Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 24, June 2010

Post-war Trauma in Japan: Media, Arts and Gender

Mick Broderick and Antonio Traverso

  1. This special issue of Intersections, 'Arts and Media Responses to The Traumatic Effects of War on Japan', presents a selection of essays developed from papers delivered at the Interrogating Trauma: Arts & Media Responses to Collective Suffering international conference held at Murdoch and Curtin universities in December 2008. As co-convenors (with Miyume Tanji) we consciously sought to provide a space and opportunity for scholars working in the Asia-Pacific context to express recent findings on media, arts and trauma, particularly the lasting impact on the Pacific region during and after World War II.[1]
  2. The essays collected here explore two catastrophic events, and their legacies, towards the end of the Pacific war—the Battle of Okinawa and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our understanding of the history of these events is necessarily informed by the incidence of violence and atrocity, mass human suffering, imperialist and colonialist occupation, and political expediency. Each of the essays presented in this collection stands as a testament to the prevailing attitudes towards, and the legacy of, wartime trauma within a national, regional and global context. The authors recount and acknowledge the effects of human suffering, particularly its gendered orientation and cross-generational impact. Okinawan eye-witness testimony is controversially excised from national educational texts while indigenous modes of cultural expression that recall this past by 'dancing out' the betrayals of colonialism, militarism and occupation are suppressed. Triumphalist post-war US narratives of recuperation and regeneration appropriate and domesticate the stories told by Japanese hibakusha (people affected by the atomic bomb), while the impressions of Hiroshima victims and survivors continue to haunt observers and visitors at the World Heritage listed Hiroshima Peace Park, Museum and Dome. These essays are a stark reminder of the power and resilience of traumatic memory and experience alongside their modes of transmission in mediated forms such as oral history, dance, drawing, literature, the mass media, architecture, commemorative landscapes and monumental form.
  3. The first essay, Steve Rabson's 'The Politics of Trauma: Compulsory Suicides During the Battle of Okinawa and Postwar Retrospectives,' examines the ideological forces that contributed to 'compulsory suicides' of civilians during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. As Rabson shows, Imperial Army officers told civilians that, if they were captured, advancing US forces would rape the women and massacre everyone. Multiple eyewitness testimony recounts how Japanese soldiers rounded up civilians in 'assembly points' and distributed hand grenades, ordering local residents to kill themselves rather than become prisoners-of-war. While the veracity of these events remains contested, especially on mainland Japan, the role and function of survivor testimony is shown to have vital and powerful agency when countering the denials of reactionary elements within Japanese society. Rabson draws from a variety of oral histories and published recollections to demonstrate that Okinawans unequivocally blame these deaths on the wartime, militaristic education that exhorted unquestioning self-sacrifice to the Emperor and nation. The recent attempts by the Japanese Education Ministry to delete references to the Imperial Army's acts of coercion in compulsory suicide from school textbooks met with the largest ever protest demonstration in Okinawa. Significantly, the Education Ministry's proposed revisions, subsequently rescinded, motivated and galvanised surviving eyewitnesses to come forward and give first-person accounts.
  4. While not explicitly focussing on the gendered dimensions of the battle for Okinawa, Rabson's essay is an important piece in this collection as it helps readers visualise the traumatic impact of this event on civilians, including women, children and elderly people, and its continued legacy. In a similar vein, whereas the post-war US led Occupation was initially deemed by Okinawans as a welcome respite from the racism and betrayals of Japanese Imperialism, soon Cold War expediency created another form of colonialism along with the social tensions large military bases engender (especially the mistreatment of local women and girls). As Rabson points out, spurned survivors were central in the debates concerning the culpability of Japanese forces in subjugating the population and impelling compulsory suicides. Their bold emergence and defiant rejection of Japan's attempts at historical revisionism have been vindicated in the courts and official school texts. But soon this generation of survivor-witnesses, like the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will pass and there will no longer be a corporeal presence to demonstrate the flesh made word. This event will mark a troubling transition, given the multiple attempts by successive Japanese governments since the 1950s to repudiate the oral/historical record of Okinawan survivors.
