HIROSHIMA — At Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, photographs of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing and display cases of personal items found near ground zero are instantly understandable to people from around the world regardless of language and nationality, and send a clear message about the horrors of nuclear weapons.
But when it comes to explaining the historical events that led to the use of the bomb, the museum speaks to two different audiences, Japan and the rest of the world.
And as a glance at the Japanese and English explanations on the displays shows, the two audiences are sometimes given different impressions of Japan’s role in the war.
For example, one English explanation says the nation waged a “war of aggression.”
But, in Japanese, this term does not appear. Instead, the wording reads “Japan inflicted irreversible damage . . . with its colonial policy and the war that developed out of the continuation of that policy.”
There’s no mention of the resistance movements in Korea or China, and no mention of the details of Japan’s colonial policies. During the war, many people from Korea — then under Japanese colonial rule — and China were forcibly brought to work in Hiroshima, which was a major military center.
The explanations of what happened are different in the two different languages.
While one panel specifically mentions both Korean and Chinese laborers in both languages, another panel has a Japanese title that reads “Korean and Chinese Forced Labor,” while the English simply mentions the forced labor of “Ethnic Minorities.”
One might excuse differences in translation as quibbling and impossible to avoid, given the natural results of editing two very different languages.
But even scholars who denounce the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki say some of the historical facts that led to the U.S. decision to use the weapon are missing in the museum’s exhibits.
For example, the ferocity of the battles in the Pacific, the attacks of the kamikaze pilots — which convinced many in America that Japan would not peacefully surrender — and the racist propaganda on all sides of the conflict and its role in America’s decision to drop the bomb, are all avoided.
“The truth about many things related to the war is difficult to discern,” said Yasunori Hamamoto, a museum official. “The purpose of the museum is to present the view of the residents of Hiroshima and their reaction to the bombing.”
Hamamoto said the Japanese and English panels have remained basically unchanged since 1994. But the debate on how to explain the history that led to the bombing is still going on.
There are plans to eventually renovate and expand the west wing of the museum. Since last October, a committee of 16 scholars, journalists and A-bomb survivors has been meeting to discuss how best to renovate the building.
Both Azawa and Hamamoto admit many in Hiroshima have advised the museum not to include information about the war that portrays Japan in a bad light.
Local sentiments and politics often play a key role when deciding on the content of exhibits in a war museum in any country. When the Smithsonian Institution exhibited the reassembled Enola Gay — the U.S. bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima — at the National Air and Space Museum in 2003, a number of Japanese A-bomb survivors denounced the absence of any mention of the huge casualties caused by the bombing.
However, some scholars and visitors suggest that the Hiroshima museum, as an institution dedicated to international peace, should go beyond such considerations.
For visitors fluent in both languages, the linguistic differences, and the editorial choices, made by the museum remain less important than the emotional impact.
“I think the museum does a pretty good job of showing the human cost of the bomb. Regardless of what happened before it was dropped, the museum sends a clear message of no more war,” said Mikiko Tanaka, a Japanese college student who was translating some of the displays for her European friends.
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