For Coronavirus to occur like this at the 75th juncture of the [remembrance of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] should be ringing alarm bells
SH, Peace Baton Member, Nagasaki, 2020.

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima by Hiromichi Matsuda, public domain.

Recently the world observed the closing ceremony of the ‘2020’ Olympics. The Olympics occurred despite many calls from within and without Japan to halt the event. While the many sporting events were running in an ‘Olympic Bubble’, doctors in Japan called for attention for hospitals crowded with increasing numbers due to COVID-19. Their calls were not heeded. August 5 heralded a record in this city since the beginning of the pandemic of 5042 infections counted, and the government has taken the step of restricting hospital beds to the seriously ill. The closing ceremony was held without a public audience on 8 August 2021, two days after the 76th Hiroshima Day, and one day prior to Nagasaki Day.

What did these Games represent? Many athletes enjoyed an exciting and rewarding competition and the stories about the athletes dominated the media coverage. In the Australian media, these stories focused often on those who won medals, and less frequently on those who worked through adversity. At the end of it all, an Australian news source framed the closing of the Olympics as ‘Celebration and Hope’ quoting Thomas Bach the IOC President’s words, that Tokyo gave the world hope, with the implication that this showed a way out of the Covid crisis.

But the reality in Tokyo was far from this. The New York Times struck a considerably more retrospective note, calling these Olympics the ‘strangest’ in recent memory. A Japanese newspaper did not mince words. According to the Japan Times, the Olympics were retrograde, claustrophobic, cut off from society and stage managed ‘to the point of absurdity’. Their completion was an utter relief for many of the locals who hope now Tokyo can come to terms with the current acute crisis due to the quick-spreading Delta strain of COVID-19.

The Olympic event further overlapped with the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and was completed just prior to the remembering of the bombing of a second city Nagasaki. In view of the COVID crisis and the evasion of memory of these bombings, we could imagine the Olympic rings and festivities in the Japanese summer as a Mushroom Cloud, immense, all encompassing, grand, and yet hiding the violence of what continued unabated underneath.

Tokyo, Olympic Symbol, Photograph by Alex Smith on Unsplash

Ever since the atomic bombings, the mushroom clouds which rose above the devastating blasts were the icons of a new atomic age, obscuring from the first the destructiveness of the first atomic bombs released upon cities and the ever-widening health concerns left as a legacy. The symbol of the mushroom cloud was quickly subsumed into a US victorious narrative of power and dominion, censoring any information about those on the ground during their occupation of japan, and depriving attention to the many sufferers who were left behind. In the United States, the symbol of the mushroom cloud as strength and dominion became ubiquitous and was even used on football helmets at a high school.

Similarly, Tokyo 2020 and Olympic five rings assumed in 2021 an Olympic ‘mushroom cloud’, hiding the ongoing suffering of COVID-19 on the ground. The logo of the Olympic Games obscured and elided ongoing suffering in wider Japan due to multiple difficult experiences of the past and of the present. In fact, the campaign for the Olympics to come to Japan was promoted by a narrative of recovery, whereby the Games officials and government eschewed the advice of health experts in favour of Japanese national economic and defence-based imperatives. The Olympic movement, representing and advancing corporate interests and television rights, demonstrated an ongoing readiness to silence voices who speak out against the commercialised and national agenda, proclaiming Fukushima and wider Japan under control despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic: Tokyo 2020 (despite a state of emergency) was proclaimed safe.

The initial orchestration of the closing of the Olympics on Nagasaki Day, August 9, appeared to intend a final nail in the coffin of postwar nuclear discourse, and to quash public clamour in Japan for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and fears about radiation exposure. The “Recovery Olympics” (fukkō) were meant to exhibit Japan’s resilience.

The Tokyo Olympics were explicitly pursued to demonstrate that Japan and Fukushima had overcome the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown. The still palpable scars from the violence of these events were to be swept under the Olympic banner, and any abnormality would be presented as normal. The Olympics were applied as a mask to distract attention from, if not conceal, the aftermath of the triple disasters and subsequent radiation exposure.

However, there were continual discrepancies between official statements and reality. The 2020 Olympics did not in the end represent recovery, but were instead entirely revealing of a mechanism of normalized violence, shown by an evasion of memory of the atomic bombings, the elision of Fukushima nuclear power plant’s melt-through, and the downplaying of COVID-19 itself. As a public health issue, the Japanese political class managed Covid-19 with little concern for vulnerable groups during the Olympic event. Olympic Minister Hashimoto Seiko said ‘The Olympics must be held at any cost’, on September 8 2020, vowing to battle on against the coronavirus.[1] In late November, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) claimed the Olympic Games as ‘the light at the end of this dark tunnel’.

Meanwhile, a former mayor of Hiroshima called the Olympic authorities to observe a minute’s silence during the Olympic competitions at 8:15am on 6 August, a call that the IOC resisted. Competition went on as per normal. Other reports suggested that the IOC President insisted the Closing Ceremony would include time to honour victims of tragedies through history such as Hiroshima. However, the ‘Time of Remembrance’ that was included in the Olympic Closing ceremony was deliberately obscure and fuzzy, remembering those who had died, with no mention of the memory of the atomic bombings so close in time to this event. Indeed, the world-facing Games made opaque the experiences of vulnerable and susceptible populations within Japan including the unvaccinated (Japan had reached a vaccination rate of around 35% during the Games) and the population still suffering due to the nuclear disaster in 2011 in Fukushima, just north of Tokyo.

