Has Hiroshima become too "normal"?

Scrutinizing culture.
March 25 2008 1:46 PM

Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima

Has the ground zero of the nuclear age become too "normal"?

Hiroshima at night. Click image to expand.
Modern-day Hiroshima

Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima. That's what my AmEx travel itinerary called it: "Hotel Hiroshima." I don't know whether this was the official name of the hotel I was booked in to. It may, more mundanely, have been shorthand for "Hotel in Hiroshima." Or it may have been the name before it was changed to what it calls itself now: "The Crowne Plaza Hiroshima," part of the global chain that has joined other American chains in this shiny rebuilt city.

There's a Hiroshima KFC, a Hiroshima Mickey D's (perfect place for a Happy Meal, right?), a Hiroshima Starbucks, and a Hiroshima FedEx-Kinko's.

There is a special kind of bleakness in the fluorescent hell of the all-night Hiroshima Kinko's, believe me. I spent a sleepless predawn hour there beginning to write this column.

Just try saying it—"The all-night Kinko's of Hiroshima"—and you'll see what I mean. Unfortunately, you can't read what I wrote there, because when I tried to save a draft of my lede on this dual-language keyboard, I discovered you can't save in English, and this is all I found:

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I was never able to recapture the original lede, which is perhaps best for all concerned since I believe it sought to evoke the doomed romanticism of the 1960 Alain Resnais new-wave classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour,and Hiroshima no longer seems to have the hold on our imagination it did back then, during the Cold War balance of terror. Not in the Beckett-like bleakness of the Hiroshima FedEx-Kinko's. Still, the name (Hiroshima, not Kinko's) has a disturbing numinous power.

My Amex itinerary listed my room in the Hotel Hiroshima this way: "1 KING BED SMOKING CITY." SMOKING CITY! Turns out "CITY" was shorthand for "city view." But do I need to spell out why I find the name Hotel Hiroshima so resonant? Sure, you hate the Eagles. It's practically a cultural requirement that you do (sometimes I think everybody but me does, but then again, the Eagles seem to sell a lot of music). Still—admit it—there are some lines that will last. Like the one from "Hotel California": "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

So it is with the Hotel Hiroshima. We checked in to a metaphoric Hotel Hiroshima—"we" as a culture—on Aug. 6, 1945, when the 16-kiloton atomic weapon detonated about 800 meters over a hospital here. (The hospital wasn't the ostensible target; a nearby bridge was, but needless to say, the hospital and all those in it were vaporized.) Nearly 100,000 people died instantly or within hours from the original blast and the firestorms that followed (by the end of 1945, 140,000 were dead). Estimates of those who died over a longer period from radiation sicknesses, from radiation-induced cancers, and other disease sequela range far upward.

We checked in to the First Nuclear Age that day in 1945, and yes, sometimes we check out, in the sense of repressed memory, willed or unconscious denial, cultural amnesia. It's happened for prolonged periods after the end of the Cold War. That all-too-brief "holiday from history" some called it.

So yes, we've checked out, but it doesn't look like we're ever going to leave: The nuclear weapons are still there—thousands of them under the badlands of the Dakotas and the trans-Ural steppes and the sands of the Middle East, all still armed and ready. As they say in "Hotel California," in a phrase that never made sense to me until now, "We are all just prisoners here/ of our own device."

And Hiroshima is still here to remind us of what happened when we first unleashed our "device" and how it can never happen again—supposedly.

That's what everyone says after visiting Hiroshima, the statesmen and citizens who sign the guest book at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. We will never forget. But maybe we will. The very fact that Hiroshima is thriving with its KFC and Starbucks, with the carefully manicured lawns of its "Peace Memorial Park"—the only evidence that hell was unleashed here—may have the opposite, anodyne effect. This is not John Hersey's Hiroshima, the Hiroshima of the horrific immediate aftermath, but is to a certain extent a Hiroshima that says a nuclear detonation is a transient thing, something that's eminently recoverable from with a little time and some good landscaping.

