The Hazards and Promise of Remembering

Commemorating and Memorialising the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Daniel Clausen, Florida International University [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 1 (Book review 1 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 19 April 2015.

Yoneyama, Lisa (1999) Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory, Berkeley: University of California Press, hardback, ISBN-13: 978-0520085862, 301 pages.

Miyamoto, Yuki (2011) Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Remembering, Religious Interpretations, and Responsibility in Atomic Bomb Experiences, New York: Fordham University Press, hardback, ISBN-13: 978-0823240500, 252 pages.

Keywords: memory, remembering, atomic bombing, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.


At a time when East Asia is beset by dangerous games of competitive nationalism and political-military brinkmanship over territorial disputes, the issue of public commemoration and historical memory has never been more relevant. Not surprisingly, public speeches and memorials are often part of the competition between nations; each nation seeks to frame historical circumstances in such a way as to present themselves as both heroes and tragic victims of aggression—often through processes that helpfully neglect their own role as victimisers. The spirit of competitive memory underpins the Yūshūkan Museum at the Yasukuni Shrine, where the sacrifice of soldiers is framed in terms of the liberation of Asia from Western imperialism. This same spirit underpins the Smithsonian incident of 1994–95, when Congress and veterans groups protested against including items and photographs from the Hiroshima collection in an exhibit commemorating the bombing. In the eyes of these groups, including these items and pictures would have been tantamount to questioning the virtue of US soldiers during the Second World War. The spirit of competition also underpins acts of memory at museums in China that remember the “Rape of Nanking” and the atrocities of Unit 731 and the War Memorial in South Korea which highlights Japanese atrocities (see Emmott 2008; Lind 2011).

For all these reasons, the commemorative practices, testimonials, and political speeches of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stand as important cases. In a general sense, Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s approach to commemorative practices can best be defined by an ethos of “reconciliation, not retaliation,” as illustrated through the speech made by the former mayor of Hiroshima, Akiba Tadatoshi (2002). Though the two cities have important differences, both nevertheless support the idea of peace and seek to promote activities that raise awareness of the danger of the atomic bomb as a shared threat to humanity.

If both Hiroshima and Nagasaki can truly be described as outliers in the larger realm of East Asia commemorative practices, then it is important to look at the details of these two cases, not just as idealised “peace communities” but as complex forms of politics that defy narrow nationalism and articulate humanistic and nationalist ethics in new forms. Two books on the subject are Lisa Yoneyama’s Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory and Yuki Miyamoto’s Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Remembering, Religious Interpretations, and Responsibility in Atomic Bomb Experiences. Yoneyama and Miyamoto provide rich interrogations of these commemorative practices, unraveling nuances in representational practices, cultural geography, city planning and politics, and religious connotation. Both books offer an eclectic interdisciplinary approach while, for the most part, using prose that is accessible to a non-scholarly audience. One of the virtues of Yoneyama’s and Miyamoto’s analyses of atomic bomb commemoration and testimony is that they acknowledge the diversity of voices within the hibakusha (atomic bomb victim) community and unravel the many layers of complexity in interactions between civil society, city officials, and the national government.

The problems of narrow nationalism, national ethics, and the nation state are problems that cannot simply be wished away. Even approaches that circumvent the state by examining the complex politics of cities must reckon with the powerful presence of the state in its many symbols and forms. These two books are important, therefore, not only for their empirical research, but also for the lessons they can provide for scholars on negotiating the complexities of politics that interact at different levels.

Yoneyama: Space, Place, and Memory

Hiroshima Traces, written in 1999, is an interrogation of the different ways in which memory, space, and discourse are mobilised in the creation of Hiroshima as a peace city. The book is a series of thematic explorations grounded in Yoneyama’s fieldwork and research experiences. It is diverse in its use of theoretical tools, utilising perspectives in critical geography, ethnography, and critical discourse analysis. Though the subject of each chapter is different and to an extent self-contained, the chapters share concerns over the connections between power and knowledge, the relationship between dominant ways of knowing and troublesome marginal voices and spaces, and the individual stories of people shaping how Hiroshima is remembered.

