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Last Updated: 12/04/2017
Teaching Peace from Tales of the City: Peace Education through the Memoryscapes of Nagasaki
Patporn Phoothong

To what extent can the memoryscapes of a city contribute to peace education? I argue that narratives both create and destroy the imaginaries of peace. The failure of peace museums to create an effective vision of peace reduces them to the level of historical museums. Using the framework of peace education, I explore the exhibitions, contents, objects, and messages presented in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum. To demonstrate their contributions toward peace education, I analyze the power of narratives contained in these two peace museums and their positioning in the geography of peace education in Japan. Finally, I suggest which factors support the realization of peace education in peace museums.


In spending one year researching, observing, and participating in activities organized by peace museums in Japan and peace scholars, I have seen a very serious attempt to realize peace education and a peaceful society. Peace museums in Japan have made great contributions toward recording, archiving, and publicizing what happened during World War II. At the same time, however, I have also observed a blanket of silence covering certain activities and exhibitions at peace museums. Specifically, there is a lack of evaluation, criticism, and formal discussion on the efficacy of peace museums’ exhibitions and activities as a medium of peace education, as well as peace museums’ role in peace building.

In Asia, peace museums as public learning spaces are often ignored in sociopolitical analyses. Also absent are questions regarding the contribution of peace museums toward peace processes and the construction of visions and definitions of peace, as well as the perspectives on peace of the audiences who visit peace museums. This absence might be because peace museums are not commonly recognized as public learning spaces, or because peace museums are relatively inactive, their activities are more passive and, most importantly, they position themselves apart from other relevant social movements concerned with human rights, gender issues, democratization, or justice.

Japan is currently not engaged in armed conflict, and the country officially has no army. It is therefore interesting to review how peace is taught in Japan, what level and characteristics are being taught, what level and characteristics of peace are being taught, and how Japanese people associate peace with their daily lives and current situation. Moreover, it is also interesting to learn how Japan as a country that used to create conflict and violence teaches its own “history.” Specifically, do Japanese historicize their past along with national myths, or discuss the past as a lesson learned in order to encourage citizens’ responsibility and accountability? Are Japanese learners able to separate history from historiography?[1]

It is also important to ask peace museums how peace education affects both educators and learners. Making this inquiry is important in order to strengthen peace museums as an integral part of peace education, not only in Japan, but elsewhere too.

Japan has the highest number of peace museums in the world, with around 65 such institutions located around the country. Next to media and publications, museums have played the main role in publicizing and preserving the nation’s collective memory for the sake of younger generations. Based on personal observations and study, I found that it is no exaggeration to conclude that most peace museums in Japan tell the story of World War II from a perspective that holds that Japanese were also victims of the war. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (1955)[2] and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (1955) are the best examples. Besides places like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were significant in World War II, there are also museums that focus on narratives of the suffering and damage incurred by local people during the war. For example, the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damages (2002) in Tokyo describes losses suffered in U.S. air raids on Tokyo, and the Himeyuri Peace Museum (1989) and Tsushima-maru Memorial Museum (2004) in Okinawa discuss the loss of young lives resulting from the war. Moreover, more progressive peace museums step forward to raise critical questions about the structures and systems that influence and reinforce violence. Examples include the exhibition at the Kyoto Museum for World Peace (1992), the Osaka International Peace Center (1991), and Himeyuri Peace Museum. Some small-scale private peace museums also make excellent attempts to contest the Japanese collective war memory and mainstream history. Examples include the Tanba Manganese Memorial Hall (1989), which exhibits the life of Korean forced labor in Manganese mining located in Kyoto, and the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum (1995), which exhibits reliable and credible evidence of Japanese aggression.

This article attempts to decipher peace education in peace museums by posing the following questions: 1) pertaining to the power of narratives, what are the exhibitions of peace museums creating (I am particularly interested in how museums construct and communicate imaginaries of peace)? 2) how do peace museums teach peace education? and 3) what key elements support the realization of peace education?

In order to answer the three questions posed above, I selected the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Oka Masaharu Memorial Peace Museum located in Nagasaki as case studies. In this article, I examine how contents, artifacts, and messages in these peace museums align with the principle of peace education in order to analyze the extent to which peace education is taught in the museums and how peace museums construct imaginaries and visions of peace. Finally, I discuss the factors and conditions required to realize peace education in peace museums.

