Wednesday 16 August 1995
How do you commemorate the dropping of an atomic bomb? The tragedy calls out for something transcendent and monumental - but what? There's been plenty of fine literature and reportage, but artists have had more of a problem.
Hiroshima has been lucky (not, I suppose, a very appropriate expression) in its great public memorial: the Atomic Dome, a huge, hulking skeleton of a municipal hall, which somehow remained standing, and has been preserved at great expense ever since. In Nagasaki, the only significant building to survive was the Catholic cathedral, which in Shinto-Buddhist Japan wouldn't have been quite right. So in 1953, the powers decreed an enormous statue, 10m high, and costing several zillion yen. It's a kind of Greek god, with Chippendales-style physique, flowing hair and draped loincloth. The statue's posture is explained thus: "The elevated right hand points to the threat of nuclear weapons, while the outstretched left hand symbolises tranquillity and world peace. A prayer for the repose of the souls of all war victims is expressed in the closed eyes. Also, the folded right leg symbolises quiet meditation, while the left leg is poised for action in assisting humanity."
As you can imagine, all this makes for a pretty worried-looking statue, and critical assessments of it vary. One friend pointed out to me last week that the God of Peace bears a suspicious resemblance to Robert Mitchum in the classic 1974 gangster movie The Yakuza. To someone else it suggested a man who, after a year of constipation, finds himself on the brink of a large and satisfying bowel movement.
The Peace Parks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are littered with well-meaning monuments which, as works of art, are uniformly dismal - embarrassing concrete confections of doves, olive branches and jubilant mothers holding aloft gravity-defying infants. The difficulty seems to be one of tone: if you tackle the horrors face on, you risk being melodramatically graphic; the indirect, abstract approach usually ends up pompous and overladen.
The universal emblem of peace is, of course, the dove, large numbers of which have been symbolically liberated in the last fortnight. In Nagasaki, the assembled dignitaries were wisely shielded by canvas marquees when the doves were released, but in Hiroshima they sat in the open air, raising an exciting possibility: would one of the birds celebrate its freedom by dolloping from a great height on the Prime Minister's head? It didn't happen, but later on I discovered a sad little dove fact. A sign in the Peace Park reads: "Do not feed or touch the doves. They are dirty and carry an infectious disease."
Having spent much of the last fortnight working irregular hours in unfamiliar towns, I have become a regular patron of a little-known mainstay of Japanese life. I refer, of course, to MosBurger, a nationwide hamburger chain that can always be depended on to provide hot, nourishing offal at any of the day or night. Do not be put off by the name. Moss, or lichen of any kind, is wholly absent from the MosBurger menu. But it does include some remarkable dishes that demonstrate the famous Japanese talent for producing unique hybrids out of familiar raw materials.
MosBurger's flavour of the month is the Pizza Dog, currently being promoted in an aggressive advertising campaign. The slogan on the posters consists of the single word "Goo!", an untranslatable exclamation meaning something close to "Yum-yum". And goo is exactly what the Pizza Dog consists of: eight inches of Dayglo pink sausage, crammed in a cotton-wool bun and topped with a froth of pimento and processed cheese. Follow this up with a Rice Burger (in which the bun, not the filling, is made of sticky rice), and top it off with a fascinating dessert: a glass of dry cornflakes crowned with a small dollop of jam. All for just less than pounds 6. Can it be long before the yapping Pizza Dog is chasing Ronald McDonald and Mr Wimpy off British High Streets? Goo, goo, goo, goo.
In Zen monasteries, aspirant monks attempt to glimpse the ineffable by answering mysterious riddles put to them by their masters. They are called koan, and the most famous goes like this:
Zen master: This is the sound of two hands clapping (claps). So what is the sound of one hand clapping?
Acolyte: Mmmm. Ask me another. (Zen master beats acolyte about the head and urges him to cast off the shackles of rational thought.)
The enigmatic spirit of the koan lives on, not in the monasteries, but on Japanese T-shirts, and the incongruous English slogans that frequently adorn them. The point of the English motto is to impart an aura of cosmopolitan cool to the Japanese wearer: it's not considered important for them to make sense at all. "We are happy nature folk why not join with us in rabbit sports?" is an example I spotted recently. The classic, and a collector's item among foreign residents, is usually worn by young children. It depicts a large cuddly teddy-bear above the simple legend: Fuck Off.
But this month's favourite comes from Nagasaki, where it was being worn by a young photographer in the Peace Park. "Hello," it read, "would you like to testify with me against nuclear experiments? So, let me take a photograph of your navel?" That was Zen, but this is now.
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