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The nuclear legacy of Hiroshima is a global issue, but the challenge is: how much of it is a trauma for everybody?

26 August 2014 Taylor & Francis

Speaking in Hiroshima in the weeks preceding the sixty-ninth anniversary of the bombing of the city, Yoko Ono stood up for peace declaring that ‘No More Hiroshima’ is a global issue. In light of the continued legacy of the event, a new study recently published in Japanese Studies  looks at how the Hiroshima story penetrated into the realm of Japanese public memory and investigates whether the trauma became a truly national one. Crucially, the research questions if the transformation from a circumscribed experience to a society-encompassing one was a natural experience or a constructed phenomenon instead.

The author of the article From Local to National Experience: Has Hiroshima Become a ‘Trauma for Everybody’?, Anna Shipilova, takes the work of American sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander on cultural trauma into consideration in her analysis. Central to Alexander’s argument is that ‘events themselves do not create collective trauma, but that such a trauma is a socially mediated attribution’. A number of key factors – the people experiencing the tragedy first-hand, the narrative, as well as the institutionalisation of the story – come into play in constructing a ‘trauma for everybody,’ she adds.  A fitting example is how the Holocaust turned into a widespread tragedy in the States only in the 1970s, not at the time; a similar transformation can be observed in the Hiroshima narrative. Looking at the years between 1945 and 1990, the study illustrates how the hibakusha’s (nuclear bomb survivors) experience was reflected and built into a tragedy for the whole Japanese society.

Even though most Japanese didn’t perceive the tragedy as relevant to their own experience in the aftermath of WWII, a shift happened in the following decades; the economic growth in the 1960s and the Cold War years were significant in turning the Hiroshima story into a national one. ‘Japan as a peaceful nation with the Hiroshima tragedy at its core became the official narrative’ explains the author. The advent of the 1990s, with the dwindling risk of an atomic war, meant the country had yet to re-think its international image; from being the guard standing against nuclear warfare, Japan turned its attention to the victims of atomic tests and included them into its narrative.

Whereas the evolution of the Hiroshima story ‘into a national trauma is similar to the process described by Alexander’ explains the author, the lack of emotional connection to the event from the majority of Japanese as well as the authorities’ deliberate refusal to identify a perpetrator, means its narrative never became a national one. So, while Hiroshima is clearly not a shared issue for the Japanese society, its message of peace extends well beyond the perimeter of the country. In a world torn by conflict, its call is truly an international one.

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