I begin this article by examining the importance of peace museums as embodiments of peace education; museums as instruments for managing the truth; and museums as sociopolitical spaces that influence the construction of attitudes, perception, and ideology. I also discuss the framework of peace education and analyze the exhibition and display of artifacts in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum in the context of how collective memory leads to a better understanding of peace in a deeper sense, as well as the ability of structural and cultural peace to connect the past with the present. Finally, I discuss the position of peace museums in peace education and offer recommendations for peace education in peace museums, as well as make suggestions regarding the conditions necessary to create more effective peace museums.

Peace Museums Revisited and Peace Education Reviewed

Museums function not just to preserve and display things, but to preserve and display values through things. Museums and the museumizing of imagination are both profoundly political (Anderson, 2006). Because all aspects of museums feature constructed meaning, museums are not isolated from politics. Instead, they are places where values, meaning, and ideology are constructed, interpreted, selected, and redefined.

Due to limitations of space and time, museums cannot exhibit everything or all facts and knowledge. Exhibitions are therefore based on the objectives of museums and other factors, such as ownership, funding, and level of freedom of expression. To understand the message the peace museums communicate, one needs to know the status of the museums and the sociopolitical conditions that influence their approach to constructing collective memory and a vision of peace.

The sense of sacrifice and shared experience of loss and sorrow do not occur naturally, but are evoked through the construction of an imaginary and memory. As respected institutions, museums (especially those owned by the state or academic institutions) enjoy a status of credibility and neutrality from politics. This status is reflected and confirmed by the recurring annual student trips made to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, and Kyoto Museum for World Peace.

When people visit museums that exhibit stories of the past, they are persuaded to think of non-existing things. But what things do museums want people to think about? This question reflects the power of museums contained in their ability to communicate to the public what it should remember and what it should forget. This power enables museums to have the authority to reconstruct, redefine, and interpret history and events.

It is inevitable that along with a high number of peace museums, Japan also has a high number of war museums. World War II has many stories to tell and a high number of narrators. The existence of diverse museums reflects the freedom of expression that enables anyone to raise their voice and talk freely about their experiences, which in turn is an indicator of a mature democratic society.

But to what extent do Japanese society and museum visitors recognize the difference between war and peace museums, and how are visitors able to visualize peace and violence as a result of visiting museums?

In order to scope the geography of peace museums in peace education in Japan, the definition of war and peace museums needs to be analyzed. Johan Galtung points out that war museum refers to museums telling the story of war, or of one particular war. Some of them glorify war directly or indirectly, and many inspire actions supporting the next war (Galtung, 1999). Regarding peace museums, he states, “A peace museum informs us about peace and how to get there” (Galtung, 1999), while Toshifumi Murakami more progressively defines peace museums as “a peace aiming to form the attitude and skill for making a peaceful society and peaceful international relations” (Murakami, 2003).

However, considering the information contained in war museums and peace museums and their objectives, it is arguable that the definitions of the two types of museums might not have significant meaning. The definitions only contribute to categorizing the museum type, since war and peace museums also share some common values. The objectives of the Yushukan Museum, the military and war museum located within the Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima can be analyzed. While the Yushukan Museum states that “[e]ach article displayed in this museum is filled with wish of predecessors who named this museum Yushukan and sincerity of enshrined divinities who devoted themselves to build a peaceful nation,” the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum indicates that “[e]ach of the items displayed embodies the grief, anger, or pain of real people. Having now recovered from that A-bomb calamity, Hiroshima’s deepest wish is the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the realization of a genuinely peaceful international community.” The two objectives illustrate that the establishment of war and peace museums reflects the way a society or group of people commemorate and value the life of those who passed away during the war. It is imperative to learn and hear their experiences and stories in order to save the lives of people and the future generation. Therefore, war and peace museums aim to preserve the lives of people with different methods and means. The great challenge facing peace museums is how to communicate and construct a vision of peace that persuades visitors to view one method of saving life as being better than others.

Despite the lack of clarity in distinguishing between the definition of war and peace museums, the definition of “peace” and the framework of peace education can be used as a foundation to review peace museums. Johan Galtung defines peace in two ways: peace refers to a state free from all forms of violence, whether physical, cultural, or structural; and peace also refers to the transformation of conflict through peaceful means (1996, p. 9). Based on these two definitions, peace education integrates three principles: 1) peace is not merely the absence of war, but covers physical, cultural, and structural peace; 2) peace is not only a goal, but is also a process; and 3) in peace education, it is necessary to teach about conflicts and politics, as well as methods and approaches to transforming conflict through peaceful and creative means (Galtung, 1996).

