Politics of Memory at Hiroshima, the World Trade Center, and the Myriad Unnameable Sites of Japan’s Military Comfort StationsVersion originale de
art1096The ruins of the 8.6 atomic attack on Hiroshima and those of the post-9.11 World Trade Center appear to conjure up entirely opposing sets of actions and sentiments. While Hiroshima’s ruins performatively urge critical reflections, humility and repentance, the knowledge and sentiments evoked by the World Trade Center have compelled vengeance, masculinist heroism, and a knee-jerk reaction to retaliate. Despite such palpable differences, I wish to draw in this paper some comparabilities between what Hiroshima as a city of nuclear annihilation has gone through in the last sixty years of its rehabilitation, and unfolding discussions around the 9.11 memorialization in New York. But I wish to close it by contrasting the two ruins to yet another catastrophe in human history: Japan’s military “comfort station” system and the so-called sexual enslavement of women from occupied territories.
What should be done to the vast remains of destruction? To what extent should we be reminded of the original moment of carnage and disaster? What might be the most appropriate sentiments with which we remember the victims? Who are the “we” that need to remember and be remembered at the commemorative sites? And indeed what is it that needs to be remembered? These are some of the pressing concerns that have characterized New York’s post-9.11 reconstruction controversies. They are also ones that have plagued both the survivors and city planners of Hiroshima for a number of decades.
That Hiroshima is a symbol of world peace seems almost self-evident today. But whether Hiroshima should become a symbol of peace as the world’s first site of atomic destruction was not so obvious immediately following the war. In fact, the most powerful initiatives to construct prominent icons to commemorate world peace came from U.S. officials of the Occupation headquarters. One might assume that the U.S. Occupation authorities, as the representatives of the perpetrating country, would be reluctant to publicize the bomb’s “effects.” However, the historical records show their strong interest in turning Hiroshima into an international showcase that would display the link between the new weapon of mass destruction and postwar peace. In their views, Hiroshima’s new memorial icons could demonstrate to the world that world peace had been achieved and would be maintained by the superior military might of the U.S. In other words, if transformed into a symbol of world peace Hiroshima could offer justification for the further American nuclear build-up. Even the preservation of the Atom Bomb Dome was not entirely clear in the first two decades after the bombing. Despite its firm grounding as one of the central monuments in the park’s ceremonial landscape, the Dome’s status as an artificially preserved ruin remained unstable until the late 1960s.
During the height of the 1980s restructuration of the global economy, the debates concerning whether to retain or expel conspicuous physical reminders of the “dark” pasts from the city space reemerged, but this time as a battle between the neo-liberal position that promoted profitable use of city space, and the social democratic position that argued for equity, welfare, and education. The latter linked the preservation of the nuclear ruins to the critique of instrumental rationality and argued that to properly remember the past would lead to fostering democratic ideals and critical thinking. Similar battles over positions can be found in the debates over New York’s post-9.11 city reconstruction plan. As in Hiroshima, the sentiments of survivors and the victims’ families tend to contradict the plans that prioritize economic rationality. Commodification of the 9.11 artifacts has also been fiercely criticized. The street vendors that appeared to sell 9.11 memorabilia around the WTC site deeply troubled the survivors and victims’ families. During the first decade of turmoil following the nuclear destruction, a wide variety of so-called “atom bomb goods” were produced and sold on the streets of Hiroshima. They included fragments of roof tiles and metal objects scorched and disfigured by the nuclear blast and heat rays. Some survivors displayed their mutilated bodies and burns to visitors in exchange for small sums of money. Such an act of “selling the bomb” was and continues to be seen as tantamount to desecrating the dead, who are considered the only source of authentic of knowledge and sentiments about the original moment of destruction.
In contrast, replicas and other mechanical reproductions of the Atom Bomb Dome image — like the images of the WTC twin towers remembered and reproduced by a number of artists, school children and others throughout the world — have incited very few sentiments of disgust and revulsion among the survivors and victims’ families. Among the countless memorial icons in Hiroshima, the Dome’s image has been most widely reproduced and disseminated through photographs, postcards, paintings, and hand-crafted models. These simulated images have in turn intensified a longing for the authenticity that can only be attached to the original object and to the actual site of happening. It is through exposure to such simulcra that people begin to desire to visit and witness “ground zero,” in order to feel historical realness and authenticity.
If the sense of being present at “ground zero” creates a hyper-real sense of history, memorial museums (Hiroshima Peace Memorial Resource Museum), by its nature, cannot easily sublate the contradictions embedded in the historical materiality that has overdetermined the event it tries to explain. Here one can visualize the development of Hiroshima as a major center of the Japanese empire as well as of militarism, academism, and other signs of modernity. The Museum also portrays the atomic destruction of Hiroshima as an inaugural moment for the nuclear age. It informs visitors about the history of nuclear science, the Cold War nuclear arms race, nuclear proliferation today, and the immanent possibilities of total nuclear annihilation on a global scale.
