How we talk about war: Hiroshima Peace Museum

I recently got back from a trip to Japan and South Korea. When in Japan with my parents we went to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. It is by the Peace Park which contains many memorials for those who died because of the atomic bomb.

We all know what happened but here’s a quick history lesson. World War II was almost over and the USA drops the first ever atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on 6th August 1945 and then a second on Nagasaki three days later. Japan surrendered. The justification for the bombs was that they saved more lives in the long run than were killed because of the a-bombs. I’ve never studied this in explicit detail but I advise you all to think critically about this reasoning because it sure is a very convenient narrative for the Americans.

The Peace Museum definitely sends a message. I found the whole thing aggressively peaceful. I don’t know how to describe this but there were plenty of signs talking about how Hiroshima is a city of peace and will stand up for peace.

There is no mention of Americans in the museum. When they describe what happened captions say things like “the atomic bomb was dropped” rather than “the Americans dropped the atomic bomb”. No blame is placed anywhere and it’s spoken about as if it were a natural disaster. Like an earthquake or tsunami. It’s worth noting that Japan was occupied by the Americans at the end of the war so this may have had an impact on the way people spoke about it.

The most striking thing was the amount of children who died. Every glass case that I peeked in showed the burned belongings of a child and it stated their name and age, specifically what happened to them and when they died. This made it personal. It’s one thing to demonstrate the scale of the deaths and damage with big numbers but when you see the lunch box of a 12 year old who suffered deadly burns it evokes an emotional response. There was a school trip of Japanese kids there when I was visiting and I kept wondering how they were processing everything seeing the stories of children their own age.

The Peace Museum in Hiroshima poses a lot of questions about how we should talk about war and victims. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments about any war museums you’ve visited.

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  1. Two years ago my class and I visited mauthausen, a concentration and work camp in ww2. It was really upsetting for me, to see the rooms, tha stairs, the beds all those people used. It’s just scary to think of. People knew about it and were just letting it happen.

    ” Sometimes they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” -Carl Sandburg
    And i think that’s the way to approach it.

    1. War is ugly, it’s never good and it should never be glorified. In US History books it’s glossed over and even mentions that Japan was notified beforehand that the bombs would be dropped. We all know Evacuations aren’t easy and take a long time to complete and also I don’t know if Japan truly believed that the U.S. would actually drop the bomb let alone two. I am a U.S. History Graduate and an ex solder but that is not to say I am an expert at either but I understand that we have to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them so let’s hope we do…..

  2. I’ve thought a lot about how history is taught in schools after reading ‘A People’s History of the United States’. The author goes into a lot of depth about how teachers learned to give the horrible sides of history the exact same amount of discussion as the good parts. Kids stop seeing the different opinions throughout history and become used to the horribleness. It gets buried in facts and analyzed until they can accept that things like the Holocaust happen.

    It’s why I prefer the museums over history books a lot of times, because they make it personal and emotional. I went to the Rosa Parks museum before and it was really good because of how it forced me to not be disconnected. I liked how it was hard to hear about and listen to, because it had interviews of parents whose children were killed in protest of the Civil Rights Movement. I’m not sure if it counts in the war museum catacory but it was really good. I also liked how but it was “aggressively peaceful” too.

  3. Two stories:

    In 2013 I´ve visited Nanjing, a city in the east of China. During the second Sino-Japanese war, the Nanking Massacre took place in and around this city. Today, there´s a huge museum and lot´s of other memorials on the site. During this massacre, Japanese soldiers slaughtered thousands of Chinese civilians, mostly women and children. It is kind of depressing going there, since you´re confronted with lots of pictures of victims. There´re also many belongings of the people who died during the massacre. So I can totally understand what you mean by saying it´s getting emotional when seeing belongings of children who died there during this war.

    I also visited Theresienstadt, a kind of concentration camp run by nazis during the second world war. Even if it wasn´t “designed” as a killing camp, most of the people deported there died during this time. On the one hand it is very depressing seeing all this barracks and rooms where thousands of people died. On the other hand it´s good that the world can visit those places today to remind the people to be vigilant so that something like that never happens again. But the “best” experience I´ve made there was how friendly the people are and how warm you´re greeted, even if you are from Germany as I am.

  4. I have very recently visited the New York 911 memorial and for me it was presented in a similar way. Admittedly the museum itself placed the blame on Al Quadea- charing their story in one exhibition- but the actual outdoor memorial was thoughtfully done. The Tribute centre offers trips run by survivors and victims family, my tour was led by a women who’s son was killed in one of the towers. Her attitude was incredible. She was respectful, understanding and told us how she taught children that it was a lesson. She saw the solution to world terrorism as being education, tolerance and understanding. Not war or violence. Great post, loved the video too x

  5. If you go to other Japanese war museums, you may also feel that there are less critics or blames towards America rather they emphasise the sense of victimisation. I just feel that because Japanese people have been educated ‘we are victims’, we rarely think about victims in other countries where Japan occupied or fought during WWII.

  6. I’ve working at the World Scout Jamboree in Japan this summer and part of the jamboree program is peace as we will be there for the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped. I found it interesting you saying at the memorial no blame is place on any nation and I’m curious to see if this will be reciprocated by the participants at the Jamboree as there is a large amount of people from both Japan and America. I kind of thought it might be how we are with Germans that I’ve found there is always the “Don’t mention the war” ‘joke’ going on.
    I think sometimes the only way to get people to understand that it was people involved and not just numbers is by looking at individuals. Having been to Auschwitz-Berkenau it was very much the same sort of thing with rooms filled with suitcases, childrens toys, shaven hair, shoes, prosthetic limbs and a ‘book’ with filling nearly a whole room with the names of those who died, but not all. What really stuck with me is there’s a room with peoples photographs of their lives before the war – some of them with names and stories and some without but we were told more and more people come to pay respects because they knew that a relative was sent there and recognising them and suddenly what was just a photo to everyone else has a story to go with it.

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