Japan’s Seven Postwar Decades

Hiroshima’s Transformation from Military Center to Symbol of Peace and Tool of Diplomacy

Politics Society Culture

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.

Presenting a New Face for Hiroshima

Hiroshima will bask in the global spotlight in April 2016. That is when it will host a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven. The diplomats will gather in Hiroshima in advance of the Shima Summit of G7 leaders, which will take place in May. Hiroshima would be an excellent venue to take up the issue of nuclear disarmament. But the municipal and prefectural officials will also be eager to take the opportunity to draw attention to another Hiroshima story.

Highlighting Hiroshima’s vitality as a city reborn has become a priority for the municipal and prefectural governments. The city and prefecture have issued a series of multilingual materials to convey the tale of Hiroshima’s revitalization to a global audience. Those materials reflect a studied decision to position Hiroshima as a fount of peace-building insight for nations emerging from conflict.

I have had the opportunity to verify personally the value of the Hiroshima experience in steering nations’ post-conflict recovery. For more than 10 years, I have participated in training programs for government officials from nations recently afflicted by conflict. The programs have taken place under the auspices of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and Japan’s foreign ministry.

In my work with the trainees, I have drawn extensively on the history of Hiroshima and of Japan. I have produced textbooks, photo albums, and DVDs and used those materials at workshops in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Japanese understanding of Hiroshima in a historical and political context suffers from unfounded perceptions of the city as a hotbed of leftism. Hiroshima’s role as a poster child of the nuclear-disarmament movement has invited wrong assumptions about the city’s politics. That is a vestige of Cold War–era associations of pacifism with leftism. In fact, Hiroshima’s voters lean toward the conservative side of the political spectrum.

A new awareness of Hiroshima is taking hold in Japan as the Cold War fades into history. Japanese are increasingly prone to regard the city as an example of the potential for nurturing peace worldwide, and a symbol of a Japanese pacifism that transcends politics. The emergence of more objective perceptions of Hiroshima has fortified the city’s standing as a center of international peace studies. Going to Hiroshima has become an entirely natural step for scholars, government officials, and other persons interested in that field.

Two Recurring Questions for Survivors

As Hiroshima attracts a growing and multinational stream of visitors, we Japanese need to hone our capacity for explaining the city’s significance. Japanese are prone not to consider it too deeply, simply thinking, “Well, they dropped an atomic bomb there, so it became a peace city.” The natural conclusion, then, is that dropping atomic bombs on a series of cities would produce “peace cities” in the same mold as Hiroshima. Treating foreign visitors to the foregoing sort of explanation will simply expose the Japanese hosts’ ignorance of their own nation.

Hiroshima can and ought to be a valuable intellectual asset and diplomatic tool, a point of reference for explaining Japan’s pacifism and for examining perceptions of twentieth-century history. As Japanese, let us welcome this opportunity to refine our descriptive skills.

The most basic questions that foreigners commonly ask about Hiroshima defy easy response. Yet we can ill afford to skirt those questions if we would engage in meaningful discourse. The most common question asked by foreign visitors of Hiroshima’s survivors of the atomic bombing: “Don’t you hate Americans? How can you hide under the US security umbrella after what the Americans did here?” And the second most common question: “We can see that people suffered here, but what of the suffering that Japan inflicted on people elsewhere?”

Answering the first question entails addressing the question of Japanese’s sense of solidarity with peoples afflicted by present-day conflicts. To simply shrug off the question with an “I don’t know” is to reveal an appalling apathy. Conversely, to tackle the question sincerely and to engage in serious discussion or even debate with the questioner is to deepen our nation’s involvement with the world.

Implicit in the second question is the suspicion that Japanese have compromised their Asian relations by focusing on their victimization while ignoring their transgressions. To simply reject that suspicion out of hand is to abort the potential for dialogue between Japan and its Asian neighbors. Conversely, to inaugurate a discussion about the difficulty of coming to terms with the past and to augment the discussion with the example of Hiroshima is to deepen mutual understanding.

Rebirth as a Peace Icon

Most of the Japanese soldiers dispatched to fight in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) embarked from Hiroshima Port, then known as Ujina Port. During the Sino-Japanese War, Hiroshima was home to the Japanese military headquarters. Even the emperor resided in the city for more than eighteen months during that span, and Japan’s parliament convened there in temporary quarters.

The military presence in Hiroshima occasioned the development of arms manufacturing. Several prominent manufacturers headquartered in Hiroshima, such as Mazda, were formerly active in making arms.

Hiroshima’s postwar rebirth was thus more than the rebuilding of a city that had been leveled by an atomic bomb. It was a fundamental transformation of the city’s identity from military center to peace icon. Credit for conceiving and engineering that transformation goes to Hamai Shinzō (1905–1968), Hiroshima’s first popularly elected mayor (served 1947–1955 and 1959–1967).

Hamai secured approval for his idea from General Douglas MacArthur, the head of the Allied occupation forces, and garnered support from members of parliament. He succeeded in winning parliamentary passage of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Act in 1949. Hiroshima’s annual Peace Memorial Ceremony and its site, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, owe their names to that legislation.

The mayor was less successful in selling the idea to his electorate, and his idealism cost him his job in the election of 1955. Hamai continued to promote his ideals while out of office, however, and earned enough support to regain the mayoralty in 1959.

Hiroshima has been forged into a peace city through the sweat of years of efforts, and in the face of major contradictions and apprehensions. Appreciating this fact is fundamental to talking meaningfully about Hiroshima as a symbol of Japanese pacifism and a universal example of recovery.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 10 and published on August 14, 2015. Banner photo: Floating lanterns drift on the Motoyasugawa river beside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on August 6, 2015, invoking thoughts for the nuclear victims and prayers for lasting peace. © Jiji.)

Abe Shinzō Hiroshima Caroline Kennedy atomic bombing Hiroshima Peace Memorial Douglas MacArthur pacifism