While there has been great unanimity about the significance of Hiroshima in alerting the world to the present and future dangers of nuclear war and radiation contamination, there has been great dissension concerning the history of the bombing. Why was Hiroshima attacked? How should we remember the Korean victims who made up at least one fourth of those who were immediately lost to the bomb? How should the nuclear annihilation be understood in relation to the history of Japanese colonialism, imperialism and military aggression against other Asian nations prior to the bombing? Is it possible to reconcile the contradiction between the Japanese security treaty with the U.S. and Japan’s anti-nuclear policy? These and other heated controversies have plagued the city’s memorial icons and monuments. For instance, the dominant Japanese historical narrative about Hiroshima’s atom bombing has always shied away from naming the U.S. as the active agent of nuclear aggression and the engravings on the Park’s central cenotaph have stirred several related controversies. The epitaph reads: “Please rest in peace; For we shall not repeat the mistake.” The ambiguity of this sentence, especially in its original Japanese version, has generated debates about “whose” and “which” mistake the sentence references. Many have worried that this “we” might refer to the Japanese. If so, the sentence would seem to agree with the U.S. claim that the mass killing was necessary to end the war.
A recent New York Times article reported that many involved in the post-9.11 reconstruction planning propose to incorporate a pedagogical facility into the memorial museum. The article, however, simultaneously points out the difficulty of balancing such an institution’s need to strive for “historical objectivity” and the desire to preserve the site exclusively for memorializing the dead. Social and cultural processes constantly appropriate the dead by remembering them as martyrs who have contributed to the uninterrupted history of progress, whether of nation, modernity, or civilization. “Would such a museum,” the article mused, “for example, address the reasons for the trade center attack, include picture of Osama bin Laden, or present the beliefs of the Wahabi sect of Islam, which he is said to embrace?” Would such a museum, in other words, explain that Al Qaida, like so many other anti-communist insurgency organizations throughout the world, was fed and fueled by the CIA and Washington during the Cold War, and that the nation must eventually reap what it has sown? To introduce facts and information behind the WTC attack at this site of victimization would no doubt produce a critical consciousness and reflection on our own historical position vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
I wish to emphasize that the positive knowledge of history provided by such pedagogical institutions as museums and schools does not alone generate critical consciousness about one’s historical position. As I have argued elsewhere with regard to the Hiroshima survivors’ testimonial practices, critical awareness about one’s knowledge about the past and present derives from the tension between the desire to restore and repair life, wholeness, and plenitude, and the acute sense that such a redemption can never be possible. The sense of belatedness and awareness that the past cannot be re-presented but must be accessed only on as “trace” generate critical consciousness about history’s progress. It is indeed the immense sense of regret that compels listeners of Hiroshima narratives to suspect that opportunities to prevent the moment of destruction might have been seized, but were not. It thereby allows people to question history’s inevitability, to imagine possible alternative courses of history, and to intervene in the present so as not to repeat a similar loss and tragedy. Put differently, that which is perceived to be irretrievable needs at the same time be recognized as worthy of retrieval. What, then, produces such boundary of compassion that allows for empathy for certain victims while hindering it for others?
Both the Hiroshima and the WTC atrocities are remembered as “events,” as segmented temporalities that can be articulated with a clear sense of their beginnings. The two events are also reconstituted around “ground zeros,” spatial points of origins. Yet, what happens to those historical incidents that are not identifiable by calendrical time as “events,” or those that do not possess a “ground zero”? Such is the case of Japan’s military comfort stations.
Japan’s military comfort (or, rest-and-recreation) station system operated from the late 1930s to the end of World War II. It mobilized women from Japan’s colonies, occupied territories, and the mainland into military sexual services through deception, abduction, coercion, torture, rape and confinement. Despite their widely known existence at the time of war’s ending, the comfort stations’ atrocious nature was never fully problematized until 1991 when one survivor filed a lawsuit and publicly testified to her experiences. Since then, various lawsuits have been filed to demand reparations. One significant judicial victory came in 1998 ruling by the District Court of Shimonoseki. The court ultimately rejected the case by arguing that the redress for the comfort women case should be pursued not in the judicial but legislative channels. Yet, it sided with the plaintiff’s argument that the military comfort system was enforced upon women and that it grossly violated their lives and rights. Japanese history textbooks also began to include description of military comfort system. At the same time, such progressive development triggered the onslaught of conservative and far-rights activism for historical revisionism. For instance, the Liberal History Study Group’s nation-wide campaign for producing an alternative textbook, which whitewashed Japanese colonialism and downplayed its military atrocities, had to be countered by a grass-roots mobilization of progressive schoolteachers, critics and journalists.
