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The Atomic City: Military Tourism and Urban Identity in Postwar Hiroshima
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The Atomic City:
Military Tourism and Urban Identity in Postwar Hiroshima

When the first American troops entered Hiroshima in September 1945, they did so in full battle gear with drawn bayonets.1 Neither Americans nor Japanese knew what to expect from these first encounters in Hiroshima’s nuclear wasteland. Residents feared Americans would rape and pillage their town. Women were told not to wear flashy clothes, men not to wear watches. Some even escaped to the countryside.2 One of the first actions taken by Hiroshima’s police and military was, as in other parts of Japan, to set up official “comfort stations” for the Americans in order to prevent “misunderstandings” and protect the virtue of Hiroshima’s women.3 Far from being a site of further conflict, however, Hiroshima soon became a tourist site. In the months after these first encounters, guns were quickly replaced with cameras as a small but steady stream of military personnel started to descend on the destroyed city. The first thing that many occupation soldiers in the area did was “to borrow jeeps and go there,” and many from farther afield regularly stopped at the city.4

The move from bayonets to cameras paralleled a remarkable “U-turn” in US military attitudes toward Japan. Soldiers who were told to expect a vengeful and treacherous foe were now told to show a friendly face and act as “unofficial ambassadors of the United States” and as “the salesm[e]n of democracy.”5 Military tourism in Hiroshima, as in all of occupied Japan, was seen as a tool in transforming Japan from a bitter foe into a trusted ally and a democratic “peace nation” (heiwa kokka).6 Although Japan’s turn to pacifism had genuine popular support, there existed clear power dynamics behind such benign rhetoric. The occupation, to use John Dower’s words, was “the last immodest exercise in the colonial conceit known as the white man’s burden.”7 In many ways, Hiroshima tourism was reminiscent of colonial sightseeing and the historically familiar exercise of Westerners’ power and privilege over conquered and colonized Asians. Such attitudes often dovetailed with triumphant narratives about the bomb’s power and America’s scientific prowess. Calling the city “A-bomb Hiroshima,” as the city was designated in early publications, “ironically [End Page 617] confirmed the view that world peace was to be produced and maintained by menacing military force and technological mastery.”8 Significantly, however, the occupation’s mission of transforming Japan was embraced by the local authorities in Hiroshima, as both Americans and Japanese sought to regulate and benefit from tourism to the city.

Tourism, this essay argues, played an important role in a joint US-Japanese campaign to reinterpret Hiroshima’s tragedy along lines acceptable to the emerging American Cold War agenda. Hiroshima’s huge symbolic importance made narrating and interpreting the site an imperative for both local elites and the occupation authorities. Hiroshima, once a city that prided itself on its unique relationship to the Japanese Empire and military, was now presented in postwar publications as a born-again city of peace. The tourism industry in Hiroshima reflected and affirmed these shared narratives. Like the tourist industry in France, examined by Christopher Endy, tourism in Hiroshima became a tool of “Cold War consumer diplomacy.”9 However, the peculiarities of encouraging tourism in Hiroshima, a site of mass death perpetrated by the United States—now Japan’s Cold War ally—made this mission fraught with difficulties.10 These difficulties were further complicated by the very different attitudes displayed by the military and other Allied personnel who visited the city. Hiroshima was experienced very differently “from below,” by GIs of different backgrounds who had their own ideas and impressions of Hiroshima. Positive and upbeat narratives of reconciliation and hope did not square with the shock of these GIs who encountered Hiroshima for the first time or, on the other hand, with GIs’ shameless hunting for atomic souvenirs and lingering hostility toward the Japanese. The gap between tourist narratives and experiences, as well as the many inconsistencies and contradictions between different guides, this essay argues, reveals the ambiguities inherent in A-bomb tourism and the...