Hiroshima Traces consists of six chapters that cover such varied topics as the architecture and geography of memorial spaces and city planning, the testimonial practices of survivors, and the role of ethnicity and gender in memorial practices. In part one, “Cartographies of Memory,” the focus of Yoneyama’s analysis is on space, place, and the battle for meaning and identity. The first chapter, “Taming the Memoryscape,” examines the campaign in the late 1980s to reproduce Hiroshima in terms of “bright and cheerful peace” (akarui heiwa) in opposition to the dark memories of war and the bomb; by contrast, the second chapter, “Memories in Ruin,” deals with various attempts to maintain historical sites affected by the bomb and the efforts of residents to preserve these sites. A complicated city landscape is established where multiple voices compete, with some pushing Hiroshima into a “bright” new future but others looking to maintain and reclaim the legacy and meaning of Hiroshima. Part two, “Storytellers,” examines testimonial practices and acts of memory. The third chapter, “Testimonial Practices,” examines the evolution of hibakusha as political subjects who speak about their experiences of the atomic bomb blast, while the fourth chapter, “Mnemonic Detours,” examines how several hibakusha have revised their understandings of their experience with the bomb through encounters with victims of Japanese colonialism and other historical perspectives. Part three, “Memory and Positionality,” focus on the complicating aspects of ethnic identity and gender. The fifth chapter, “Ethnic and Colonial Memories: The Korean Atomic Bomb Memorial,” details the efforts of Korean activists and other hibakusha to construct a memorial for Korean hibakusha and their later efforts to have their memorial included within the official space of remembering, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Finally, the sixth chapter, “Postwar Peace and the Feminisation of Memory,” deals with the participation of women in the postwar peace movement and the various ways in which memory of the atomic bomb has been feminised.

Though each chapter is a solid contribution, the strongest is Chapter 4, “Mnemonic Detours.” This chapter pays close attention to narratives of several survivors and the way their stories deviate from the standard narrative of atomic survival. There are long passages where Yoneyama allows the atomic bomb survivors to tell their own stories with minimal analytical interventions. Readers are introduced to Numata Suzuko, a hibakusha,who tells not only her story on the day of the Hiroshima bombing, but also her encounters with other victims, including a group in Malaysia that celebrated the nuclear bomb because it was seen as a source of liberation from Japanese atrocities (page 120). Yoneyama masterfully shows how these encounters outside of Hiroshima work to reconstruct Numata’s memories of wartime, the bomb, and her responsibility to others. Numata is held up as an example of a hibakusha who has broken through the mold of victimisation to talk about Japanese invasion and colonialism. At the same time, however, Numata’s experiences point to the incompleteness of knowledge and the idea that there are always experiences beyond official story-telling that have a disruptive presence. Exploring “detours” both in the testimonial practices of hibakusha and the spatial configuration of commemorative sites is not just about disrupting dominant discourses of the atomic bomb but also about maintaining critical perspectives of knowing and keeping a vigilance for other voices.

In highlighting the often messy, plural, and contradictory voices that constitute Hiroshima’s memory of the past, Yoneyama is searching for memorial practices that unsettle easy readings of the event: “How can memories, once recuperated, remain self-critically unsettling?” (page 5). In the epilogue Yoneyama examines her own pre-conceived notions of where her research would take her. “In this initial formulation of my study,” she writes, “‘No more Hiroshimas’ was but a cliché. Narratives about atomic victimisation and Hiroshima’s call for world peace seemed to me to have become so routinised and familiar that they had lost any relevance for critical discourse… By masking the nation’s history of military aggression and its dominating presence in the present global political economy, Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s representations of atomic victimisation helped produce the image of postwar Japan as a peace-loving, harmless nation” (pages 213–14). Yoneyama’s field research, however, demonstrates more nuance and complexity, highlighting mnemonic detours that disrupt easy narratives and messy city politics that both acknowledge the legitimacy of non-Japanese hibakusha (like Korean hibakusha) but ultimately fail to incorporate them into official spaces of memory.

Some might fault Yoneyama’s work for its many detours and a critical theoretical perspective that problematises much but offers little policy advice. Such criticisms may be inevitable for any study that uses an interdisciplinary cultural studies approach. In the end, however, the author’s diligent fieldwork, tenacity in exploring the many loose ends of public memory, and willingness to let her interview subjects speak for themselves overcome many such limitations.