Museums that declare themselves to be peace museums therefore bear a great responsibility to define “peace” and construct a “vision of peace” associated with physical, cultural, and structural peace. Their main task is also to convey a perspective on conflict transformation relying on peaceful means as a process leading toward sustainable peace.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum: Teaching Peace Education from the Tales of the City

Due to its significance as a historical place, Nagasaki is an important destination for Japanese school trips. The dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945 is a part of the Japanese grand narrative on World War II. While Nagasaki in 2014 has left the war far behind, the story of World War II is still alive in museums and the oral histories of veterans and atomic bomb survivors. All of them are part of Nagasaki’s memory geographic.

What stories can a city tell? What does a city expect from such stories? What is hidden behind the stories? The city’s stories appear in the collective memory. Personal or small groups’ memories are placed in the memory of the city. What are the impacts of the construction and forced abandonment of memory on those who dwell in or outside of the city? Each story has many origins and intents, including storytelling to construct a continuous memory or forget others, to instill knowledge or advocate for certain causes, such as justice, or to question or to create an impact on society. I study the story components of the two peace museums in Nagasaki in order to analyze how the memories and imaginaries of peace are constructed and how much they contribute to peace studies

There are six peace museums in Nagasaki (Yamane, 2008). Different groups, such as educational institutions, religious institutions, and local government have attempted to include their stories in the memory landscape of the city. Being part of the city’s memory landscape not only relates one’s own story with the city’s collective memory, but also imposes oneself upon the collective memory, which encompasses the memories of small people within the collective memory landscape.

Although the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum both tell the stories of World War II, they nevertheless differ significantly. The former museum is a center of history and collective memories that is owned by the local government. The latter is a small private museum established by Rev. Oka Masaharu, who had much experience working with Korean and Chinese forced labor in Nagasaki. This museum is quiet, and even locals are generally not aware of its existence.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum chooses to exhibit pictures depicting World War II through the experience of Japanese in Nagasaki who were mainly victims of the atomic bomb. The stories in the museum are presented as if there were no story structure. The timeline in Nagasaki conveys the feeling of reading a pure historical chronology, which can be categorized roughly as follows: before and after the bombs, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and the damage from the nuclear fallout, and the nuclear weapons situation in the contemporary world, all with narration in four languages, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English.

Upon entering the exhibition hall, visitors feel the darkness and fearful, gloomy atmosphere created by Urakami Cathedral style lighting and decoration. The exhibition begins with the opening of history in 1571, when Portuguese ships were welcomed and Nagasaki subsequently became the only open port city in Japan from 1641 to 1859. The city was destroyed on a summer morning, on 9 August 1945. Old pictures portraying the way of life of people prior to the bombing are displayed in this section.

The connection between Nagasaki and World War II seems to be missing in the exhibition. The short stories of the city before World War II are juxtaposed against the destruction of the city, but the atomic bomb neatly hides the linkage between the tragedy in Nagasaki and other dimensions of World War II, as if the bomb had suddenly been dropped out of the blue.[3]

The construction of certain collective memories tends to emphasize particular times and particular locations. I argue that although this approach to the construction of memory is effective, as audiences are easily reminded of a particular incident, the imprint created possibly undermines the capacity of the audience to connect with and relate to other dimensions of the incident. The wall clock stopped at the time the atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki is hung inside the museum along with a sign showing the time and date. Even though the sign shows the actual time of the incident, it is not emphasized as strongly as the picture of the clock in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Nevertheless, it clearly shows that the day the atomic bomb was dropped is unforgettable.

In order to guide the audience to the experience of loss caused by the atomic bomb, the museum exhibits the U.S. military’s plans and operations pertaining to Nagasaki. One signboard clearly reads, “On August 8, Field Order No. 7 issued from the 20th U.S. Air Force Headquarters on Guam called for its use the following day on either Kokura, the primary target, or Nagasaki, the second target.” The museum also presents a timeline describing the events from 1943 to 1945 leading to the bombing, such as the determination of target location, recommendations of the U.S. Army, and the strategic order for the incident. Other relevant issues, such as Germany’s unconditional surrender, the Frank Committee’s warning on the danger of a post-nuclear arms race, and the Potsdam Declaration are also exhibited in this section, along with a photo of Nagasaki taken two days before the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Campaigning to eliminate nuclear weapons is one of the museum’s objectives. There is information presented about “Fatman,” the type of atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. A life-size model of the bomb is on display, along with information about its destructive power.