And it's true that after 60 or so years, one 16-kiloton blast can be virtually erased, physically at least. But not metaphysically, since it represented the moment the bright line that separated war from nuclear war had been crossed for the first time.

That's why the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, set in the middle of an otherwise "normalized" city, on the very site of the blast, seems strained at times. It bears a disproportionate responsibility: to the memory of the victims and to legions of potential victims that stretch into the nuclear future.

No nuclear weapons have been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is it because Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so horrific? Some will even say many more "devices" would have been used by now or millions more people would have died in conventional wars had not Hiroshima and Nagasaki been savagely sacrificed in a way that showed the world a glimpse of the horror that awaits us if we don't remember what happened to those two cities.

At the time of Hiroshima, one nation had nuclear weapons. Now there are upward of nine, not counting "nonstate actors" who may or may not possess some kind of nuclear device, stolen or purchased from the notorious A.Q. Khan's nuclear bazaar. And nuclear threats have once again become common currency, as have the terms "World War III" and "Third World War."

The resurgence of nuclear-war talk and nuclear-war threat has been preoccupying me lately in various forms. And so when another obligation brought me to Tokyo, it was impossible to resist the temptation to visit the place where the bright line was crossed, a place that has shadowed my life but long been subsumed in mythology ever since Hersey's matter-of-fact immediate postwar reportage was eclipsed—in some respects, anyway—by the estheticizing atmospherics of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a film in which a Japanese architect and a French woman fall in love in postwar Hiroshima. (Mass nuclear death can really cause problems in a relationship.) The film gave us Hiroshima as a metaphor of romanticized doom. I wanted to see it as a city.

Indeed, I admit my surprise when the first thing that happened as I entered the lobby of the Hotel Hiroshima was that I blundered into a bridal party: It turns out the Hotel Hiroshima is a big bridal center featuring banquet rooms, photo studios, and wedding chapels. The bride was beautiful in a dark blue dress—life goes on and all that. But the city is cursed with irony: I couldn't resist the words of '50s horror-movie lingo intruding themselves into my consciousness: "Bride of Hiroshima!"

It's the unfortunate truth that no matter how big and bustling and modern this city has become, it will always be Hiroshima. When I reached my SMOKING CITY room in the Hotel Hiroshima and found myself hungry for a snack before proceeding to the Peace Memorial Park, I found the room service menu listing an entree described thusly: "Hiroshima's famous fried vegetable and meat pancakes." Oh, so that's what the city is famous for—the pancakes.

But seriously, being here in Hiroshima in the 21st century in what you might call the Second Nuclear Age (the First ended when the Cold War did) raises or exacerbates questions I've been thinking about. How much did what happened here (and three days later in Nagasaki) shape our age? It did once, certainly, but does Hiroshima as a metaphoric city of nuclear death still reign over the age in the same way? Do we still think of it as the future the way it was/is in all those bad Beat poems of the '50s and '60s? Or did Hiroshima's fallout, so to speak, turn out to have a shorter half-life than we imagined? Does it only half-live in memory now, unlike the way it did in the age of Hiroshima, Mon Amour? Or have recent events restored its power to disturb?

The city still raises questions about the nature of the nuclear age. What made the bright line between nuclear mass slaughter and non-nuclear mass slaughter so bright? Was it the radiation, in its invisible insidiousness and—more importantly—in the longevity of its deadliness?

Why are the civilian wartime deaths in Hiroshima different from all other civilian wartime deaths—if they are? How does one compare them with the deaths in the firebombing of Tokyo, where just as many or more died immediately. To Dresden? To Auschwitz, too? Has it numbed us to civilian casualties in places like Vietnam and Iraq? Was Hiroshima a logical outcome of wartime exigency or a war crime? It's the ground zero of ground zeroes for such questions. It's a site of mourning that has lessons for subsequent sites of mourning.

Consider 9/11 in that light. Seven and a half years and two wars ago and nothing! Not a single memorial, because the obscene vanity of celebrity architects and developers and the obscene self-promotion of credit-seeking politicians has combined with the conflicting demands of "survivor groups" to utterly paralyze the process of agreeing on anything. (I've long argued that the best memorial would be the raw gaping hole in the earth at Ground Zero—no need for words!)