Due to the pressure from the activism within and outside Japan, the Japanese government has responded by offering official letters of apologies to the victims and by establishing a semi-official Asian Women’s National Fund that offered monetary compensation and financial support for the survivors’ welfare. Yet, a great majority of survivors regarded this fund as an insufficient institutional measure that obfuscates the Japanese government’s official responsibility and rejected the atonement money. Most recently, the “Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery” (Tokyo, December 2000; “Women’s Tribunal” for short), a people’s court enabled by transnational feminist networks, responded to many survivors desires to clarify accountability for involvement in the sexual enslavement of women by adjudicating individuals within the Japanese military, including Hirohito.
Progressive scholars and activists have attributed the gross neglect and belatedness of addressing and redressing this atrocity committed against women largely to the following: the west-centric notion of humanity that have for over half a century made violations committed against the colonized, racialized, and dispossessed women of Asia and the Pacific illegible; the patriarchally re-constituted nationalism of post-colonial states in Asia that have long suppressed the experiences of women who they saw as been corrupted by the former colonizers; and the postwar U.S. presence that has required similar arrangements of sexual services to remain in place for its own military stationed in the region. In contrast to atrocities of war, violations committed against those subordinated by colonialism, racism and foreign occupations are much harder to be brought to light. Unlike New York and Hiroshima, or other prominent sites of atrocities such as Nanjing, Auschwitz, My Lai, or Oklahoma, the remembering of Japan’s military comfort system as an atrocity has been compromised not only by West-centric bourgeois humanism but also its lack of association with a single place, a namable physical location that could have served as a coherent signifier within the global historical imagination. The mnemonic sites of violence committed by Japan’s military comfort system are dispersed and deterritorialized. The majority of women were uprooted from their “home” and transported to various places along with the Japanese military. Such physical displacement has precluded this particular atrocity from acquiring a stable, permanent significatory status in the universal narrative of world history.
The 2000 “Women’s Tribunal” was the first occasion that brought together, in one specific place at one brief moment, the witness-survivors of the comfort stations established in a myriad cities, towns, and villages. It can be seen as having provided a momentary “ground zero” for the memories of those who fell victim to this particular military atrocity. It succeeded in linking discrepant sites across the borders of nation-states and metaphorically re-territorialized the sites of violence that existed throughout the former reach of the Japanese empire. It securely inscribed onto humanity’s inventory of atrocities yet another instance of violence. At the “Women’s Tribunal,” the larger historical forces, such as the post-Cold War milieu, and the transnational feminists’ cultural activism, converged to respond to the individual survivors/plaintiffs’ sentiments of anguish, grief and animosity.
It is worthwhile emphasizing that the genealogy of “Women’s Tribunal” can generally be traced to the critical interventions made by the women of color epistemology and the Third World feminism since the 1970s against the white, middle-class, liberal feminism as well as radical feminism. Rather than positing “women” as a priori category of being universally victimized by male violence and patriarchy, Third World feminists, feminists of color, and post-colonial feminists – all of which have provided foundations for what we today call transnational feminism – have insisted on the heterogeneity, historicity and hierarchy among the category of “Woman.” They argued that unifying and delimiting feminist concerns as that of gender alone can serve to obscure the critical social and political forces that differentiate among women. They maintained the need to analyze how gender intersects with other equally important relations of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, colonialism, and nationalism. “Women’s Tribunal” did not address universal male or masculinist military violence against women. Rather, its significance lies, as one judge put it, in its reliance on “critical race theory” to examine this gross violations of rights and livelihood of women under Japanese colonialism, imperialism and militarism.
Shortly after 9.11 a statement drafted by Paola Bacchetta and other feminist scholars began circulating through the internet. Their position statement, “Transnational Feminist Practices Against War,” was one of the first to point to the ways in which sentiments of grief and loss have been mobilized toward America’s new war. They noted that what they call “culture industry of “trauma” has promoted “a massive deployment of therapeutic discourses that ask people to understand the impact of the events of September 11 and their aftermath solely as ‘trauma’.” Because it remains heavily ethnocentric within the Euro-American upper and middle class cultural contexts, narratives on trauma privilege and mobilize sentimental attachment to injuries and losses experienced by a certain group of people, while leaving others illegible. They wrote: “Most media respresentations in the US have focused exclusively on losses suffered by white, middle-class heterosexual families,” while “[by contrast people who have lost loved ones as a consequence of US foreign policy elsewhere are not depicted as sufferers of trauma or injustice. In fact they are seldom seen on camera at all.”