Introduction: On Hiroshima becoming history

By N.A.J. Taylor on 6th August 2017 — 7 mins read

A great deal has been written about Hiroshima.[1] One only needs to mention the city’s name—Hiroshima—and people of all generations tend to recall the two nuclear attacks that America inflicted on Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945. Over time, however, there is also the growing tendency for the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the awareness of nuclear weapons and war in general, to fade from contemporary consciousness. Simply put, Hiroshima is becoming history. Nevertheless, for those who have retained a sense of the nuclear imaginary, Hiroshima has come to stand-in for a world historical event—and a crime against humanity—that called into question the very meaning of harm, as well as of life, death, and politics.[2] For the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just that: attacks. Attacks not only on the human body, but also on the biosphere on which all life depends. In this way, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki introduced a form of harm that was fundamentally different-in-kind from all others that had gone before it. 

In 1999, prominent journalists in the United States were asked to vote on the top 25 news stories of the 20thcentury.[3] When the results came in, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Japan topped the poll. For many it was an important story because it was said to have “ended World War Two.” For others, it was because of the threat of the Cold War. Either way, the significance of the weapon was linked to its role in either an actual or potential nuclear war.[4] Throughout the last half of the 20thcentury many people fixated on the threat of a global thermonuclear war during the Cold War, and when that threat was largely averted with the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the place of nuclear weapons in our imagined future became murky at best. Amidst fears of proliferation, use by non-state actors, dirty bombs and regional nuclear war the notion that nuclear weapons were altogether different-in-kind has been lost amidst a deeply troublesome climate of fear that seemingly pervades our time. From this perspective, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki increasingly became footnotes to 20thcentury history. However, just as radiation persists long after initial contamination, Hiroshima has not receded into the near past: a remnant of a historical trauma and a narrowly averted threat of Cold War aggression. Much as the uranium-235 that has settled deep into the soil of Hiroshima and the Seto Inland Sea (where much of the contaminated topsoil of Hiroshima was dumped), and the plutonium that has settled into the soil of Nagasaki, the half-life of this history is arguably only just beginning. Our shared nuclear past is the Earth’s nuclear future. 

Nuclear technologies are produced in short periods of time. The Manhattan Project delivered nuclear weapons to the U.S. military in less than five years. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. both transitioned from fission weapons to fusion weapons in less than ten years. However, the materials produced out of this technology began a life that is lived on an almost inconceivable timescale. It is likely true that long past the time when there is still a city named Hiroshima, the residue of the nuclear attack will still be present at the site. We place our understanding of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the container of 20thcentury warfare and history: it was the most important news story of the 20thcentury. Our relationship to radionuclides, produced by both civilian and military nuclear technologies, may be the story of the millennium, or millennia. This long-term relationship to radiation, separate from our anxieties about the use of nuclear weapons, will continually demand that we engage in a process of experiencing and re-imagining Hiroshima again-and-again. 

The entry of radionuclides into our ecosystem did not begin in Hiroshima, just as the detonation of nuclear weapons and perhaps even the dawn of the Anthropocene epoch did not begin in Hiroshima.[5] Hiroshima, however, remains our touchstone, our talisman: the name given to our changed relationship to both nature and human technological culture. For those living 5,000 years in the future, the name Hiroshima may still resonate, but it will not be for the same reasons that it resonated with the journalists who participated in the 1999 survey. Thus, as we find ourselves in the early years of being liberated from seeing Hiroshima strictly in terms of World War Two, or in terms of our own vulnerability during the Cold War, we are in a unique position to begin a work that will be ongoing for scholars: re-imagining Hiroshima as it relates to current times, and not just the 20thcentury. 

We have therefore compiled this volume at a critical juncture. The project began in June 2014 with our original call for papers asking potential contributors to “re-imagine the nuclear harm that was inflicted [at Hiroshima and Nagasaki], and its aftermath.” Through the process of collating and editing the papers over the last few years, first for the scholarly journal, Critical Military Studies (Taylor and Jacobs 2015), in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then for this expanded volume, whilst our resolve has only firmed, our focus has narrowed on this notion that Hiroshima can indeed be experienced, even by non-Japanese or others implicated in the nuclear , and even today. The papers we have assembled for this collection therefore address the recollection, memorialization and commemoration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by officials and states, but also ordinary people’s resentment, suffering, or forgiveness. We attempted to include contributions from authors outside the city walls, but were especially eager to publish papers from those who are themselves closely connected to the cities of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and its people. As you shall see, contributions specialising in art, photography, and design have been be considered just as crucial as knowledge derived from the humanities and social sciences. As we argued in our original call, “[w]e look to a variety of perspectives to gain moral and political insights on the full range of vulnerabilities—such as emotional, bodily, cognitive, and ecological—that pertains to nuclear harm.” In this way, this edited collection therefore constitutes one of the first works in the emerging field of Nuclear Humanities. 

To situate this collection inside this idea of Hiroshima becoming history, we have ordered the remainder of this present chapter according to the three historical tenses: past, present, and future. It begins—in the first section—with a brief account of the earlier responses to the nuclear attacks, which we argue tended to be carried out by Anglo-American male scholars with little to no engagement or experienceof the harm that was inflicted. Engaging these marginalised voices is interesting and important since it enables us to contextualise our re-imaginings, and to canvass some of the key reasons that warrant (and perhaps even necessitate) approaching the nuclear attacks on Japan in new ways. In the second part, Robert Jacobs offers a personal account of being an American in Hiroshima on August 6, 2015—the date that marked the 70-year anniversary of the nuclear attacks on that city—as well as the subsequent first visit to either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki memorials by the head of a nuclear weapon state, at the time, U.S. President Barack Obama to Hiroshima in 2016. In so doing, Jacobs’ narrative averts our gaze from the historical literature to the ordinary every day, which reaffirms how authors writing today, many of whom who are neither Japanese or American, or living at the time of the attacks, may too experienceHiroshima. Finally—and third—we introduce the various contributions included in this volume, as well as put forward some questions that create space for future re-imaginings of this notion that Hiroshima is becoming history. 

[1]     Throughout this editorial introduction, “Hiroshima” is variously used to refer to the Japanese city of that name, as well as to stand in for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Japan, on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. For a critique of this move, see Kathleen Sullivan’s essay included in this volume. 

[2]     For instance, N.A.J. Taylor (2012; 2014a; 2014b; 2016; 2016)has published extensively on this idea.  

[3]     “Top News of the 20thCentury,” CBSNews.com(February 24, 1999): http://www.cbsnews.com/news/top-news-of-20th-century/(accessed February 8, 2017)

[4]     Here it is important to make note of Jacques Derrida’s (1984, 23)claim that “a nuclear war has not taken place”, since what occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was instead a nuclear attack inflicted on the Japanese and the biosphere. 

[5]     As at the time of writing, the Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, which delivered its recommendation in October 2016 that the world’s first nuclear weapons detonation at Trinity, in New Mexico, U.S., may indeed be the marker of this new geological epoch. 

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N.A.J. Taylor and Robert Jacobs, ‘On Hiroshima becoming history’, in N.A.J. Taylor and Robert Jacobs (eds.), Reimagining Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Nuclear Humanities in the post-Cold War, Routledge, U.K.: London, 2017, pp.1-12. [PDF]

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