The museum highlights as an unforgettable incident the impact of the dropping of the atomic bomb on life and property. The construction of a collective experience is thereby emphasized through the narrative on the loss and long-term suffering experienced in the aftermath of the bomb. Black and white photographs showing the damaged city along with 100 authentic objects damaged in the heat flash caused by the atomic bomb and transformed into some other form are on display. These objects include maple and bamboo trees, roof tile, cup, ceramic bottle, wire, wood, and coins. The museum allows visitors to touch some of these objects. The objects clearly represent what was left behind after the destruction of the bombing. Human bodies and souls may have been too weak to survive the destructive force of the atomic bomb, but the objects on display were more resistant. Human demise at a young age is also reflected through a student’s lunchbox and the clothes of an eight month-old baby. Pictures of human bodies exposed to radiation and heat from the bombing are also exhibited. Examples of the captions include “Corpses of a mother and baby on the platform at Urakami Railroad Station” or “About one kilometer south of the hypocenter. Both mother and baby had suffered burns.”

Similarly, the panel on damage caused by radiation details human suffering, mentioning microcephaly, leukemia, and cancer that manifested after the incident. The exhibition shows a timeline noting the years when the disease occurred in the patients. Information is also provided about the effects of radiation exposure on the inside and outside of human bodies. Following this section come the appeals of atomic bomb survivors to be left alone, their stigmatization, and stories of the families of survivors. These can be read, viewed on exhibition panels, and heard on video. It is quite interesting that the museum also exhibits the experience of a number of non-Japanese who were exposed to the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. For example, on display is the appeal of local people lamenting, “The cries of fellow Koreans echo in my heart.”

Rescue and relief activities are also presented in the exhibition panels. People who sacrificed themselves to take care of those exposed to the atomic bombing like Dr. Takashi Nagai are featured. The memory of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki ends with this panel.

In order to enhance visitors’ comprehensive understanding of Japan’s involvement in the war, the museum provides a timeline on warfare extending from the 1895 Sino-Japanese War up until the end of World War II. It is important to note here that the information is provided in Japanese only, while English explanations are written only as a topic line, such as “World Affairs,” or “War with China.” However, English explanations of significant sociopolitical events that occurred during Japan’s 15 years of war are available through audio voices at a small multimedia corner. Even though this corner fails to catch the visitor’s eye, it is still relatively important since it provides significant information that is pertinent for peace education, such as on the topics “the Growth of Fascism,” or “the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

The last part of the exhibition features information on the atomic bomb since the beginning of nuclear development, the people involved, studies arguing that the atomic bomb should never have been dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, as Japan was about to surrender, and a petition submitted by scientists to the American President against the use of the atomic bomb. Modern nuclear weapons are also presented in this section, as is a world map indicating countries that have nuclear weapons, and an exhibition on atomic bomb survivors.

The exhibition ends with the Nagasaki Declaration, relating the city’s experiences from the time its port was first opened to Portuguese ships in the 16th century, up to the present. Nagasaki today has been transformed from being a center for the production of warships and armaments to being a symbol of peace and culture, in line with the concept “Peace Begins in Nagasaki.”

Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum

While most peace museums in Japan present grand narratives of World War II, the small-scale private peace museum, Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum (OKPM), which is located on the hill in Nagasaki City, chooses to present Japanese aggression with the objective “To remember the pain of the victims and to ensure postwar compensation and peace.”

The two-story building that houses the museum is filled with documentary photos and documents on Japanese aggression. The museum also provides a number of publications and CD players, as well as a study area for visitors who wish to study Japanese aggression further.

Being housed in a simple building and featuring a simple exhibition with simple decoration, OKPM tends not to construct feelings of sadness or sympathy for the victims and survivors, but rather aims to convey the truth and other side of history, which will lead visitors to question, criticize, and study further. As the museum emphasizes the atrocities inflicted by the Japanese military on other Asian nations, some pictures are too sensitive for children and youth. The museum therefore recommends against visits by children under 15 years of age. High school students are recommended to have an adult accompany them on visits.

