26 July 2011

Thoughts on the Peace Statue

Since the 2011 atomic bomb commemoration is imminent, I will start this blog with a few thoughts on Nagasaki's "Peace Statue."

The work of Kitamura Seibo (a native of Nagasaki Prefecture lauded as one of Japan’s greatest sculptors), the ten-meter-tall bronze statue was unveiled in Nagasaki’s Peace Park on the 10th anniversary of the atomic bombing in 1955.  It is now the site of the annual (August 9) “Peace Ceremony” and an iconic expression of Nagasaki’s “aspiration for the abolition of nuclear weapons and the realization of lasting world peace.”

The Nagasaki Peace Statue soon after construction in 1955 and today.

The official explanation is that the right hand of the statue points up to the explosion of the atomic bomb while the left hand, extended horizontally, symbolizes peace.  The figure is touted as an East-West hybrid, but you don’t need a degree in art history to recognize it for what it is: a clumsy approximation of a Greco-Roman deity.  At the time of construction, only three years had passed since the Treaty of San Francisco and Japan’s escape from the doghouse after World War II, and the people of this country were busy rebuilding their lives, looking to the United States for both material assistance and socio-cultural models.  Going along with the rhetoric that the atomic bombings had been necessary to end the war was probably Japan’s natural choice under these circumstances.  But the Peace Statue seems glaringly incongruent, paying tribute to the civilization that deliberately dropped atomic bombs on two cities populated mostly by noncombatants.

When I have visitors from abroad, I invariably take them to the small park across the street where the atomic bomb hypocenter is marked by a simple black monolith.  This leaves all the rest to reflection.

I personally dislike the month of August in Nagasaki because the flimflam about “peace” is as hard to avoid as the sweltering heat.  Activists gather from far and wide to wave their peace signs and push their respective political agendas; local television channels broadcast peace-related programs; and Nagasaki school children are required to give up their summer holidays to engage in peace studies.

But the parades, programs and classwork ironically emphasize just the opposite of peace, that is, the horror of the atomic bombing and the tragedy of World War II (not Japan’s aggression in East Asia mind you).  Nagasaki and Hiroshima undoubtedly have a huge emotional investment in this issue and an important role in conveying the reality of the atomic bombings to the world, but characterizing the noise of August as “peace activities” is as inaccurate as it is distracting.

The idea, trotted out repeatedly, that the abolition of nuclear weapons will lead to world peace is also absurd.  Even in the unlikely event that the nuclear states dismantle all existing nuclear weapons, humankind will still be stuck with, and have to carefully manage, the technology.  Maintaining peace is like trying to balance a baseball bat on your hand: you have to be vigilant and make constant adjustments to keep it upright.

I prefer to use the Japanese term buji when defining the concept of peace.  It literally means “no thing” but is better translated as “nothing particularly worthy of note” – no war, no peace, no Peace Statue, only normal everyday existence.