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In-depth Japan’s Seven Postwar Decades
Hiroshima’s Transformation from Military Center to Symbol of Peace and Tool of Diplomacy

Shinoda Hideaki [Profile]


The city of Hiroshima encountered an unspeakable fate as a staging ground for Japan’s war effort and has achieved impressive recovery as an inspirational icon of peace. Hiroshima’s nuclear victimization is more pertinent than ever as Japanese seek to come to terms with their wartime past. The author examines that pertinence in the context of Japan’s postwar pacifism.

An Uncomfortable Clime for the Prime Minister

The August 6 anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima always occasions heightened passions in the city, and they appeared stronger than ever on this year’s seventieth anniversary. Japan’s lower house of parliament had passed controversial security bills in July, broadening the scope for deployment of military forces beyond the nation’s borders. The bills provoked discussion about Japan’s commitment to maintaining its postwar tradition of pacifism, and they added fuel to the domestic and international debate about Japanese people’s awareness of their wartime history. The heightened concern with issues of war and peace focused attention anew on Hiroshima’s iconic symbolism.

This year’s Peace Memorial Ceremony drew some 55,000 participants, including the ambassadors to Japan of some 100 nations. Representing the United States were Rose Gottemoeller, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security and the first senior US official to attend the event, and Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Japan, attending for the second successive year.

All of the world’s nuclear powers except North Korea, which does not have diplomatic relations with Japan, and China dispatched ambassadors to Hiroshima for the Peace Memorial Ceremony: Britain, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia, as well as the United States. In a growing trend, ambassadors from nations recently wracked by conflict, such as Afghanistan and Rwanda, repeatedly visit Hiroshima and make statements about their post-conflict peace-building efforts.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō is increasingly uncomfortable in Hiroshima. Abe’s remarks to the 2014 Peace Memorial Ceremony elicited derision as a “copy-paste” rerun of his previous year’s remarks. So his speechwriters came up with something new for this year’s ceremony, but the revamped remarks drew an equally contemptuous response. The prime minister befuddled attentive listeners by dropping the traditional mention of Japan’s three non-nuclear principles: neither possess, nor manufacture, nor host nuclear weapons. And in a meeting with survivors of the Hiroshima atomic blast, Abe endured discomfiting calls to withdraw his national security bills. Even so, as a politician who lays emphasis on his patriotism, skipping the August 6 Hiroshima visit is not an option.

A Sharp Decline in Field Trip Visitation

Hiroshima hotels receive capacity bookings for the night of August 5 months in advance. On August 6, the city overflows with different groups undertaking different memorial activities. Retellings of the blast by survivors remain an important part of the agenda. But the day’s activities also include political gatherings, cultural events, and other undertakings. An event of singular appeal and accessibility for residents and visitors alike is the launching of floating lanterns in the evening of August 6.

Non-Japanese turn out in large numbers for the event each year and run the gamut from peace activists with placards to curious tourists. The municipal and prefectural officials accompany their organizational support for the Peace Memorial Ceremony with sightseeing promotion. They encourage the visitors to take in such nearby sights as the famously beautiful island of Miyajima.

I served as a commentator for an NHK World broadcast from Hiroshima this August 6. We aired the broadcast from a site between the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) and the banks of the Motoyasugawa river, where people were launching floating lanterns. My commentary was in English for NHK World’s international audience, so few Japanese paid much heed, but numerous non-Japanese stopped and listened.

Hiroshima was long a common destination for field trips for Japanese high school students. The visits inevitably included hearing from survivors of the atomic blast, and the bombing is therefore the first thing that comes to mind about Hiroshima for numerous Japanese. Hiroshima is losing its draw, however, as a destination for high school field trips. That is evident in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum data about the number of museum visitors.

High school field trips accounted for about 500,000 museum visitors a year—about 40% of the total museum traffic—throughout the 1980s. The visitors on high school field trips declined, however, to only about 300,000 in the year from April 2014 to March 2015—just 23% of the total. Most of that decline has occurred in the past decade.

Enduring Tourist Appeal

In contrast to the decline in Hiroshima visitation by Japanese high school students is the continuing growth in visitation by foreign tourists. The number of visits by tourists from abroad has grown steadily in recent years, posting a new record annually. Some 230,000 people from outside Japan visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 2014, and they accounted for 18% of the total number of museum visitors. The number of foreign visitors is on pace to soon outstrip that of Japanese visitors on high school field trips.

TripAdvisor, a website operated by the eponymous US company, documents Hiroshima’s leading position among tourist destinations in Japan. That popular travel-review website receives some 375 million unique monthly visitors and is therefore a highly authoritative source of travel patterns. TripAdvisor user reviews ranked the Hiroshima Peace Memorial as Japan’s most popular destination for foreign tourists each year from 2011 to 2013 and Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine as the third most popular. Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its miles of tunnels of red torii gates, overtook the Hiroshima Peace Memorial atop the TripAdvisor tally in 2014. But the latter, in second place, remains a hugely popular destination for foreign tourists.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial also placed near the top in TripAdvisor’s 2014 ranking of museums throughout Asia. It ranked third among TripAdvisor users’ favorite museums in Asia and first by far among Japanese museums.

  • [2015.08.26]

Born in 1968. Professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies’ Graduate School of Global Studies. Earned a master’s degree in political science from Waseda University in 1993 and a doctorate in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1998. After serving as an associate professor at Hiroshima University’s Institute for Peace Science, he assumed his present position at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 2013. Publications include Kokkashugi to iu shisō (The Ideology of Nationalism), which received the 2012 Suntory Prize for social sciences and humanities and Heiwa kōchiku to hō no shihai (Peace Building and the Rule of Law), which received the 2003 Osanagi Jirō Rondan Award.

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