The museum does not organize its exhibition chronologically and does not highlight the dates of incidents. Instead, it focuses on Japanese aggression and the locations where all the atrocities took place. The exhibition can be divided into 12 clusters: Korean and Chinese victims of the atomic bomb, forced conscription and forced labor, Japanese invasion of Korea, Japanese invasion of China, what Japan did in Asia, “imperialization” and thought control, Korean forced labor conscripted to Nagasaki, Chinese forced labor conscripted to Nagasaki, Japanese military “comfort women,” why Japan refuses to take responsibility, postwar compensation, and the Nanjing Massacre.

Because the museum provides controversial and sensitive information, all of the panels in its exhibition are based on official information as supporting evidence. Captions and content are mainly written in Japanese, with English used only for headlines or content summary.

Chinese and Koreans constituted marginalized groups in Japanese society during the war, and they were excluded from all aspects of social life and human rights. Even today, their experiences have received very little recognition in public spaces or at commemorative events. In OKPM, complete information about Chinese and Korean forced labor is provided. Visitors also gain a better understanding from the ground level about why Japan needed a bigger labor force and military. The National Mobilization Law is explained, and the locations of factories and mines all over Japan are shown, as well as the living conditions of the forced labor and conscripts at these sites. The signage states, “Farmers of the northern Chinese district were mainly gathered in a violent manner in order for them to be contract workers. Then they were sent to Japan by cargo boat.” This explanation provides a clear picture of how they were brought into Japan. Moreover, the informational panel illustrates the structural violence with the sentence, “The forcible recruitment made by the armed forces, government and companies together.” The testimonies of former Chinese and Korean forced labor residing in Nagasaki are also featured in this panel.

The Japanese invasion of Asian countries is directly explained in this museum through military photos and documents. These documents are not unavailable or inaccessible, but only few museums in Japan choose to exhibit them. This panel provides a comprehensive picture of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” policy, along with tragedies that occurred throughout Asia, such as the execution of Korean citizens who opposed Japanese occupation, the living conditions of prisoners of war along the Thailand-Burma Railroad (the infamous Death Railway), the Sook Ching Massacre in Singapore, and imperialization in Melanesia, for example.

In contrast to other peace museums, Oka Masaharu discusses imperialization and thought control directly and honestly. Based on a critique of racism, the museum gives clear examples of the importance of the Flag of the Rising Sun, the Japanese national anthem, and Japanese language, which were compulsory throughout Asia. This section of the museum also offers an explanation of how ordinary Japanese people were able to commit wartime atrocities. The museum firmly points to the role of education in constructing feelings of fear and distrust among Japanese society during the war.

The museum also discusses historically sensitive issues, such as comfort women. The relevant panel in the exhibition focuses on explaining what comfort women were, who created and operated the system, the background of former comfort women, and their living conditions after the war. The museum also addresses other controversial issues surrounding Japanese military comfort women, such as the movement to distort history, the Asian Women’s Fund and the textbook issue, international condemnation, the struggle of affected parties and the court trials, and other relevant actions.

The museum plays an important role in revealing incidents about which the public has been silent for decades, incidents often ignored by mainstream Japanese historians, such as the Nanjing Massacre and Unit 731, which developed biological and chemical weapons through experimentation on live humans and vivisections. In this section, the museum exhibits information about Unit 731, its activities, Japan’s defeat in the war, and the deal with the U.S. after the war regarding information of those who worked in this unit.

Throughout the exhibition, OKPM encourage visitors to ask very critical questions about why Japan refuses to take responsibility. Rather than answering this question directly, the museum presents a picture of a Japanese soldier smiling over his brutality inflicted upon the residents of Nanjing and other pictures as evidence of military institutionalization and the influence of education under the imperial system.

Since OKPM also plays the role of archive, it produces and provides information in court cases, such as the case of Korean atomic bomb survivors demanding a health care allowance, or Korean conscripts and forced labor demanding compensation.

In contrast to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, OKPM does not provide a conclusion for its visitors. Nevertheless, all of the pictures, documents, and publications in the museum strongly reflect the museum’s best attempt to provide the truth and criticize structural and cultural violence as a starting point to bringing about justice and reconciliation through peaceful means.

Conclusion: Peace Museums and Their Position in Peace Education

In order to understand the position of peace museums in the educational sphere, one must first understand the characteristics of their visitors. Peace museum visitors can be divided into three main categories: visitors who only look at the exhibition headlines; visitors who read about only the topics they are interested in; and visitors who read everything. Museums therefore have to organize their exhibitions in a way that the three main groups of visitors are able to fulfill their needs within a period of 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, which is the average amount of time that visitors spend in museums. Important questions to ask for these three groups when they visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and OKPM are what they will see, what they will learn, and which meaning of peace they will perceive.

