Monumental and Counter-Monumental Memorializations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” – Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita


Robert Oppenheimer’s famous words upon witnessing the first atomic bomb testing at the Alamogordo test facility on July 16th, 1945 were, in retrospect, considerably more than apt allusion. From the very moment the bomb unleashed its unprecedented destructive power on that remote patch of New Mexico desert, it entered the world simultaneously as military weapon and literary entity. John Cannaday’s study of the Los Alamos scientists’ reactions to the tests found that Oppenheimer’s literary allusion was far from an exception. Robert Serber, a scientist working on the Manhattan project, found Alice in Wonderland the only text that truly represented the absurdity of the experience (Cannaday 272). “Los Alamites’ own accounts of these weapons,” Cannaday writes, “deliver them to us preformed as fictions, for in our first encounter with them, they are already construed as literary entities” (Cannaday 222).

On August 6th and 9th, 1945, those “literary entities” would assert themselves on the world in a manner not seen before or since. The atomic bombings of the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the seminal events of the nuclear age, events that have had continued effect upon nuclear policy, culture, memory, and literary production. Cannaday’s discussion of the symbolic and literary nature of nuclear weapons highlights two critical points about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that my thesis will examine. The first is that, just as nuclear weapons are more than their physical existence, the bombings exist at a nexus point of historicity, memory, and ideology. The second, inextricably bound up with the first, is the difficulty (some would say impossibility) of representing and memorializing in literature the incomprehensible events of August 1945. In light of considerable atomic bomb literature, the thesis will investigate two different strategies of literary representations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the monumental and the counter-monumental.

The distinction between monumental and counter-monumental forms of memorial literature is elucidated in Dana Luciano’s article ““Melville’s Untimely History: ‘Benito Cereno’ as Counter-Monumental Narrative.” The monumental approach to history is one that attempts to create a unified narrative of historical events and is often tied with “the work of nation-building.” The controversy surrounding the Enola Gay exhibit in 1995 epitomizes the monumental impulse – the subversive elements to the “righteous bombing of Hiroshima” narrative were so strongly opposed that the exhibit was censored and heavily modified by Congress to reflect a more pro-military history. The irony of the monumental project’s treatment of history, however, is that “it is not especially historical, and it depends as much upon forgetting as it does upon remembering” (Luciano 35). Again, the Enola Gay controversy embodies this dual irony. On the one hand, the censure of the exhibit entailed the deliberate modification of historical record to maintain the “correct” story of the bombings, and on the other, the narrative of the victims was excluded and forgotten. By excluding subversive narratives, monumental culture is able to establish closed and final interpretations of historical events that “sever the past from the present” in a way that denies the possibility of critical re-examination (Luciano 35-35).

The counter-monument, on the other hand, criticizes this closed-interpretation of history. Whereas the monument tells “’people what to think’ about the past and thus [relieves] them of the burden of thinking it” (Shalev-Gerz and Gerz, qtd. in Luciano and James Young’s Memory’s Edge), the counter-monument undertakes no such instruction, instead acknowledging that history (and the meanings that arise from it) is profoundly incomplete. The point is not to give the audience a “tidily packaged history for mass consumption,” but to disorient the reader in ways that preclude historical completion (Luciano 37). In terms of a traumatic event such as Hiroshima or Nagasaki, a counter-monument would resist the fixity of both the American nationalist narrative and the Japanese victim narrative, instead opening a space for continual evaluation and discussion of what the bombings have meant throughout time, and most importantly, how the past continues to affect the present in ways that are ever-changing.


The brief sketch provided of the counter-monument will serve as the conceptual framework for my thesis. The novels I have chosen to close-read for the project are ones that do not fit entirely into the categories of monumental or counter-monumental, and I hope that they will contribute to a more nuanced analysis of literary production. Several of the texts were originally written in Japanese and have been translated, which presents two difficulties. The first is that, because translation is only ever an approximation, close reading of elements such as diction are problematic, since many words or sentence formulations will be different from those of the native language. The second is that, as this is an “English” thesis, the fact that I’m drawing from the Japanese literary tradition could be construed as somewhat of a category problem. But to exclude these texts simply because of their native language would be the severest folly – much of the reason why certain bombing narratives have remained dominant is because, true to monumental form, Japanese language texts have been excluded either intentionally or by a simple translational barrier. The inclusion of Japanese texts will create a dialogue between the representations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the West and in Japan, and in so doing will formally aid the counter-monumental process.

Some (emphasis on some) questions that I hope to address include

  1. Does the author/narrator endorse or produce an interpretation of Hiroshima/Nagasaki that is closed? Open? Ambiguous?
  2. How does the novel maintain temporal/spatial ambiguity, so necessary to the counter-monumental process?
  3. Is a true counter-monumental piece of literature possible? Or can an author only ever hope to achieve partial resistance to the monumental modes of representation?
  4. How do the authors achieve monumental/counter-monumental representational modes?

Select Annotated Bibliography

Yoneyama, Lisa. Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.

Lisa Yoneyama’s work was included in part because of her unique background and stake in Hiroshima Traces. As she puts it, “This book is written from many positions, but especially that of a returnee to two different location: to Japan as a kikoku shijo and to the United States as a kibei. This constant movement between the US and Japan for Yoneyama “highlighted questions of what it means to belong, of origin, and…the troubling outcomes that frequently result from the travels of the representations of Hiroshima between Japan and the United States” (Yoneyama xi). Yoneyama is deeply concerned with the dynamic representations of Hiroshima, what role Japanese or US culture plays in shaping those representations, and, perhaps most importantly, how time can be just as important as memory or culture.

