Project Proposal: Words from Hiroshima and Nagasaki

17 Feb

Few events in American history are as emotionally charged as the August, 1945, bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  They have centered in heated debates over national identity, legacy, and memory that have persisted well into the twenty-first century.  While historians have engaged in rigorous debates around the United States’ decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, these discussions have not reached a majority of American students.  I would like to pursue a project that would remedy that in some small way.

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My final project for History and New Media will be an interactive, educational site for students that complicates the prevailing narrative of the dropping of the atomic bomb and reinserts the voices of the hibakusha, or “explosion-affected people,” who experienced the immediate aftermath of the two nuclear explosions.   My initial vision for this project stems from John Hersey’s widely-celebrated report, “Hiroshima,” that appeared in the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker.  In it, Hersey records the stories of six survivors who struggled to navigate the horrors of the destroyed city.  The work beautiful weaves these individual narratives and firmly situates the event as a human tragedy, not a military triumph.

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Instead of maintaining a strictly linear timeline, I hope that specifically locating the individuals will illuminate the overlapping experience of A-bomb survivors. I plan on utilizing an interactive map program that will allow visitors to trace the experience of these six individuals in the days following the bomb.  These tools will be accompanied by photographs and video aides.  I plan on highlighting the testimonies of hibakusha that I was fortunate to hear during my visit to Japan during the summer of 2011 as a participant in Dr. Peter J. Kuznick’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki Study Tour, including peace activist Koko Kondo and manga artist and author Keiji Nakazawa. Short biographies of their lives since 1945 will supplement the primary narratives highlighted on the interactive map.

While the map will serve as the ‘nucleus’ of the website, I would also like to consider the experiences of Americans and reactions to the atomic bombs in popular memory.  As Japanese cities struggled to recover from devastation, the American public oscillated between euphoric relief and increasing anxiety over their own possible annihilation.  The varied responses of the men who navigated the Enola Gay, President Truman, and other military officials as well as pulp fiction and films such as On the Beach will enable visitors to understand this tension.  They will also learn that such ambivalence has pervaded historical memory and will be highlighted in an examination of the two countries commemorations, museums, and exhibits of the atomic bombings.

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I must admit that this project is not solely motivated by academic curiosity.  When I was in Hiroshima, I had the honor attending a talk by Keiji Nakazawa.  He was six years old and 1.3 kilometers from ground zero on August 6, 1945.  Nakazawa would later write about his experiences in the famed Barefoot Gen manga series.  He delivered one of the most frank and powerful testimonies of what he witnessed as a child and I was humbled by the gratitude he expressed to the American students who travelled so far to meet him.  But I was struck most by his final words.  The hibakusha were dying, he said.  Soon they would no longer be around to remind people of the horrors of nuclear war.  But their stories must continue to be told.  And it must be told by our generation.

Keiji Nakazawa died of lung cancer on December 19, 2012.  He was 73.

This project will be one very modest endeavor to earn the faith he entrusted in us.

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3 Responses to “Project Proposal: Words from Hiroshima and Nagasaki”

  1. drdankerr March 4, 2013 at 12:29 am #

    Amy, This is a fabulous project and one that is very timely as you point out in the conclusion of the proposal. You may have to scale back your ambitions a bit as the reality of putting it together begins to impinge on your vision. Let’s talk more about what is in fact doable as the project progresses.

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