I will now discuss the main questions, namely how the collective memory of the city has led to peace, how peace museums teach peace, and what factors support the realization of peace education in peace museums.

Power of Narrative: Learning from Peace Museum

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “narrative” as “a story or description of a series of events.” This means that narratives involve the organization of all information or stories into an ordered format. The power of narratives results from the expectation and acceptance that all narratives communicate some meaning. The power of narrative is therefore associated with the status of ownership, whether by an institution, an organization, or individual.

As an institution, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum decides to narrate the story of World War II by encouraging its visitors to learn about and experience the loss of Nagasaki residents. The gloomy atmosphere created by controlled lighting, exhibition of black and white pictures and destroyed objects, and the presentation of touching stories help create a sense of sadness and sympathy.

Arguably, space limitations in the museum prevent it from providing a comprehensive history of World War II. Nevertheless, shifting the tragedy of Nagasaki away from international politics during the war leaves visitors with only a superficial understanding of the conflict and peace, rather than an understanding of factors related to and the root cause of the conflict, or knowledge about structural and cultural violence in broader terms.

Although the museum attempts to provide information about the effects and losses caused by the atomic bomb, its narrative of local victimhood only leads to limited knowledge and peace education, since it fails to offer an explanation of the comprehensive victimhood experienced in World War II, such as by victims of Japanese aggression and invasion, or soldiers under the imperial system. The role of the peace museum as a political tool should be drawn out for further discussion.

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum sends a clear message regarding the abolition of nuclear weapons, but it stops short of leading to peace building action because it fails to encourage visitors to analyze current conflicts around the globe, especially in East Asia.

In contrast, OKPM plays an important role in creating a shared space for diverse memories of World War II. Even though the museum’s limited budget affects its exhibition style, the simplicity of the exhibition has the positive impact of encouraging visitors to observe the reality and truth of information. It confirms the sense of being a museum of truth rather than trying to construct an image of loss. As OKPM is not a government institution, its narrative might trigger denial and doubt by a larger group of people. However, by providing plentiful supporting evidence, military and official documents, photos and academic research reports, the museum affirms the existence of Japanese aggression committed against civilians under colonial rule.

By seeing the truth from (other) victims’ perspective, visitors to the museum are able to visualize violence by associating it with structures such as the military, state, and companies, such as in the case of forced labor. The museum’s narrative contributes to knowledge about structural and cultural violence, which other famous peace museums fail to do.

Peace Education in Peace Museums

As self-declared peace museums, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and OKPM cannot deny their responsibility to offer alternative peace education by encouraging visitors to “reflect, connect and apply” as a process of learning.

Peace has physical, cultural, and structural dimensions. To encourage visitors to imagine peace, museums need to empower them to visualize not only peace itself, but also what a suitable peace process is. The issues of justice, human rights, freedom, democracy, and liberty of all people regardless of where they live, their gender, race, religion, cultural or ethnic background, must be emphasized.

It is not clear how the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum defines peace, although the museum states in its brochure that it exhibits “our desire for peace” along with a number of photographs that depict the devastation caused by the atomic bomb, the lead-up to the tragic day itself, and the history of the development of nuclear arms. The tragedy of Nagasaki could undeniably be a great lesson from which all people could learn, but the question remains about how the museum’s exhibition emphasizing victims and the effects of the atomic bomb can lead to a vision of peace.

On the other hand, the process of education and knowledge gained from museums are associated with the visitor’s capacity to reflect, connect and apply what they have learned to real life. However, because the museum fails to describe and discuss structural and cultural violence, and fails to link the wartime situation with the present, it remains unable to actualize a genuine process leading to education and knowledge of peace education. Instead, the museum’s contribution remains limited to providing a story about victimhood and the atrocity of nuclear weapons, rather than making progress toward encouraging visitors to think of peace processes or question the structural and cultural violence that surrounds them.

Moreover, peace is defined very clearly and comprehensively in OKPM. The museum encourages its visitors to question how simple men, who were farmers, fathers, brothers, and sons, could commit such brutal behavior outside Japan, such as in Nanjing, the case of comfort women, or the prisoners of war on the Thailand-Burma Railway. OKPM discusses structural violence in its exhibition, such as when it comments, “Armed forces, government and company forcibly recruited the labour from Korea and China.” This comment shows that the museum is attempting to empower its visitors to think about the linkage between the state, military, and capitalism, which reinforce each other.