At Hiroshima, they have the opposite problem. Over the years, Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park seems unable to say no to any memorial tchotchke someone wants to implant on its acres of rolling grass. The map I picked up at the Peace Memorial Park Museum lists no fewer than 74 individual monuments, memorials, cairns, and crypts in the park.

The first thing you notice when you glance over the list of memorials are the number that use the word peace. Like an incantation. One can find the "Peace Clock Tower," the "Peace Bell" (one of two Peace bells—I rang them both), the "Stone Lantern of Peace," the "Figure of the Merciful Goddess of Peace," the "Peace Cairn," the "Children's Peace Monument," the "Flame of Peace," (which "won't be extinguished until all the nuclear weapons are abolished from the earth"—good luck with that). Then there's the Pond of Peace, the Fountain of Peace, the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall, the Peace Tower, the Peace Memorial Post, the Statue of Peace, the Camphor Tree planted to Commemorate the First Peace Festival, the Prayer Monument for Peace, the Prayer Haiku Monument for Peace.

Of course, this doesn't include the 60 or so other monuments whose purpose is peace without using the word peace, such as the Monument of the Hiroshima Gas Company.

Needless to say, every monument or pond or flame or stone is an admirably earnest and understandable response to a horrible tragedy of war—and a strain of responsibility to the dead, that their death be a sacrifice, or sacralized. In one of the two peace museums (I forget which), you see them characterized as "the sacred dead." They died so we could see the result of our sins, our Faustian bargain with the unstable interior of the atom—an analog, perhaps, of the unstable interior of the human soul.

No one monument can say that, but yet one has to admire the civic culture of Japan for managing to get permits for so many memorials. Still, at some point a critical mass (not the best phrase) of peace tchotchkes turns Peace Park into a kind of frenzied Peace Clutter, complete with a souvenir stand selling T-shirts and those sticky-sweet Japanese snacks in their radiation-hued pastel packages.

The Peace Clutter also speaks to a recognition the 9/11 planners can't seem to get through their head: There's no single design, no matter how famous the architect, that's going to do justice to the sorrow it commemorates. What it says to the 9/11 clutter of memorial groups is: Be more like Hiroshima, get something up there, give everyone a shot at it, get 74 smaller things built rather than waiting for the perfect world-peace-ensuring design to show up to make One Big Statement About It All.

But the complexities, the politics of memorializing, pale beside the passion over the precise history—actually, the precise historical context of the bombing. Hiroshima is not just a city but a "site of contestation," as they say. And when one enters the Peace Museum and reads the words on the wall and in the guide, troubling questions of that nature arise. While the museum tries to avoid any overt politicizing, there are moments of understatement—or rather un-statement—that nag at you.

In discussing the run-up to the world war, for instance, one wall text merely states, "Japan took the path of war." Somber and sad, dignified, not exculpatory in an obvious way. But the spiritualized tone of the word path elides the fact that Japan didn't make a dignified choice: In the '30s, Japan made war, used chemical and biological weapons against armies in China, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians on the way to starting the Pacific War that ended with Hiroshima.

As Herbert P. Bix, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, described the role of the deified Japanese emperor throughout this period: "Hirohito's actions [in the '30s] fit a pattern of exterminating people while enveloping oneself in moral humanitarian rhetoric that was just as much Western as Japanese." "Exterminating" is strong language, and I don't think Bix means it in the Hitlerian sense of exterminating an entire people. But it makes you wonder, where is the "Peace Park" commemorating these deaths?

What makes one death worthy of Peace Park star treatment while so many others languish in obscurity? Radiation alone? No, I think I know why. It has something to do with the potential extinction of the human species.

And before the visitor knows it, the museum throws him into a different controversy. Was it necessary to drop the bomb at all? This is a perennial argument that was reignited in 1995 with the publication of Gar Alperovitz's book The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb. It created a controversy by arguing that Japan was trying to surrender in the days before the bomb was dropped, and the bomb was dropped despite the surrender talks in order for the United States to demonstrate military superiority, terrifying nuclear supremacy, in the embryonic Cold War rivalry with the USSR.

