The Hiroshima Memorial That Almost Was

What is a memorial meant to represent? Who is it meant to represent?

The Arts War and Peace


Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 27, 2016. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


On this day in 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb — Little Boy — on Hiroshima, Japan. The coyly nicknamed weapon destroyed a city; over 150,000 civilians were murdered. Three days later the U.S., the only country to use nuclear weapons in war, dropped an even bigger bomb (Fat Man) on the city of Nagasaki, killing another 80,000 Japanese people. Soon after, Japan surrendered.


In the 1950s, the Japanese government sought designs for a memorial in Hiroshima. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park stands today in the epicenter of the atomic explosion, in what was once Hiroshima's commercial and residential center. An arch at the center of the park, the Memorial Cenotaph as it is called, displays the remembrance: "安らかに眠って下さい 過ちは 繰返しませぬから," which means "please rest in peace, for [we/they] shall not repeat the error."


Playing with the Japanese language, the [we/they] subject is left out of the sentence, rendering the statement ambiguous. Does "we" refer to the Japanese people? Or humanity at large? Does "they" infer the Americans? Or, perhaps, Japanese political leadership? The epitaph carried so much controversy that, in 1983, text was added to the memorial, explaining (in English) the intent of the original message:


"The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima—enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace."


Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park acts as a stark memorialization not of a peace that was destroyed, but of the horror that was revealed. Victims are memorialized, and so is evil.


Hiroshima Cenotaph Museum
Hiroshima Cenotaph Museum


One of the artists asked to design a memorial was the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was also part-Japanese. Ultimately, Noguchi's ideas were rejected, probably for political reasons — when it was revealed that Noguchi was American, public sentiment quickly soured on his proposal.


The Memorial Cenotaph sits in the middle of the park. Designed by Kenzo Tange, one can't help but notice a striking resemblance to Noguchi's original designs. Tange, after all, was the architect who first approached Noguchi about designing a memorial. After Noguchi was denied the project, Tange had but a week to come up with something new.


What follows are images of Noguchi's original design and, in his own words, excerpted descriptions of the Hiroshima memorial that almost was.




In 1952 I was asked to design a "Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima." This, unfortunately, was never realized.


Memorial to Hiroshima


After successfully completing two bridges for the Peace Park in Hiroshima, I was asked by the mayor of that city and Kenzo Tange to design a "Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima." Kenzo Tange let me use his office at Tokyo University to build a model.

It had been specified that the memorial was to be partly underground and partly above ground. Below ground there would be a repository of names. It was to be a place of solace for the bereaved. Above ground would be a symbol for everyone to see and remember. I found the subject challenging. I chose my form from the grave figures called "Haniwa," among which are found shelters with similar roofs.


Memorial to Hiroshima


I conceived of the visible portion of the memorial as an arch of black granite, glowing at the base. At the bottom the weight would descend underground as two heavy pillars between which would be the receptacle containing the names of the world's first atomic dead.


It was assumed that the height of my memorial, at least the portion above ground, should be four meters, or about thirteen feet. For such a size and considering the probably limits of stone sizes available, the number of sections required totaled fourteen. These sections would buttress each other and make a configuration somewhat like an arch.


Memorial to Hiroshima


An entry to a crypt below where the support of the arch above was made visible, rooted to the earth. This was to be a symbolic repository of ashes.


Unfortunately, neither Tange nor the mayor had consulted with the committee in charge before suggesting that I design the memorial, and my proposal was rejected. Was it because I was an American, or was it a case of someone not having the proper authorization to which my proposal fell victim? Tange was obliged to draw up a design himself, with in a week, to meet the deadline and have something ready for an anniversary celebration. This is what is there now in Hiroshima.


Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima
Memorial to the Dead of Hiroshima

Nonetheless, I decided to study how my sculpture might be executed from large blocks of black Brazilian granite. I had the notion that such a memorial might be meaningful somewhere in the United States as a gesture of regret and a sign of opposition to this devastating event. I also felt that Hiroshima itself would be needing a cenotaph in stone to replace the concrete shell structure designed by Kenzo Tange which had become damaged by time.


Isamu Noguchi, Peace, Japan