even so, the enemy must have known that Japan was beaten already; it was hardly necessary to drop the bomb. Either way, those responsible for setting up the organization that started this war. . . .

At this point, the conversation threatened to stray into forbidden territory, and conjecture went no farther. 1

In the novel, the workers' struggle to size up the situation and assess responsibility for nuclear devastation demonstrates a measure of balance before being cut short. Self-censorship simply goes with the forbidden territory. Don't go there. But what if the factory hands freely extended the conjectural sequence to the end of the line? Where would it have taken them? Most likely, "those responsible" for the end game would have been named as the Japanese emperor, die-hard militarists, and co-opted civilian government officials, and the "organization" [End Page 703] would have been in place at least since 1931 and the Manchurian Incident.

If the conjectures freely encompassed the catastrophic situation of World War II, including the more immediate Pacific / Great East Asia / Fifteen-Year War, the workers would have mentioned the indiscriminate practice of total war, that is, blurring the distinction between combatants and noncombatants—beginning with Germany's bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and ending with the fire bombing of Tokyo and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. In between, such cities as Chungking, Shanghai, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, and Leipzig were subject to strategic bombing campaigns by both Axis and Allied Powers, in which the massive killing of civilians became standard operating procedure.

Finally, such conjectures would need to consider the nature of both western and Japanese imperialism, Japanese aggression and crimes committed against other Asian peoples, the escalation of atrocities on both sides (Japan/U.S.), the savage fighting and ever increasing death tolls during the island hopping campaigns, the Japanese urgent call to die for the emperor and sacred state, and the complicity of the Japanese people with the government and militarists in prosecuting the war. All bear responsibility. One further thought would need to be expressed by the stunned but searching workers, one most difficult to utter: Japan's desire to embrace annihilation and the United States's willingness to dispense it, codified in the Japanese notion of ichioku gyokusai , "the shattering of the hundred million like a beautiful jewel." Rather than heroic sacrifice, atomic obliteration was the result. In an instant, an honorable death, the meaning of gyokusai , turned into a meaningless death, nanshi , for hundreds of thousands. 2

Much like the factory hands, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park does not wade into forbidden territory. Context and conjecture are not simply foreshortened, they are deliberately suppressed. While the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit evades confronting the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 3 the Peace Memorial Museum/Park severs historical consciousness of the Pacific War—and the question of responsibility—from the last acts themselves. In remembering the last acts of atomic victimage, everything that came before is mostly forgotten or simply rendered abstract.

On the one hand, in recalling nuclear horror the Museum/Park honors the dead as innocent victims most worthy of memorializing. [End Page 704] They remain testaments to grotesque suffering and death—the first to perish in a nuclear holocaust. Moreover, the Peace Museum/Park reminds the visitor that these lives were not lost in vain, for they continue to inform a...