Comparing principles of peace education with the learning process, the vision or imaginary can be considered to be a process of reflection; understanding that peace is also a process reflects the process of connection; and finally, the capacity to apply is associated with knowledge of how to transform conflict through peaceful means. These three processes are mutually reinforcing and also depend on how facilitators facilitate knowledge and encourage learners to learn.

Arguably, museum visitors themselves have the right and power to interpret and analyze what they see and read in the museum. But these capacities depend on their experience and background. Therefore, if peace museums fail to provide the vision of peace, the chance that visitors will be able to learn the next steps of peace education is reduced.

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum strongly campaigns to encourage visitors to participate in abolishing nuclear weapons. This activity is quite important, but it is not sufficient. Since the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, there have been dozens of conventional wars fought and big budget increases to support massive international security apparatuses. The world is awash in weapons. But are states using them as often as before? Political education or international relations education is also important to encourage visitors to analyze and be aware of international developments. The provision of such education would enable visitors to see peace processes in a broader sense, starting at the individual level, passing through politics and negotiation, extending all the way to the level of international cooperation.

OKPN’s great contribution has been to open Japanese society to a different chapter of World War II, in which they can gain exposure to and experience the losses suffered in other places and among other groups of people outside of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Japan. Bringing new knowledge to visitors encourages them to criticize, question, disagree with, and research further the state’s version of history, which is an important step for peace education. Getting visitors to become more critical is a response to the fact that history is not what happened and ended in the past, but is rather something that is associated with the present through people’s behavior and mind, as well as their decisions for the future.

Because one of the main responsibilities of peace museums is to create a connection between the exhibition and the world, and between visitors and the current situation, peace museums must do more than just functioning as an archive or simple display room. Instead, peace museums must also be public sociopolitical learning spaces. The biggest challenge facing peace museums is that people expect much from them, since they can make peace a reality. For this reason, it is necessary to develop an indicator for the effectiveness or success of peace museums. Applying the indicator would not be aimed at blaming or complaining per se, but rather to support peace museums so that they can improve themselves, their exhibitions and activities, leading to the realization of peace education.

Meanwhile, strengthening peace museums so they can construct visions of peace that challenge old grand narratives is also important, since doing so would foster the creation of new knowledge, raise the voices of the marginalized, extract lessons learned, and, most importantly, reinvent the truth by encouraging society to review the past and listen to the voices and experiences that are not currently part of the collective memory or in mainstream history. The knowledge exhibited in peace museums has to align with deconstruction and be an alternative that contrasts with the mainstream in regard to what audiences have known before. Effective peace museums have to understand the experiences of visitors in terms of what they have learned and been through, and how their knowledge has been institutionalized in order to be able to provide alternative knowledge and serve as a critical platform for visitors.

However, the realization of peace education relies not just on peace museums alone, but is also associated with the quality of education, freedom of expression, human rights, and tolerance of diversity in society. I thus argue that all peace museums, whether government or private, have their own right to exhibit whatever they prefer and position themselves however they wish, whether as a peace museum or as a political tool on behalf of a peace museum. The contested memories, experiences, and narratives, as well as the approaches of the exhibitions represent the healthiness of human rights, freedom of expression, and academic freedom in society. Most importantly, they imply that all people in society will always have spaces and channels through which they can raise their own voices and concerns.

Rather than placing expectations on peace museums, it is more important to develop an educational system that empowers learners to analyze, criticize, and reconstruct structures of knowledge. It is also important to create a culture of criticism and debate based on knowledge and theory. These elements would strengthen learning in society, and society would in turn contribute toward producing new knowledge. Having this kind of rich knowledge and democratic society is the key to creating sustainable peace.


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[1] In their Handbook on Peace Education, Salomon and Cairns point out that countries in conflict tend to historicize their own conflict as a part of national myths. Doing so influences people to believe in national historiography, and it becomes difficult for them to differentiate between history and historiography.

[2] The year indicated in brackets is the year the respective museum was established.

[3] I am not implying that Nagasaki should have been bombed or that the Japanese invasion of other countries deserved to be punished with the atomic bomb. One-sided storytelling in no way leads to peace education or knowledge.

Patporn Phoothong, The Imitative of Museum and Library for Peace, Thailand