Renewing and Reframing Hiroshima via Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus

Jeff Kingston

I first visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 1981 on my initial trip to Japan. The displays at the museum have been renovated twice since, for the 1995 fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bomb, and most recently in April 2019.1 This article examines the three presentations about the bombing exhibited there in light of the shifting historiography.2

History Lite 

The 1981 version, presented in a relatively modest facility that has since been greatly expanded, gave a bare bones account that conveyed the impression that the atomic bombing came out of the blue, like an unpredicted and unprecedented natural disaster. There was no context regarding the war or the previous firebombing of 64 Japanese cities, and no reference to the subsequent Nagasaki bombing. The displays focused exclusively on the horrific consequences for the city and its people. Uncomplicated by any analytical interpretation, the scenes of devastation were viscerally powerful. This version reflected the broader embrace of a victim’s narrative that emphasizes what happened to Japan. It largely overlooked what Japan had perpetrated across Asia from 1895-1945 and the wartime elite’s decision to plunge the nation into a reckless war of aggression in China, Asia, and the Pacific from 1937, and the escalating tension between the US-Japan that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.3 The campaign to subjugate China and the subsequent widening of the war to Southeast Asia in the name of Pan Asian liberation claimed at least 15 million lives and displaced countless other millions. In the 1980s, there was a very incomplete reckoning about Japan’s rampage in Asia, although at that time many Japanese, including celebrated historian Ienaga Saburo, were contesting that absence. Ienaga challenged the Ministry of Education’s censorship in several court cases, but the government remained resolute about keeping the blinkers on regarding the Nanjing massacre and other atrocities that he wanted to include in his textbooks.4 He thought it the height of folly to censor such events from the official narrative—not least because doing so was reminiscent of the wartime era– and sought to draw the collective gaze to the horrors of war beyond Japanese suffering.

The Heisei Awakening

The historiographical awakening occurred after Emperor Showa’s (Hirohito) death in 1989. While he was alive it was difficult to criticize a Holy War fought in his name. Suddenly in the early 1990s the archives yielded their secrets, soldiers and officials discovered their diaries, previously marginalized accounts came to the fore and the media conducted a vigorous public debate about the baleful consequences of Japanese aggression. The mainstream consensus shifted towards a more forthright reckoning and emulated Germany on assuming responsibility and making gestures of contrition. This was part of a larger effort to improve relations with Asian nations that had suffered from Japanese imperialism.


Revisionist backsliding

The historical revisionist movement in Japan since the mid-1990s taps into and stokes what can be called “perpetrator’s fatigue.” The cascade of damning history that followed the death of Emperor Showa generated a sharp backlash as conservatives eager to promote an exculpatory and valorizing history have fought back. Now none of the mainstream textbooks include mention of the comfort women and revisionists’ views on Japan’s war crimes and responsibility emanate from the Abe Cabinet. As Japan’s political center of gravity shifted rightward since the turn of the century, an exonerating and validating narrative has gained momentum, undermining the early Heisei consensus. Emperor Akihito has remained steadfast in support of distancing postwar from wartime Japan and thus as the political context changed, he found himself an inadvertent dissident, an outspoken advocate for reconciliation. Due to Akihito’s prominent sparring with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo over history issues, subtly rejecting the vindicating narrative favored by the revisionist camp, he became an awkward exemplar for the monarchist right. They bridle at his boycott of the Yasukuni Shrine, ground zero for an unapologetic stance on Japan’s wartime record displayed in full in the historical exhibits at the adjacent Yushukan Museum.6 Emperor Showa began the boycott in 1978 when it became known that 14 class A war criminals had secretly been enshrined at Yasukuni, making it a sacred place to venerate those deemed most responsible for leading Japan into the war. Yasukuni’s head priest had to step down in 2018 after excoriating the Imperial Household and Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife in a weekly magazine, for shunning the shrine and—in his view– not properly respecting Shinto rites.


Hiroshima Revisionism: Honored and Subverted 

The newly renovated facility is gleaming and designed with Japanese panache. One ascends to the 2nd floor and enters a room with a very long and large black-and-white photo on the wall capturing a street scene from pre-bombed Hiroshima that is followed by a similar curving photo showing the smoldering aftermath. In the center of that room is a large diorama with a map of the city where a looping video simulates the bombing with the sound of the engines heralding the approach. The nose of the B29 appears just before the entire scene explodes into a fireball followed by smoke billowing from the ruins. Along with other patrons I lingered and watched this riveting video several times.


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