  5. In 'Close yet distant relations: the politics of history textbooks, US military bases and trauma in Okinawa,' Miyume Tanji continues Rabson's concern with the traumatic effects of civilian deaths during the Battle of Okinawa and, in particular, the controversy created by the Japanese Government's attempts to alter history textbooks. According to Tanji, such political manipulation contributes 'to the general ignorance and amnesia amongst the Japanese public.' Importantly, she stresses, the textbook furore and its militant opposition was expediently presented by Japanese authorities as separate and distinct from the 'persistent local opposition' to US military bases in Okinawa. However, Tanji's essay frames the massive local protests against the textbook censorship alongside similar opposition to the US military presence as constitutive elements of a shared cultural trauma, one associated with experiences of betrayal and collective suffering that tends to unify the Okinawan community. For Tanji, any consensus regarding post-war historical interpretation is intrinsically fragile because of the serial betrayals of Okinawa by the centralised Japanese government since Okinawa's colonial annexure in 1879 by Japan through to post-war US Occupation and, later, Reversion.
  6. As with the victims of the atomic bombing who were considered inferior, ostracised and tainted by mainstream Japanese society, Okinawan survivors of the US invasion and forced compulsory suicides are described by Tanji as double-victims; firstly, victims of the violence and trauma of war and, secondly, of the ongoing betrayals by successive Japanese governments. Following Jenny Edkins' definition of collective trauma as stemming from a betrayal of trust, and drawing from Karl Ericson's belief that shared trauma can galvanize 'communality,' Tanji demonstrates how such traumatic identification is subject to inherent instability if threatened by historical revisionism. The mainland government's denial of war-time sex slaves ('comfort women'), the celebration of dead A-class war criminals as heroes at the Yasukuni Shrine, and the failure to comply with majority Okinawan wishes to remove or reduce the US military bases (especially post-Reversion in 1974), continues to (re)traumatise the remaining survivors while impelling coalitions of environmental and peace activists into protest and civil disobedience. Indeed, colonial possession and post-war occupation brought with it patriarchal codes of militarism and associated sex-based crimes. However, as Tanji suggests, Okinawan political activism continues to struggle against historical revisionism and the successive bilateral security arrangements by the US and Japan that accommodate US hegemony in the region. The Okinawan struggle, Tanji maintains, also mitigates against the grand post-war narrative of Japan's sense of 'victimhood,' as identified by James Orr and John Dower, which attempts to suppress 'all references to the aggression, brutality and suffering inflicted by Japan on others.'
  7. Gender and activism intrinsically informs Valerie Barske's discussion of Okinawan performance traditions as critical cultural processes for coping with historical trauma in post-imperial Japan. In 'Dancing Through Historical Trauma: Okinawan Performance in Post-Imperial Japan' Barske examines the life and work of Okinawan performer-activist Kodama Kiyoko to demonstrate how performance intersects with experiences of colonial modernity, suppression of indigenous religious and cultural forms, war atrocities, and lingering legacies of imperialism. Based on archival and oral history research, Barske draws chiefly from Dominick LaCapra's writings on trauma to provide a socio-cultural analysis of trauma through the critical historiographic site of gendered performance. According to Barske, Kodama redefines Okinawan ethnic difference in order to produce a meaningful approach for coming to terms with traumatic experiences. In an attempt to avoid extending 'Western diagnostic categories of the traumatic,' Barske undertakes a close reading of Kodama's 1973 re-staging of the historical dance drama Ruten Okinawa and finds that the empowering portrayal of the Okinawan island spirit (which is gendered as feminine) offers opportunities for reconciling the past through 'embodied cultural healing' and by 'dancing through' trauma in the post-imperial era.
  8. While the Battle of Okinawa and its traumatic aftermath have produced multiple points of resistance and memory in Japan and the Pacific, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two are globally-known events. In fact, the deliberate use of an atomic weapon against a largely civilian population has acquired the status of an epoch-making event. The race to manufacture the atomic bomb, and the decision to drop it on cities, alongside the lasting consequences of this act, are elements of a historical narrative that continues to be traumatic across generations.
  9. After extensive field work in Hiroshima examining art works by survivors of the atomic blast, Akiko Naono seeks to develop new vocabularies to express the 'contagiousness' of trauma while reflecting on her own affective responses. Rather than dismissing the 'uncanny' sense of being 'haunted' by the imagery she encounters, in her essay 'Transmission of Trauma, Identification, and Haunting: A Ghost Story of Hiroshima' Naono turns to the insights of Sigmund Freud, Derek Hook, Dominick LaCapra and Robert J. Lifton to apprehend how she 'was captured by the traumatic force of the drawings.' Many decades after the event, these powerful hibakusha images, in their rendering of personal experiences of unspeakable horror and suffering, continue the transmission of trauma. In fact, the images activate, according to Naono, a 'contagious identification, where the subject is being infected by the power of trauma affecting the objects of identification, even against his or her will.'
