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HIROSHIMA, Japan, after the atomic bomb attack of 8 August 1945 showing the Genbaku Dome


By Joji Sakurai (@byline_media)     28 Oct 2016

War tourism can console, elevate―and allow us to grapple with our darker nature

Like the Taj Mahal in India or Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, Hiroshima’s Atomic Dome is one of the few landmarks in the world that can genuinely lay claim to being iconic.

Of course there’s a critical, and troubling, difference: if the Indian mausoleum is a monument to love, and Rio’s statue a symbol of mercy, the Hiroshima dome is a reminder of unspeakable suffering in one of humanity’s worst calamities.

Listen to Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor—a World War I eulogy—while you read.

As a tourism destination, Hiroshima is more popular than ever, attracting record numbers seven decades after the atomic bombing that ended World War II. Why do people put places of tragedy on their holiday itinerary? What is the appeal of touring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, seeking out Vietnam’s bloodiest battlefields, or gazing at skulls at Cambodia’s genocide museum―on a supposed break from the grim realities of office life? And when confronted face-to-face with evidence of humanity at its worst, what is the appropriate response?

Atomic Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima, Japan.
Atomic Bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

Many will have personal reasons for making the journey; it can be a link by family, ancestry or nationality to the scene of tragedy. Whether one’s tie is to victim or bomb-dropper, there can be catharsis in such visits. Many Americans feel a need to visit Hiroshima to pay a debt of remorse, just as many Japanese feel compelled to bow in respect at the scene of their nation’s deepest wound.

But war tourism is increasingly popular with people who have no connection by family, culture or nation to these sites. Certainly universal empathy―as a member of humanity―is part of the explanation. Every individual’s human education must surely include grappling at some point―face-to-face―with humankind’s darkest moments, be it Auschwitz, Hiroshima or Japanese Imperial Army’s atrocities in the Pacific Islands.

‘One not only can―but should―strive to find beauty in the worst tragedies.’

That cannot be the whole story. And it would be naïve and counter-productive to stop here. There is a whole field of academic study in ‘Dark Tourism’―as the macabre name suggests, it probes the magnetic pull of sites of transcendent cruelty and suffering. Such tourism can carry connotations of gawking or voyeurism, especially if the carnage has been recent, as in East Timor, Bosnia or Ground Zero in New York.

It is probably unhealthy to visit scenes of carnage solely out of morbid fascination. Yet one should be cautious of condemning. A fascination with gruesome death is built into human nature. This is why people read Stieg Larsson novels. And as Philip Stone―director of the Institute of Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancaster―has noted, Dark Tourism is not recent but ancient, dating as far back as the time when Romans packed the Colosseum to watch gladiator fights.

Many people will like to think they are visiting Hiroshima entirely for pure, elevating reasons. Reality is more complex―for people are more complex. It is not only possible, but normal, to experience genuine sorrow, rage and compassion in Hiroshima, and be fascinated, mesmerized even, by graphic evidence of the A-bomb’s power.

Exhibits inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Hiroshima, Japan.. Image shot 2015. Exact date unknown.
Exhibits inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

To use a less fraught example, if somebody reads an 800-page account of war atrocity through the night―without being able to put it down―it is because at a certain level they are enjoying it, horrified yet fascinated. A war journalist may have many reasons for covering Syria: social conscience, moral imperative, anger at the slaughter of innocents. These reasons often rank high. But they will be mixed with adrenaline addiction, thirst for glory, a compulsion to test bravery―even grim curiosity. This makes one neither a bad journalist nor a bad person. It just makes one human.

Another issue arises: is it possible, or appropriate, to find beauty in places of war tragedy?

In the case of Hiroshima, the question becomes interesting because there is undeniable beauty in the carbonized girders that rise to join at the middle, pointing to the skies that rained devastation. The symbolism is powerful because a dome is a symbol of the heavens, and this is a blasted dome.

‘The Atomic Dome acquires its stark beauty from, not in spite of, its tragedy.’

Yet in a fundamental way, the Atomic Dome transcends conventional symbolic value. Unlike the Taj Mahal, Christ the Redeemer and other great monuments, it was not built for the purpose it came to serve. Normally, a beautiful building moves because the architect turned vision into reality. The Atomic Dome is different: it is both monument and Exhibit A-bomb.

The Memorial Cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

The Atomic Dome acquires its stark beauty from, not in spite of, its tragedy. A rather ordinary Western-style edifice has been transfigured. The aesthetic experience is inextricably linked to the process of its becoming―becoming what it became on the morning of August 6, 1945.

One not only can―but should―strive to find beauty in the worst tragedies. Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor―a World War I eulogy―is staggering because it is ravishing as well as mournful. The anguish carries a commitment to overcome it. The beauty of walking Flanders Fields is different: aesthetic experience and emotional impact come from tension between the loveliness of the grounds and the knowledge they were once soaked in blood.

An experience of beauty reminds us of another reason―possibly the best―for visiting a scene of atrocity. The Atomic Dome sits in a Peace Memorial not a War Memorial. Along with being a dignified monument and Exhibit A-bomb―it is also a wish. A wish that peace and beauty can still exist in this world.

Hiroshima today is a wonderful, vibrant city with many attractions―from heart-stopping shrines to old-style sake breweries―and the worst response to visiting (possibly many Hiroshima residents might agree) is to mope around as if one were at a funeral.

To mourn the past and celebrate the present―at once and to the fullest―is the best way to take home the message of Hiroshima, and guarantee a bright future for our planet and our children.

What was the first thing that came to mind when you last visited a memorial site? Share with us @momentumtravels.

Photos: Alamy

Joji Sakurai
Joji Sakurai (@byline_media)

Joji Sakurai is an independent writer who divides his time between Japan and Slovenia’s Adriatic coast. A self-described food and wine freak, he is passionate about discovering cool and unusual destinations, often in a pair of running shoes. His work has been published in the Financial TimesNew StatesmanInternational New York TimesYaleGlobal, and other publications.

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