Scheduling the original closing date of the Olympics on August 9 2020 intended that the Prime Minister of Japan would not be present at the 75th anniversary memorial ceremony in Nagasaki. This original plan indicated not only a symbolic absence of the political leader from the commemoration, but the intention of the diversion of media attention from that historical event.

In 2020, though, rather than attending the closing ceremony of the postponed Olympics on Nagasaki Day, Abe Shinzo, at the time the Prime Minister of Japan, travelled to the memorial service of the 75th anniversary of the bombing in Nagasaki. Here he made the following statement:

Seventy-five years ago today, Nagasaki was reduced to ashes, with not a single tree or blade of grass remaining. Yet through the efforts of its citizens, it achieved reconstruction beautifully as we see today. Mindful of this, we again feel strongly that there is no trial that cannot be overcome and feel acutely how precious peace is.” (Translation from PM of Japan website, 19/10/2020).

How would those left behind in Nagasaki understand the Olympics of 2020 (2021)? A colleague, Yuki Miyamoto (DePaul University, Chicago) and I conducted a short survey, in 2020, to report on the concerns of some public figures in Nagasaki about the remembering of what occurred. It turns out their concerns about the Games were prescient and prophetic, and somewhat cynical about the aims of the government.

Sakamoto, Nagasaki, bombed Torii gate, Photograph by Dominic Galeon on Unsplash, public domain.

We paid attention to the voices of people on the ground as we discussed silences, commemorations, memory and resilience of the communities of Nagasaki after 75 years. Nagasaki has often been neglected in favour of Hiroshima, and we take this opportunity to raise their voices as a corrective.

Nagai Tokusaburō, grandson of Nagai Takashi, well-known survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, wrote to us before we knew the Olympics would be postponed:

People prefer fun festivals. In the midst of that, it is a shame that the opportunity to draw the whole world’s eyes to the Nagasaki atomic bombing was lost”.

After hearing the words of the Prime Minister that no trial cannot be overcome, SC, historian and an author of atomic bomb literature herself, wrote:

Rather than placing a full-stop to show the damages are finished in public, we must remind ourselves that the damages have not been properly recognized and nor are they recovered [remembering the Fukushima disaster and the atomic bombings].

SC demanded that recollection of memories and discussion of the damages and impacts must continue, protesting PM Abe’s statement above that reconstruction is complete.

In 2021 of course, the Closing Ceremony was instead one day prior to Nagasaki Day. Whereas there is often a concern that remembrance of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki indicates a victimization narrative, of Japan as a victim of the war, this did not bear out in our participants’ responses. Our survey respondents acknowledged that the remembering of Nagasaki should not exclude other war memories, but should instead include Japan’s aggressive and violent history during the colonizing era up to the end of World War II.

Even upon examination of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki historical context, the colonial history is evident. Out of those killed by the atomic bombs, around one tenth were of Korean background, brought to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki as indentured labourers. The death rate for the overall population in the two cities has recently been estimated at 33.7%, whereas out of the total Korean indentured population at the time present within the two cities, the death rate was closer to 57.1% (Asahi Newspaper 3rd August).

The Korean population was a minority which bore the brunt of the atomic bombs. Our survey respondents acknowledged the Japanese position during the war, as shown by Okuyama Shinobu’s comments below:

I hope that at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, [the nuclear disaster at] Fukushima and the war defeat of 1945 are raised. Moreover, by showing remorse for the way Japan ruled over and colonized Asia and thereby involved Asian peoples in the war, such memories may be crucially transmitted (to the younger generation). In schools, teaching such a history will ensure that we do not wage war again.”
Okuyama Shinobu, Educator, Nagasaki

Many people around the world watched the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, and were reminded of the excitement of the sporting events, the efficient volunteers who supported the games, and observed the folk dancing which was showcased there, but none of them heard one comment during this ceremony about Hiroshima, Nagasaki.

According to Okuyama Shinobu and other respondents in our survey the Tokyo 2020 Olympic organisers missed an opportunity to reflect on memory while the world listened. Paying some attention to the stories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima about memory and resilience might have reminded viewers around the world of how even the sufferers themselves in difficult experiences remember they are not only victims of history. Listening to the voices of those who have suffered at the commemoration of Nagasaki and Hiroshima brings to the fore some other issues of silence—which should be voiced – regarding those who suffered great impacts from Japan’s victimization of Asian countries during the Pacific War, and those continuing to suffer due to the ongoing pandemic, their voices drowned out by the noise of ‘Gold, Silver and Bronze!’ Memory of difficult experience is perceived as incongruent with official narratives as dealt by the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government. Indeed, taking time to reflect on what is underneath the Olympic 2020 ‘mushroom cloud’ raises some inconvenient truths.


This is an extract from a longer article the author is currently preparing for publication with Professor Yuki Miyamoto, DePaul University, Chicago.

[1] Jack Tarrant. 2020. “Japan official says Tokyo games must be held next year “at any cost”, Reuters, September 8., (accessed 28 December, 2020).

Gwyn McClelland
Gwyn McClelland

Dr Gwyn McClelland, is a Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of New England, Armidale. His recent book is titled Dangerous Memory in Nagasaki: Prayers, Protests and Catholic Survivor Narratives.