Miyamoto: Religion, Responsibility, and Remembering

Written in 2011, Beyond the Mushroom Cloud is a more recent contribution to the field, focusing on the ethics and religious dimensions of commemoration in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet this book also has much in common with Hiroshima Traces. It is an interdisciplinary study that focuses on discourse, commemoration, and memory. As with Hiroshima Traces, it also critically examines the instrumentalisation of memory and, in its own way, warns of complacency in remembering and commemorating the nuclear bombings. In Miyamoto’s study, however, ethics and religion are placed in the foreground. Where hibakusha memorial practices are questioned from the outset in Yoneyama’s book, Miyamoto looks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as positive examples of commemoration—where a narrow nationalism has been overcome for the sake of a transnational ethics. Examining the experience of the hibakusha community is thus a productive activity. Hibakusha have renounced retaliation and denounced nuclear weapons while offering “a new vision of a community of memory that transcends existing boundaries (national, social, and cultural)” (page 13). For Miyamoto, this ethic goes beyond the nation state and embraces all of humanity.

Beyond the Mushroom Cloud consists of six chapters beyond the introduction. The introductory chapter frames the problem, demonstrating how the symbol of the mushroom cloud helps to sustain the importance of a nation-state approach to nuclear weapons. In order to fully embrace the common threat nuclear weapons pose to humanity, one must go beyond the mushroom cloud and look at how the bomb has affected individuals. The first two chapters, under the heading of “Commemoration,” compare the ethics of the Yasukuni Shrine with the commemorative practices of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Through the contrast of these two sites of memory, Miyamoto establishes her case for why Hiroshima’s memorial practices trump those of Yasukuni in their relationship to the dead. For Miyamoto, the Yasukuni Shrine establishes a simple monologue with the dead, where the dead become instruments for articulating rationales for sacrificing oneself for the state. On the other hand, Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial is a place where an open interpretation is allowed of the role of the dead and their meaning; it is in this context that a genuine dialogue with the dead is permitted. Chapters 3 and 4, under the heading of “Religion,” focus on the more explicitly religious meanings embedded in interpretations of the bombings, discussing The Pure Land Buddhist sect of Hiroshima and the Catholic community of Nagasaki. In these chapters, readers are given rich descriptions and interpretations of the role of these religious communities in defining how the atomic bombings were remembered, and how the ethics of “reconciliation, not retaliation” have evolved. The last section, entitled “Responsibility,” has a chapter focused on women in atomic bomb films (and TV shows) and a short postscript chapter that outlines the author’s final thoughts on the possibility of eliminating nuclear weapons.

For those interested in competitive nationalism and commemorative practices in East Asia, the first two chapters of Beyond the Mushroom Cloud will be of great interest. In these chapters, Miyamoto examines and contrasts the commemorative practices of Yasukuni with Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum. One argument is that the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum—a secular institution—demonstrates religious qualities through its promotion of a dialogue with the dead. This is contrasted with the more religious Yasukuni site which, according to Miyamoto, promotes a monologue with the dead where the voices of fallen soldiers are instrumentalised for the purpose of narrow nationalism. In particular, the Yūshūkan, the museum associated with Yasukuni, promotes a nationalistic discourse, framing Japan’s war as a struggle against Western imperialism. This museum is part of a “monologue” that nationalists tell in order to compete against other visions of history. Hiroshima’s memorial, on the other hand, at once recognises the victimhood of Hiroshima while acknowledging Hiroshima’s complicity in war, thus accepting a shared sense of guilt in its conduct. The display eschews a simple victim’s narrative of suffering. The Hiroshima memorial is depicted as a memorial that resists artificial closure and sacrificial certainty.

Miyamoto’s book can be viewed as a challenge to International Relations scholars. Early in her work Miyamoto defines the nation-state framework that defines atomic bomb discourse as problematic. She also makes it clear that her examination of the cultures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are motivated by her desire to move “beyond the mushroom cloud,” which often stands as a larger symbol for the confines of the nation state. As Miyamoto claims, “The mushroom cloud, representing national borders, also left in obscurity those people who do not fit into the too-simple classification of ‘Japanese.’ The prevailing discourse on the bomb thus routinely excludes Korean hibakushas, who account for 10 percent of all hibakushas, as well as Japanese American hibakushasand POWs of the Allied powers” (page 14). However, the concept of going “beyond the Mushroom cloud”—which might be interpreted as going beyond the nation state—remains underdeveloped. One could argue for commemorative practices that are more inclusive without necessarily dismissing the nation state as insignificant or counterproductive for purposes of peace.

After probing the diverse experiences and voices on the atomic bomb, Beyond the Mushroom Cloud concludes the book with an opinion that is against the continuing existence of the bomb. It is possible to differ with the Miyamoto’s final verdict and still enjoy the insight and skill with which she manages the great diversity of perspectives on commemoration and hibakusha testimony. The skill is even more impressive in that Miyamoto often uses theoretical elements without letting them either dominate or distract from her insights. In this respect, the book is similar to Hiroshima Traces, although readers may be left wondering if going “beyond the mushroom cloud” means abandoning the nation state and its importance for commemoration.

