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  • A Place to Bury Names, or Resurrection (Circulation and Continuity of Energy) as a Dissolution of Identity:Isamu Noguchi’s Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima and Shirai Sei’ichi’s Temple Atomic Catastrophes
  • Okazaki Kenjirō (bio)


The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 created an irresolvable aporia for artistic expression. What collapsed was not individual expression, but the locus from which expression originates and where it is received—the very place where expression is established as expression.

Consider, for example, the peculiar inscription that lacks a grammatical subject at the Memorial Cenotaph for the Atomic Bomb Victims, built on ground zero in Hiroshima in 1952: “Please rest in peace. The mistake will never be repeated.” Political considerations probably played a part in the omission of a subject in this phrase and, as is well known, this wording resulted in severe arguments that have still not been resolved today. Who “committed the mistake”? Those who dropped the bomb, or those who created the cause leading to its use? Who are the ones commemorating the dead, pleading for them to rest in peace? Could the subject who declares, “I have committed a mistake and I will not repeat it” and the subject who implores the dead to rest in peace be one and the same? Any argument that emerges around this phrase merely reinscribes the friction between enemy and ally that constituted the war in the first place. If the subject were to be identified, the asymmetry between the perpetrator and the victim would necessarily be emphasized. But even when the grammatical subject is concealed, this memorial will continue to harbor fissures reflecting differences between the various positions of individuals who read the phrase as long as social divisions of identities attached to this memorial and its history persist.1

The influential historian of nationalism Benedict Anderson claimed that cenotaphs commemorating unknown soldiers constitute an exemplary representation of nationalism in modern culture: “The public ceremonial reverence accorded these monuments precisely because they are either deliberately empty or no one knows who lies inside them, has [End Page 304] no true precedents in earlier times.”2 The function of the tomb of the unknown soldier is not attributed to any particular content stored therein, but rather derives from ceremonial usage. To use a term from speech act theory, it is a tomb only in the “performative” sense. In other words, to commemorate is to utter the phrase “I commemorate the dead,” much as it is to bow in front of the monument. But whether this ceremonial performance functions adequately or not, depends on the particular conditions of who utters this phrase, in what place, and to whom. The function of a performative representation is equivalent to the recognition of a certain locus wherein this adequacy is shared. Ultimately, what is confirmed performatively is none other than the community of people who mutually acknowledge the adequacy of each other.

“Who is talking?”—the subject of the utterance in question here is obviously not the dead. The discussions around memorials reveal the irresolvable difference of positions that still divide those who remain in the world of the living. While the dead no longer belong to this world, and thus transcend all mundane differences, their potential to speak out loud is denied (there is no place that will accept their claims). The words of the dead, if allowed, would freeze the problematics that bind the mortal world, without solving them. That is why the dead are never invited to talk, and their words are always sealed.

The monuments and cenotaphs of modern nation states have, in this way, served to bind and represent the sentiments (for the dead) of those who remain in the mortal world, not of the dead victims themselves. The Memorial Cenotaph for the Atomic Bomb Victims in Hiroshima is likewise constrained by this problematic.


In 1951, the architect Tange Kenzō, who was in charge of planning the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park as a result of a competition held in 1949, commissioned the Japanese American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi to design the principal monument dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb (which later...