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The city of Hiroshima itself was founded as a castle town on Hiroshima Bay in the late sixteenth century, a period when most of Japan’s medium and large-sized cities were founded, nearly all of them as castle towns constructed throughout Japan by competing warlords. The early history of the city is thus closely linked to the broader--and relatively long--history of urbanization in Japan. Urbanization began in this period of civil warfare and later witnessed, under different circumstances, successive waves of expansion in later centuries, particularly in the decades after the Restoration, then in the 1910s and 1920s, and then again after the Second World War.

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For their part, Japanese forms of memorializing have themselves been criticized in the past as portraying Japanese as merely victims. Japanese public memories of the event, many pointed out, were presented without historical context, conveniently failing to address the aggression that Japanese had carried out throughout Asia beginning at least since 1931 and the many documented atrocities carried out by members of the Japanese military. Such was certainly true, for example, of the exhibits in the original main building of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The exhibits documented the devastating effects of the bomb on the city and its people, but provided no treatment of the war that led up to the event. The Peace Museum now, however, includes a newer east wing (opened 1994), which includes material on the long history of Japanese empire, the deaths of Koreans in Hiroshima under a slave labor regime, and Hiroshima’s own history as a military city. Such exhibits go some distance toward remedying the limited historical perspectives of the original approach. They are a testament to the fact that there has been at least some widening of perspectives in social memory of the war in Japan in the previous two decades or so.

7. Hiroshima as a Destroyed City
Justified, tragic mistake, or war crime, the atomic attack reshaped the history of Hiroshima as an urban place as indelibly as any man-made or natural disaster ever could. A targeted city, Hiroshima became on that August morning also a thoroughly destroyed city. Accounts of the bomb never fail to mention that it packed the power of 15,000 tons of TNT. Yet this figure by itself means little to most of us. The conversion of the destructive force of the atom bomb to an equivalency in conventional explosives seems somehow, as large as the number is, to shrink the awfulness of the thing to something almost “normal.”


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For a remarkable moment, Hiroshima’s place in the history of imperial wars even included the transformation of the city into the virtual imperial capital of the nation. During the First Sino-Japanese War, leaders moved the Meiji Emperor’s imperial command headquarters from Tokyo to Hiroshima to be at the center of the military logistics of this most important city in the war effort. During much of the war, the emperor thus resided in Hiroshima. Even the national parliament pulled up stakes and moved to Hiroshima, convening for a time during the war in a building hastily constructed for the purpose.

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In this essay, I hope to provide some insight into the topic of Hiroshima in history as I have been exploring it in a course that I have taught a number of times. The class certainly explores the history of the atomic bombing of the city. But my goal also has been to expand the story of Hiroshima beyond that of the bomb alone and to use its history as a lens onto the history of cities, modern change, empire, and the newer field of what might be termed post-disaster studies. One of the challenges in this pedagogical endeavor, however, is the scarcity of historical writing about the city as such. The overwhelming preponderance of scholarship on Hiroshima, especially in the English language, is devoted to the bomb--the decision to drop it, the dramatic final days of the war in the U.S. and Japan leading up to the event, and the experience of those on the ground during the attack and the days after.

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Expanding the story of the city of Hiroshima beyond a tale of the atomic bombing can provide a fascinating lens onto the broader themes of Japanese historical experience. Resituating Hiroshima into its longer early modern and modern history also helps reveal the ways that Japan can serve as a national case study of common experiences of modern change around the world. The history of Hiroshima extends far back into centuries prior to the bomb. The formative era of the city was a time when samurai represented the ruling class of Japan, a time when the clash of modern empires that eventually resulted in Hiroshima’s obliteration could not have been imagined. The city also occupied an important place in the modern rise of the Japanese nation as an imperial power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And finally, the history of Hiroshima also continued forward from the mid-summer date of its destruction in 1945. It became a city rebuilt by its citizens, one that lives on today as a bustling, thoroughly contemporary, global city, albeit one whose self-professed identity is now inextricably tied to the atom bomb and a postwar mission to promote disarmament around the world.

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Among historians of urban history, Tokyo, in its earlier incarnation as the shogun’s city of Edo and in its later transformations as the capital of the modern nation, has enjoyed the lion’s share of attention both in Japan and the English-speaking world. Historical writing related to other important urban areas, such cities with national significance as Hiroshima, is not plentiful1.

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The very first task I assign in my course is indeed designed to hint at the multiple stories of Hiroshima city that await to be discovered in the historical record but that have rarely been written about at any length in English. It serves certainly to show how the atomic bombing became the story of the city in later accounts. But the assignment also provides hints about the multiple perspectives of that event that have competed with one another over time. The assignment asks students to investigate encyclopedias published at various points during the modern period and to compare the entries in which Hiroshima city appears. Students have found that assignment yields interesting insights about the mostly cultural and economic portraits of the city written before the war, the later mid-century importance attached to the atomic bombing, and the way that those from different political perspectives viewed the history of the city as refracted through that wartime event. (If library—or on-line—resources allow, be sure that students study encyclopedias from different national perspectives. Those of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Japan, in particular, suggest varying interpretations of the bombing. Another hint, too, is to encourage students to think creatively about the entries under which they search for the city. Not all references to Hiroshima will appear under the “Hiroshima” entry heading.)