  10. Reflecting on Jill Bennett's work on art and affect, as well as Marianne Hirsch's and Toni Morrison's theories of post-memory and inter-generational trauma, Naono suggests that the Hiroshima images 'function as a powerful technology of affects that manifests as the uncanny [that] unsettle viewers who are impelled to identify with the victims.' Extending Avery Gordon's sociological theory of haunting, Naono suggests that encountering such ghostly or haunted experiences can be understood as a socio-cultural phenomenon, which signifies unresolved past violence or injury and requires the 'fulfilment of broken promises and unrealised justice.' In the context of these forcefully evocative Hiroshima drawings, it is the 'colonial and state violence by both Japan and the United States' that remains unresolved and unsettled.
  11. Robert Jacobs' 'Reconstructing the Perpetrator's Soul by Reconstructing the Victim's Body: The Portrayal of the "Hiroshima Maidens" by the Mainstream Media in the United States' demonstrates how readily the media was deployed in the US during the Cold War to alleviate that nation's sense of guilt, which remains a lasting feature of post-war US foreign policy. Jacobs recounts the case of ten Japanese women, who were schoolgirls at the time of the atomic bombing and consequently disfigured by burns and keloids, selected for restorative surgery as tokens of US generosity and medico-scientific expertise. Dubbed as the 'Hiroshima Maidens' by the media, the 1955–56 coverage of the Japanese women's trans-Pacific journey served as a vehicle for the re-presentation of the dominant US narrative of the atomic bombing of Japan as inevitable and benign by concentrating on the 'wisdom, technological capabilities and benevolence of US citizens.'
  12. Jacobs outlines how media coverage cast the women as childlike and mostly interested in beauty, fashion and prospects of marriage, something that US expertise and largesse could effectively restore, 'turning the whole event into a triumphant narrative of science and compassion.' This gendered media stereotyping foregrounds an orientalist and colonialist rhetoric, while the absence of any assistance to Japanese boys and young men similarly afflicted by the atomic bombing went unreported. The carefully orchestrated tour by the group of women to the US and the attendant media campaigns also avoided mentioning that the so-called Hiroshima Maidens were 'mostly children who were attacked on their way to school' and 'that the bomb had been dropped on civilians, rather than on combatants or on a military target.' Jacobs' discussion suggests that, irrespective of the humanitarian motivations of the tour's original instigators in Japan and the US, the public promotion of the Japanese women's journey and reconstructive surgery ultimately cast the US as 'paternal caregivers rather than perpetrators.'
  13. National and imperialist narratives dedicated to the commemoration and recollection of mass human suffering are nothing new. Mick Broderick's 'Topographies of Trauma: Dark Tourism, World Heritage and Hiroshima' applies Maria Tumarkin's notion of 'traumascapes' to a discussion of the controversial nomination of the Hiroshima Peace Park memorial (Genbaku Dome) for World Heritage listing. Broderick reflects upon a number of embedded tourist experiences, including his own, within the city's Peace Park. Within the environs of Hiroshima, Broderick observes clear demarcations in gender roles and representation, from monuments to park workers, as well as in the physical terrain and occupation of the sites. Drawing on Maya Todeschini's idea of the 'heroic Maiden,' Broderick suggests that another nation's narrative is evident in the public discourse about the atomic bombing. This narrative not only reifies innocence, victimhood and gender, but also supports Japan's problematic claims to promote global post-war peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Like Naono, Broderick recounts his and other visitors' affected responses to on-site atomic bombing trauma as these are elicited by material traces and survivor testimonies at the National Memorial Hall, the Peace Museum and Genbaku Dome. The artefacts, films, drawings and hibakusha memories create a frisson, especially in their repetition of the signs of human erasure, which evokes the haunting of the past's phantoms.


    [1] For full conference details, see Interrogating Trauma, Arts and Media Responses to Collective Suffering, 2–4 December 2008, online:, accessed 28 April 2010.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 8 June 2010 1033