The Unfinished Atomic Bomb

Gwyn McClelland, Monash University [About | Email]

Volume 20, Issue 1 (Book review 1 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2020.

Review of Lowe, David, Cassandra Atherton and Alyson Miller (eds) (2017) The Unfinished Atomic Bomb: Shadows and Reflections, Lanham; London: Lexington Books, ISBN 1498550207, hardback, 230 pages.

Keywords: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, atomic bombing, memory

Almost seventy-five years post-war, the publishing of The Unfinished Atomic Bomb shows that interest in the legacy of the atomic bombings of Japan is not on the wane. This recent collection, edited by Australian scholars David Lowe, Cassandra Atherton, and Alyson Miller, and sourced largely in Australia, provides a fascinating interdisciplinary approach to memory, trauma and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Daniel Clausen’s 2015 review in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies compares two single-authored books about Nagasaki and Hiroshima, by authors Lisa Yoneyama and Yuki Miyamoto, concluding that both authors in their respective books point to ‘the dangers of an easy instrumentalisation of memory and history’ (Clausen, Vol 15, Issue 1, 2015). Edited volumes may be compared to multiple books produced by single authors around the topic of atomic or nuclear weapons. Other comparable books such as the collection, Reimagining Hiroshima and Nagasaki: nuclear humanities in the post-Cold War (2018), bear a number of similarities to this collection, not least that some of the contributors are represented in both volumes. The writers in this volume work across the fields of history, literature, cultural studies, and media. Other single-authored books tackle some of the issues discussed in the volume under review, including Producing Hiroshima and Nagasaki: literature, film and transnational politics, by Yuko Shibata (2018), Hiroshima: the origins of global memory culture, by Ran Zwigenberg, or Reckoning day: race, place, and the atom bomb in postwar America, by Jacqueline Foertsch (2012). One can conclude, the multi-authored book has an important place in its multi-perspectival description of the many faceted issues around the bomb. The Unfinished Atomic Bomb allows for a greater breadth of topic—and thus an overview of interest to a wide audience.

One issue common to historical methodology but seemingly acute in the production of atomic history is a potential for bias, depending on the side of the Pacific from which the story is viewed. My search of ‘atomic bombing’ in my institution’s library discovers 121 different books published between 2010 and 2019, across multiple disciplines, transnational boundaries, and popular discussions of the bomb. It is noticeable that Japanese and American books on the subject are in the majority. Nevertheless, does Australia act as at least a slightly more neutral territory for approaching this subject matter—in view of the large volume of Japanese and American produced works? Australia, of course, was itself an Allied Power in World War II with the associated Anglo-centrism. The book offers an opportunity to test this theory, as seven of the ten contributors to this book hail from Australia, with their associated alternative view from the south. On the other hand, written outside of Japan, there is a danger in this kind of volume of a scholarly narrative which is practiced in symbolism and slogan but lacking relationship to human exposure. Reading as a whole, the editors appear to have skirted this danger of an abstract subjectivity divorced from reality, by a careful arrangement of apposite themes, discourse, and poetics touching on the American and Japanese experiences, and not forgetting the survivor hibakusha narration of the bomb.

Two pairs of matched chapters compose a beginning and an open ending (discussed later in this review) to this collection, bridging the afore-mentioned American-Japanese memory and differences over the ‘unfinished atomic bomb’. One of the aspects of ‘unfinished-ness’ is the contested justification of the atomic bombing; the first chapter indirectly evokes moral and strategic questions about this issue through Peter J Kuznick’s reflecting on the life of Paul Tibbets Jr, pilot of the Enola Gay. The US pilot’s refusal to step back from or acknowledge any ambivalence about the act in which he participated contrasts with the US development of a ‘Pacifist Constitution’ for the defeated Japanese state. Carolyn Stevens suggests confounding questions surrounding Article 9 in the Japanese constitution in Chapter 2. Does Japan continue to support Article 9, as the Abe government has been recently sworn in for another term (even as Article 9 is a memorialisation of the atomic bombings)? Stevens introduces the idea that the two nations’ public memories of the atomic bombing intersect and impinge on the other—the future of that memory will require at least an ongoing engagement—if not new reconciliation.

A major theme of the book is to examine how memory of the atomic bombings is distilled through literature and media, splicing the discussion into Japanese portrayals versus those described from foreign contexts. Alyson Miller surveys Japanese children’s literature, considering the treatment of children in commemoration of the atomic bomb and literature, ‘ignored in the West due to the dominance of Euro-centric perspectives of the war’ (P. 66), raising the story of Shigeru, whose charred bento-box is pictured on the front cover of this collection (and displayed at the Hiroshima Peace Museum). Children’s literature readily confronts the devastation of the atomic bomb and the death of Shigeru is not shyed away from but is made explicit in The Lunchbox (Bento-bako).