The Peace Memorial version gives two reasons (and only two) why the bomb was dropped when Japan was effectively defeated and on the brink of surrendering—though how close to the brink is at the heart of the debate. One reason is economic. The museum poster says that the United States spent more than $2 billion "in gold" to manufacture the bomb, so there was great pressure to use it to get our money's worth. (In other words, the Soulless Mercenary Rationale.)

And secondly—and here's where the memorial echoes Alperovitz's work—the United States knew that the Japanese were secretly discussing peace terms with the Soviets, because the United States had broken the Japanese "Purple" code. Thus, the United States raced to use the bomb before the Japanese could surrender, with the goal of intimidating the Soviets. (The anti-Communist-crusade rationale.)

No mention is made that there were those who sincerely believed that using the bomb would save more lives than it took by obviating the need for a U.S. invasion of the Japanese home islands and the horrible cost in lives that would result—on the order of Hiroshima's hundreds of thousands or several times more. Some attribute this as a sincere motive of Harry Truman, whose ultimate decision it was. Others argue a more Machiavellian power-politics agenda behind Truman's public rationale.

Here, Hirohito biographer Bix disagrees with Alperovitz on how to interpret the Japanese secret contacts with the Soviets, and he almost seems to reply directly to the Alperovitz-inspired language on the Peace Memorial Museum wall. He writes that "neither the emperor nor the Suzuki government ever devised a concrete plan on the basis of which the Soviets could mediate an end to the hostilities, assuming the Soviets were ever interested in doing so, which they were not. ... [N]egotiations with the Soviets to guarantee the emperor's political position and the future of the monarchy was always accorded more importance than the search for peace to end the killing and suffering."

Bix adds that "American intelligence analysts, meanwhile, watched" Japanese preparations for an invasion of the home islands. "They saw how the Japanese had fought and died on Okinawa—thousands almost daily for eighty-two days—and how the whole nation had become enveloped in the imagery of national salvation through mass suicide." Which, Bix argues, gave Washington decision-makers reason to believe the United States faced mass deaths in any invasion attempt—and thus predisposed them to use the bomb. And there's the question of why a mainly civilian target was chosen. These are not dead issues. Just last week, a blogger dug up Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright's contrarian view of Hiroshima.

I don't know if these controversies will ever be resolved, but they all raise the same question: Why are these deaths different? It's something you are forced to contemplate as you get farther into the Peace Park Museum and you see the blown-up pictures of the burned bodies of the wounded and dead. Is it because you know that you may well be looking not just at the past but at the future as well? Did crossing the bright line make it, however tragic the sacrifice, less likely the line would be crossed again? Or more likely?

There doesn't seem to be a rationally airtight reason to believe that the deaths at Hiroshima deserve unique consideration or bear a message beyond that borne by all civilian deaths in wartime. Why are these dead different? They are different in which the dead of the death camps were different. Another bright line was crossed there.

But I found myself thinking of a question I'd asked of Robert Conquest, the great historian of Stalin, toward the close of my book Explaining Hitler. I'd asked Conquest, who brought to light the genocidal scale of Stalin's murders, whether he considered Stalin or Hitler the more evil. He said there was really no way of measuring evil quantitatively, rationally, at that level. At a certain point, you had to rely on feeling. He said Hitler's evil seemed to him to surpass Stalin's although he had no rational reason for saying so. "It just feels that way."

I think something like that obtains with the dead of Hiroshima. We have always had wars. We have never had nuclear war. The ghosts of the first nuclear ground zero feel like they have something more to tell us.

The irony is that Hiroshima has been rebuilt so successfully, mourned and memorialized so dutifully, that the raw horror Hersey captured has been museumized. The streets have been franchised. The Hiroshima Starbucks' latte tastes the same as it does anywhere.

But walking back through the predawn streets from the all-night Hiroshima Kinko's, you can hear the whisper of hundreds of thousands of ghosts.