Listening to the Survivors’ Voices: Beyond the Mushroom Cloud and the Memory of the Atomic Bombings

A review of Yuki Miyamoto, Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Commemoration, Religion, and Responsibility after Hiroshima. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). Description: 233 pp, including notes and index

In her monograph, Beyond the Mushroom Cloud, Yuki Miyamoto explores how the voices of the hibakusha convey their experiences during the atomic bombings and the ethics surrounding them, as well as how their views should be considered when discussing current nuclear weapon policy. The book opens by discussing the ethics of commemorating the bombings, before shifting focus towards the construction of an inclusive community of memory among the hibakusha. Next, she explores how two different religious groups (the Pure Land Buddhists of Hiroshima and the Catholics of Nagasaki) frame and explain the reasons for and effects of the bombings. Finally, Miyamoto investigates the narrative of hibakusha women in popular culture. Throughout her work, Miyamoto draws on the accounts of the hibakusha themselves, as well as works by other scholars interpreting various aspects of the hibakushas’ experiences. Where she discusses certain philosophical ideas, such as Avishai Margalit’s ideas on the relationship between memory and community, she summarizes their major tenets and uses them to frame her investigation of the hibakusha’s accounts, exposing new facets of their complex situations (Miyamoto, 21).  In a few words, Miyamoto’s overarching thesis for this monograph can be summarized by her assertion that the hibakusha’s “reconciliation with their own suffering is arrived at through critical self-reflection [and] provides actionable insights into a world rife with conflict” (Miyamoto, 9).

In chapter 4 of her book, Miyamoto investigates Catholic priest Nagai Takashi’s interpretation of the atomic bombing. She begins by delving into the history of the Urakami Roman Catholic parish in Nagasaki as a community created by the former detainees of the Meiji government that finally ended their long exile by building their church in the city during the late 1800s. After this has been established, she recounts the life and conversion of Nagai Takashi. Originally an atheist, Nagasaki doctor Nagai turned to Catholicism after the death of his mother; once he was discharged from his role as a military doctor, he studied to become a priest. Nagai survived the bombing of 1945 while working in the hospital near the center of the blast. He later laments on how he and fellow “[survivors] were absolutely selfish” following the bombings, demonstrating a self-reflective stance common among hibakusha (Miyamoto, 127). To his congregation, he interpreted the bombing as a “great act of Divine Providence,” stating that those who perished were the pure, sacrificial lambs who died in order to save the rest of the population (Miyamoto, 130). While Miyamoto views some aspects of Nagai’s interpretation as problematic, she proposes that such religious interpretations have merit in that they encourage self-reflection among survivors and discourage the act of vengeance (Miyamoto, 133). It is this act of self-reflection and abstinence from vengeance that is essential to the hibakusha ethics and community of memory. Nagai’s Catholicism and medical background lead him towards an interpretation of the suffering of the bombings that does not recognize human-made boundaries, offering the possibility of including non-hibakusha in the community of memory. This, Miyamoto believes, is essential to continuing dialogue on the 1945 bombings and the modern nuclear debate.

Throughout her monograph, Miyamoto argues that an inclusive community of memory must be created around the atomic bombings for the true events of that day to be preserved. Furthermore, she stresses that this community of memory is vital in the debate over nuclear weapons. She asserts that the voices of the hibakusha, particularly their interpretations of the event, are crucial to this. To bolster her argument, she examines both secular and religious interpretations of the bombings, as well as investigates the act of commemoration and how it influences the event’s narrative. By framing her investigation using both Western and Eastern ideologies (such as the ethics of Margalit and Buddhist philosopher Sueki Fumihiko, respectively), she forges a broad and compelling argument. Nonetheless, a possible issue arises with her insistence that the hibakusha’s ideal of “reconciliation, not retribution” embodies the group’s overall stance (Miyamoto, 13). While she acknowledges that the hibakusha “do not compromise a monolithic entity,” she does not examine any differing ideologies (Miyamoto, 179). Including this could alter a reader’s perspective on her argument.

In Beyond the Mushroom Cloud, Miyamoto is convincing in her assertion that the survivors’ interpretations of the bombings largely share a common denominator of self-reflection and the rejection of retribution; not only is understanding this important in framing the situation of the hibakusha following the bombing, but also demonstrates how their stories have merit in the ongoing nuclear debate. While her argument would be made more comprehensive by including an examination of an interpretation that dissents from the norm, she nonetheless crafts a strong argument. Those interested in the experiences of the hibakusha and the history behind nuclear policy will find this book an insightful glimpse into both subjects. Because of this, I recommend it to all those who might have such interests. Joseph O’Leary’s review of this monograph acknowledges Miyamoto’s work as a “multifaceted account” of coming to terms with the trauma of the bombs, noting that the reader is left with the view that fully integrating the bombings into a historical or ethical vision has not been done and perhaps may be impossible. Christopher Ives, another reviewer, praises Miyamoto’s effort at conveying differing ways of commemoration and hibakusha ethics, although he wishes that she further examined the issue of responsibility and how it relates to the hibakusha’s ideal of reconciliation.

Appendix

Joseph S. O’Leary. “Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Commemoration, Religion, and Responsibility after Hiroshima by Yuki Miyamoto (Review).” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 68, no. 1, 2013, pp. 147–150.

Christopher Ives. “Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Commemoration, Religion, and Responsibility after Hiroshima by Yuki Miyamoto (Review).” Philosophy East and West, vol. 63, no. 4, 2013, pp. 689–691.


Megan Wilson, University of Oklahoma, 3/8/19