Minear, Richard H., ed. and trans. Hiroshima: Three Witnesses. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. Print.

Ota Yoko’s book City of Corpses is translated and reproduced in this collection of three Japanese atom bomb novels. William Haver has described City of Corpses as a work characterized by a “failure to mourn” (Haver 7). This refusal to engage in the mourning process, which would (theoretically) overcome tragedy, exposes “a complete, accomplished – “successful” – historicization to be in fact a form of disavowal” (Haver 7), reminiscent of the “monumental amnesia” that Luciano describes in her article.

Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. Print.

Dimock’s Through Other Continents can help clear up some theoretical difficulties perhaps associated with including Japanese language literary texts in an English honors thesis. Other Continents attempts to establish a connection between American literature and world literature, arguing that when one compares American literature to literature throughout “deep time,” the analogues become startlingly common. She is arguing against a classification, or rather, for a reclassification of American/English literature into something that, as one review puts it, “is answerable not to the nation-state, but to the human species as a whole. I hope that this work will argue for a certain inter-connectivity between the Japanese and English language works.

Shamsie, Kamila. Burnt Shadows. New York: Picador, 2009. Print.

Burnt Shadows is a novel written in English by Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie. The novel takes place at Nagasaki, a bombing that occupies a unique position of constantly being conflated with or overshadowed by Hiroshima. It was also a bombing that presents an extreme difficulty to the dominant monumental narrative that upholds American righteousness, for historical records have shown it to have been entirely unnecessary in securing “unconditional surrender” (the United States, despite their insistence on unconditional surrender, ultimately allowed the Japanese to surrender conditionally). The plot exhibits a great amount of spatio-temporal dynamism, beginning in Nagasaki 1945 and ending in Afghanistan just before the US invasion, thus accomplishing the critical task of distributing meaning across time.

Luciano, Dana. “Melville’s Untimely History: ‘Benito Cereno’ as Counter-Monumental Narrative.” Arizona Quarterly 60.3 (2004): 33-60. Print.

Young, James E. “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today.” Critical Inquiry 18.2 (1992): 267-296. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar. 2010. <>.

These two articles work in conjunction with each other to establish the conceptual framework and positive space of what counter-monumental representation is and what it resists. James Young’s article, though specifically about monuments commemorating the Holocaust, discusses the importance of the counter-memorial’s temporal element. The Luciano piece is an actual reading of a piece of fiction as a counter-memorial, and so in that regard is very similar to my thesis.

Haver, William. “A World of Corpses: From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to AIDS.” positions 2.1 (1994): 1-14. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. <>.

William Haver is discussing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the similarities (and differences) between those events and the AIDS pandemic. While he does not talk about counter-memorials per se, his is deeply interested with forms of literature that resist fixed historical meanings and interpretations, specifically ones that do not, to use Freud’s term, complete the “object-cathexis” necessary to forget a traumatic event. In this way, we are eternally confronted with the tragedy of an event like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, never to experience the relief of “monumental amnesia” (Luciano 35). City of Corpses and “The Rite” are both discussed in Haver’s piece, and are included in this bibliography as primary texts. I included Haver because his article provides a criticism of the liberal humanist interpretations of traumatic events which can also be counterproductive to counter-monumental projects. In this case, Haver argues that the liberal humanist ideal of “community” is threatened by individuals such as the hibakusha, who, as “victims” of radiation, bear the contagion of the bomb’s radioactive effects long after the initial blast.

Cannaday, John. The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. Print.

Cannaday was quoted in the topic proposal, and while it may seem initially that Cannaday’s book deals with a slightly different question, his work is important in establishing why it is significant that the meanings that are produced for and by Hiroshima and Nagasaki are continually re-evaluated – so that we know how those meanings continue to influence our society today. The “literary” nature of nuclear weapons follows in the tradition of Jacques Derrida’s famous essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)” in which he claimed that nuclear war is “fabulously textual.” This is not to claim that it has not happened (Hiroshima and Nagasaki are frequently cited as counter-examples), but rather that we only understand the nuclear through text – we shall (hopefully) never experience it, and thus our knowledge of a nuclear event is mediated through text. This gives very real immediacy to the question of how the two most significant (and tragic) events of the nuclear age are represented in literature.

Bibliography Cont’d

  1. Perlman, Michael. Hiroshima Forever: The Ecology of Mourning. Barrytown: Institute for Publishing Arts, Inc., 1995. Print.
  2. Davis, Walter A. Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Print.
  3. Lambert, Gregg. The Non-Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. New York: Continuum, 2002. Print.
  4. Nobile, Philip, ed. Judgement at the Smithsonian. New York: Marlowe & Company, 1996. Print.
  5. Hogan, Michael J., ed. Hiroshima In History and Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
  6. Treat, John Whittier. Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.
  7. Stone, Albert E. Literary Aftershocks: American Writers, Readers, and the Bomb. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994. Print.
  8. Nash, Gary B., Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn. History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teachings of the Past. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1997. Print.
  9. Lifton, Robert J., and Gregg Mitchell. Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial: Avon Books, 1996. Print.
  10. Hersey, John. Hiroshima. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1985. Print.
  11. Booth, Martin. Hiroshima Joe. New York: Picador, 1985. Print.
  12. Stroup, Dorothy. In the Autumn Wind. N.p.: Scribner, 1987. Print
  13. Ōe, Kenzaburō, ed. The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath. New York: Grove Press, 1985. Print.
  14. Bock, Dennis. The Ash Garden. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.