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Diacritics 30.4 (2000) 59-82

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Bombing and the Symptom Traumatic Earliness and the Nuclear Uncanny

Paul K. Saint-Amour

Many used the Japanese word bukimi, meaning weird, ghastly, or unearthly, to describe Hiroshima's uneasy combination of continued good fortune and expectation of catastrophe. People remembered saying to one another, "Will it be tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?" One man described how, each night he was on air-raid watch, "I trembled with fear. . . . I would think, "Tonight it will be Hiroshima." These "premonitions" were partly attempts at psychic preparation, partly a form of "imagining the worst" as a magical way of warding off disaster.

—Robert J. Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1967)

Robert J. Lifton's pathbreaking work on the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima focuses on the psychological aftermath of the bomb, but opens with a brief and surprising section called "Anticipation." Given the instantaneous and unprecedented devastation caused by the first atomic bomb, the anticipation of so singular an experience is just as difficult to imagine as its subsequent assimilation. In fact, the unassimilable nature of traumatic violence would seem to depend in some way upon the impossibility of its anticipation, as Lifton implies: "Neither past experience nor immediate perceptions—the two sources of prior imagination—could encompass what was about to occur." Yet Lifton also records an expectant, premonitory atmosphere in Hiroshima during the weeks before the bombing, a compound of past experience and immediate perceptions that, while inadequate to "encompass" the eventual experience of the bomb, cannot simply be dismissed as speculation that found an accidental correlate in the nuclear event. While no one in Hiroshima knew ahead of time what would occur on August 6, 1945, many had noted the city's eerie exemption from conventional bombardment and speculated as to the reasons for it. During the summer of 1945, a series of rumors circulated in Hiroshima, rumors attributing the sparing of the city, variously, to its modest military and industrial significance; to the presence of prominent foreigners there, possibly including President Truman's mother; to important American prisoners-of-war supposedly held in the city; to the number of its citizens who had emigrated to the US; to the presence of large numbers of American spies living among its citizens; to its physical appeal in the eyes of Americans who had saved the city as a site for their postwar occupation villas; and, most wishfully, to the wartime grace of a cartographic error: "We thought that perhaps the city of Hiroshima was not on the American maps" [Lifton 15-17]. 1 Other inhabitants [End Page 59] of the city feared that Hiroshima appeared all too prominently on US maps, but had been set aside for "something unusually big"—perhaps the inundation of the city by floodwaters that could be released by the bombing of a massive upstream dam. Still others spoke of a "special bomb" [PWRS 220-22; Lifton 17]. All these rumors responded to citizens' impression that their city had been in some way singled out, and the term bukimi—also meaning "ominous" or "uncanny"—spoke to the suspended question of whether Hiroshima and its inhabitants had been singled out for preservation or for annihilation.

The survivors who recollected their anticipatory bukimi years after the bombing may have retrospectively amplified their memories of weird expectation, perhaps as a way of attempting to master an incommensurable and singular event by installing it within a narrative of causality, continuity, even prophecy. Nonetheless, the bukimi experienced by inhabitants of Hiroshima should not be understood as pure retrospection, nor as groundless hunch, since it arose from a series of empirical observations later revealed to have a single and coherent origin in US military strategy. By the summer of 1945, most Japanese cities whose size and military-industrial importance were similar to Hiroshima's had already been bombed with incendiaries: those who lived in Hiroshima had watched waves of American bombers fly past on their way to other targets, while the dozen or so bombs that had fallen accidentally on...