Moving to the other side of the Pacific, Mick Broderick discusses Hollywood portrayals of the bomb in popular movies including The Wolverine, Mr Holmes, Godzilla, and Unbroken, and the ‘mis-remembering’ of popular media in dealing with the atomic bombings. Broderick and Stuart Bender instituted a multi-media exhibition at Curtin University and created an ‘Augmented Reality’ experience of being inside the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima (p. 92). Broderick describes how non-Japanese were caught up in the atomic bombing, including POWs—and he notes the recent collaboration at the Nagasaki Peace Park with an Australian Indigenous group affected by the British nuclear tests between 1951 and 1962 in Australia (p. 95).

Unfinished not only refers to the contested nature of the bomb, but also the ‘irreconcilable’. Cassandra Atherton examines the role of hibakusha (survivor) poets as public intellectuals—they are ostracised outsiders, she writes, who have nevertheless reached a wide audience. Atherton describes how poets moved from ‘acceptable’ limits of haiku and tanka to new forms of ‘free verse’, which best represent the un-representable, the ‘unfinished’ (p. 137). Swedish reporter and writer Monica Braw, best known for her book about US censorship of the radiation impacts of the atomic bombing, historicises the work of a Swedish author, Edita Morris, who received the Albert Schweitzer prize for ‘The Flowers of Hiroshima’ (1959) (p. 163). Accusations of cultural appropriation of a non-Japanese view of the aftermath of the bomb aside, Braw makes a case for Morris’ contribution. Braw relates that the book was the first about the atomic bombings to reach a wide non-Japanese readership. Morris’ understanding of Japanese customs suffers from a tone of exoticism, but balances the insightful and the naïve (p. 161). The readability of this novel is shown in that by 2016 there were 89 editions of ‘The Flowers of Hiroshima’, published in fifteen languages (p. 164).

Outside of literature and media, four contributions are reflective of the ongoing repercussions of the bomb on the environment and on a regional scale. Hibaku Jūmoku, as Glenn Moore describes, are ‘survivor’ trees of the bomb, found in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although this essay focuses broadly on Hiroshima’s trees. A volunteer organisation called Green Legacy Hiroshima care for these trees and collect seeds for the purpose of planting second-generation saplings. Moore writes of 170 survivor trees (p. 118) and how trees in Japanese religion play a large part—thus, survivor trees at shrines and temples are a revered natural feature (p. 126), especially the ‘stubborn’ ginkgo (p. 128).

Adam Broinowski’s ‘Two-Way Mirror: The Significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the US-North Korea Nuclear Crisis’, is a strong contribution to the wider historiography, reconsidering the impact of the ‘unfinished atomic bomb’ on the Korean peninsula. Broinowski’s discussion relates the issues of the atomic bombing to the present day, looking back from the US-North Korea Nuclear Crisis of 2016, and in light of the continuation of war on the Korean peninsula after the official ending of World War II. He argues that the commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki viewed in isolation is problematic, and that for the wider context, including Korea is essential to understanding the integrated whole.

The final two chapters raise two very different historical parks conceptualising a metaphorical ‘birth and death’ experience of the atomic bomb, one in Japan, the other in the United States. David Lowe introduces the bombings from the point of view of the 2015 development of the Manhattan Project Historical Park. In this location, the ‘top-secret race to develop an atomic weapon’ was implemented (p. 167-68). David Lowe writes that ‘the presence of Japan in the new park is, at present, uncertain beyond general suggestions’ (p. 178). Memorials are ‘easily incorporated into triumphalist, conservative narratives’ (p. 181), ‘glossing the central point’ that the bomb was also a part of Japanese history. From this conception of the bomb which eliminates its eventual path, the following chapter returns to the site of the pika-don (flash-bang) and large-scale death. Robert Jacobs ruminates on the Hiroshima Peace Park and the many, many Hiroshimas of the bomb, some geographic, some ideological, some temporal, ‘some of them sanctioned and some of them hidden’ (p. 186). Jacobs recalls Obama’s visit in 2016, the more recently irradiated world communities of the twenty-first century, and forgetfulness of the past, mixed with uncertainties of the future as seen from today’s Hiroshima.

This book effectively lifts into our consciousness many of the issues which may be covered in shadow or reflected by light, depending very much on the perspective of the viewer. As a new atomic arms race appears likely, the human race in the twenty-first century will continue to grapple with this very real twentieth century legacy of the ‘unfinished atomic bomb’.


About the Author

 Gwyn McClelland is presently lecturing in East Asian History and Japanese language at Monash University. He won the John Legge Prize for Best Thesis in Asian Studies awarded by the Asian Studies Association of Australia 2019, the Jill Roe Australian Historical Association Early Career Researcher Conference Scholarship 2019 and he has published in international journals including Social Science Japan Journal, Journal of Religion in Japan and Rethinking History. McClelland’s monograph discusses the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and is entitled ‘Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers, Protests and Catholic Survivor Narratives’. His recent articles include ‘Silences: Catholics, hisabetsu burakumin and the Nagasaki atomic bombing’ in the Asian Studies Review (Taylor and Francis).

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