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  • A Postmodern Hiroshima?Trauma, History, and Poetic Language in Modern Japan
  • Kinya Nishi (bio)


It has become something of a commonplace to draw a parallel between Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the two place names that will forever be remembered as the symbol of the twentieth-century folly of war. We often invoke the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with Holocaust in Auschwitz and Birkenau, regarding these events as the worst moments that human civilization has ever witnessed. Grim analyses of human nature given by Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi have been cited in equally grim contemplations upon the horrendous atrocity brought about by the atomic bombings.

As critics have pointed out, however, there are differences between the two atrocities. First, the persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany was a long process over a decade, culminating in concentration camps, whereas the atomic attack abruptly befell civilians in Hiroshima, leaving them utterly unable to comprehend what had happened to themselves. The logic of the Final Solution in Hitler's government may have been detestable; yet, given its consistency, it offered material for contemplation about human evil, at least for writers with acute intellect. In the case of Hiroshima, though, when the bomb with the explosive power equivalent to 13 kilotons of TNT1 was dropped on a city of approximately 350,000 inhabitants, 100 percent of human beings within a kilometer immediately died.2 And those who were "fortunate" enough to survive the initial effects [End Page 1] were exposed to piles of corpses and countless sufferers. The survivors of atomic bombings, or hibakusha as they are called in Japanese, were literally "immersed in death" as R. J. Lifton put it in his pioneering inquiry into the psychological impact of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.3 They were in fact prevented for months or even years from having reliable knowledge of what had caused the calamity, let alone about how to treat the fatal diseases prevalent among them. This is partly because the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Allied Forces issued a press code right after the war banning the release of any information about the atomic bombings, to contain anti-US sentiment.4

That the victims of the atomic bombing had to endure suffering unnecessarily for the interest of the United States reminds us of a more significant difference between Hiroshima and Auschwitz: namely, that the atomic bombings were carried out by the victor of the war. Regarding the monstrosity of Nazi Germany, one may think that it was removed with the end of the war, so that the Holocaust could now be seen as an aberrant episode in European history. In contrast, the atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were authorized and perpetrated in the name of rational judgment. The use of the atomic bomb was, and still is, held by many to be on the side of justice, as a necessary means of combating the evil of militaristic Imperial Japan. It is not my intention here, however, to judge the validity of this argument. I am concerned rather with pointing out that such enormous complexity of victimhood and justification is vital for understanding the traumatic effects of the Pacific War on culture and thought in the second half of the twentieth century.

Dissimilarities between Hiroshima and Auschwitz have prompted some critics to maintain that the atomic attack in Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralded the arrival of a new era. John Whittier Treat, in his most energetic and extended study on atomic bomb literature, suggests that the significance of Hiroshima actually exceeds that of Auschwitz. Because of the gigantic destructive power of the atomic bombings, and because of their entanglement with Cold War politics, Hiroshima and Nagasaki "lie outside the reason of the Second World War," according to Treat. And it is remarkable that Treat thereby explains the meaning of atomic attack in terms of postmodernity: [End Page 2]

In a sense Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a grotesque performance—a "dramatic finale," in the words of one historian—put on for the benefit of audiences in Tokyo and Moscow, as postmodern in its meaning as Nazi camps were terrifyingly modern. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the initiation of a new...