Final Thoughts: From Local Politics to a New Diplomacy?

The aims of these two books are ambitious. One has to wonder whether an understanding of hibakusha, as Miyamoto claims, can truly become the foundation for a new community of memory that transcends national borders. If anything, Miyamoto’s research may lead less to a universal ethics of the atomic bomb than to empathy for the diversity and richness of perspectives. Both books point to the dangers of an easy instrumentalisation of memory and history. As Yoneyama argues, the logic of instrumentalisation has led to accepted “receptacles” of memory (approved spaces where memories can be deployed), while everything beyond this must be evaluated for its ability to contribute to the present and future (page 75). Though the idea is used by Yoneyama to refer to Hiroshima’s use of public space, the same logic applies to the use of memory in the Yūshūkan. It is this instrumentality of the past—this refusal to have a genuine dialogue with the dead—that underpins Miyamoto’s critique of the Yūshūkan. Instead of focusing on sanctioned and instrumentalised “receptacles,” Miyamoto encourages readers to recover the voices of the dead, the marginal voices, and to question history’s silences.

As works dealing with important questions for International Relations, do the books engage with the realities of an anarchic system of states? Any study that shows how acts of memory reach beyond the nation state must, to an extent, be critical of nationalist discourses and forms of memory that reify the state. The best books, however, interrogate these discourses while at the same time acknowledging the challenge of a state-based system. Few scholars have been able to master the razor’s edge of rejecting narrow nationalism while giving international anarchy and nation states their due. To examine politics at the city level—especially transnational actions at the city level—is to complicate the issue without necessarily offering a solution to the problems associated with state-level politics.

Both Hiroshima Traces and Beyond the Mushroom Cloud demonstrate a scholarship that can expose the cracks of nationalism, problematise simplistic forms of memory, and demonstrate alternative ways of coming to terms with the dead. The fieldwork of each book serves as a kind of indirect approach to the problem of nation states, nationalism, and the instrumentalisation of memory. Both authors in their own ways recognise the power of these forces in commemoration and remembering. For Miyamoto, the answer is to create a genuine dialogue with the dead, ground trans-ethical approaches in meaningful religious practices, and recognise the reality that the threat of nuclear weapons is one that supersedes national borders. For Yoneyama, overcoming competitive nationalism means more than covering up the past with bright new assemblages, more than keeping the past encapsulated in designated spaces, and more than recycling worn narratives; it also means keeping one’s mind open to other victims and their stories.

One can critique the limitations of current ways of remembering without looking to go “beyond” the current state-based system. In important ways, acknowledging the state-based nature of the current problem will help sharpen our understanding of how commemorative practices can ameliorate fear and hostility in the East Asia region. As Jennifer Lind (2011, 310) has written, remembrance matters in international relations because “the way countries represent their pasts conveys information about foreign policy intentions.” Ultimately, remembrance practices should seek to create dialogues not only with a country’s own dead, but also seek dialogues with the dead of other countries. Such actions can bring honour to both the country and to its past enemies.

At the heart of such endeavours should be the concept of reciprocity. Memorial practices, if done correctly, can sponsor a different kind of reciprocal nationalism. Instead of practices that harden the nationalism of other nation states, memorial practices can be built that honour both the dead of one’s own nation and those of others and that recognise the honour in striving for international arrangements that make war less likely. As both books demonstrate, the nexus between civil society and city politics (and to an extent national actors) is a good place to start for examining political and discursive practices that reject narrow nationalist ways of remembering. Indeed, more work needs to be done on the question of how the commemorative practices of cities and civic groups can shape the commemorative practices of states. In this respect, future scholarship would do well to build on the work of Yoneyama and Miyamoto.


Akiba, Tadatoshi (2002) “Peace Declaration,” 6 August.

Emmott, Bill (2008) Rivals: How the Power Struggle between China, India and Japan will Shape Our Next Decade, London: Allen Lane.

Lind, Jennifer (2011) “The Haunt of History in Japan’s Foreign Relations,” in Alisa Gaunder (ed) Handbook of Japanese Politics, London: Routledge, 309–19.

About the Author

Daniel Clausen is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations. His research has been published in Strategic Insights, Asian Politics and Policy, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, and Culture and Conflict Review. You can learn more about Daniel’s research at

Email the author

Back to top