Imaginative mislocation

The average Westerner … was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilized since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields.
Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906

The controversy that erupted in March over the publication of Charles Pellegrino’s account of the atomic bombings of Japan, The Last Train from Hiroshima, suggests that the historical legacy of the first military use of atomic weaponry is still fiercely contested in the USA. The spat is merely the latest conflict in a long war over the significance of the bombings, which resurfaces with each new book, exhibition or programme that appears. When the ruins of the Genbaku (Atomic Bomb) Dome – formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall – were nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the United States objected on the basis of concerns over a ‘lack of historical perspective’, arguing that the ‘events antecedent to the United States’ use of atomic weapons to end World War II are key to understanding the tragedy of Hiroshima’. The appeal to historical facts by both US diplomats and, more recently, military veterans contrasts with the dehistoricized emphasis of other Western cultural responses to Hiroshima. But what both kinds of reception share is an occlusion of the prehistory of capitalist liberalism, colonialism and imperialism which produces Japanese modernity, a prehistory which is itself built into the Genbaku Dome’s concrete structure, and an afterlife of nuclear pacification which produces the global context of terrorism as the continuation of war by other means.


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