Hiroshima was the most thought provoking and challenging experience of my time in Japan. It is the experience that I would keep above all others, and recommend to anyone in this neck of the woods. But it was not comfortable.
There is a disjointed feeling of apprehension when arriving as a Briton. An echo of responsibility. Hiroshima is spacious, leafy, and new, like most Japanese cities. There are marquees up for what looks like a food fair, and hundreds of school kids walking about with bows taller than they are (presumably a kyudo tournament). Lune is waiting in the city centre, we grab pastries and coffee, then go to dump our bags. Hiroshima seems lovely, and I end up thinking “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer city”, which is sort of perverse but instinctive. People are friendly, the air is relaxed, and school orchestras play by the riverside.
The sign in our path reads “Atomic Bomb Dome”. This jars the eyes a little, and I do an unconscious double-take. There is something ridiculous about seeing those famous words, indelibly linked to devastation, in a whirring urban area. It was the nearest structure to the hypocentre to be left standing (just under a kilometre away), apparently because the blast was almost directly above, so the walls were forced down rather than sideways. The dome is a beautifully wretched skeleton of iron, painted in flaking pink and bowed to one side. It sits on a central cylinder of concrete, which is immaculate except for a network of thin white veins, which could be heat or restoration work. The building was nearly demolished like all the other concrete shells left after the blast (all the wooden buildings collapsed or burnt), but eventually it was designated as a memorial, and will be restored in perpetuity as a monument to peace. Nearby is the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, which was the target for the bomb. Children run and jump off the granite information slabs, and a man persuades two remarkably well behaved sausage dogs to pose in the foreground as he photographs the dome. There is a blue sky, and brilliant sunlight, but the place still feels dark. Some information on the bomb in booklets and on posters has been placed there by an elderly man who has a happy smile and a baseball cap. The writing explains that he was in the womb when the bomb went off, and I get the impression he comes here often. There is a clay roof tile which has a rough surface with glossy black bubbles, melted by the heat rays. It feels coarse and cold.
Hiroshima Peace Park occupies the former site of a vanished neighbourhood, on an oval island which is reached by the vertical stroke of the “T”. There is a peace flame, which I assume to be eternal but find that it will be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon on earth is destroyed. I hope there’s a difference. There are a number of memorials devoted to different groups who lost their lives: the students mobilized to clear a fire corridor that morning, the children, and, embarrassingly late (erected in 1970, moved into the park in 1999), the forced Korean labourers. An amorphous mound covers the ash which they couldn’t identify. School kids in coloured caps and shorts trot after their teachers, bowing at each memorial, carrying reams of paper cranes. The cranes are for the Children’s Memorial, which was inspired by the death of Sadako Sasaki. Sadoko was two when the bomb went off, and was healthy until the age of 11 when she, like many children from Hiroshima, developed leukaemia. It was said that if you fold 1000 paper cranes then the gods will grant your wish. Sadoko had little paper, so used bandages and the wrapping paper from the get well gifts of others. Accounts differ as to whether she got there or not, but agree on the end of the story. Around the Children’s Memorial there are Perspex cuboids absolutely stuffed with these cranes, hanging on strings or arranged into mosaics. I wonder what happens to the cranes after their time is up. Is there a huge warehouse somewhere, filled with boxes upon boxes of them? Do they float them on the river? Throw them in a fire?
The peace museum is a glass fronted concrete shoebox on stilts, and about as inoffensive as a public building from the 50s can be. It costs 30p, because they want everyone to see it. The museum is fairly balanced, and first tells the story of Japanese imperialism in the first half of the 20th century. It covers the war with Russia, the annexation of Korea, and the invasion of China, including the rape of Nanjing. It also notes every time a new military unit or structure is created in Hiroshima, which happens faster and faster in a crescendo up to a stopped watch.
8 16 am.
There is a TV loop playing shots of the foliage around Hiroshima whilst a survivor describes the sky opening. First she mentions her breakfast, clothes, and the weather. The sky was almost perfectly clear and pure blue. Opposite loops the footage of Enola Gay, taking off and flying towards the target. This cuts to the rising cloud; the footage shaking despite the fact the plane was by now around 10km away. Between them lies a model of the city, stuffed with matchstick houses. The wall shows a panorama of the view afterwards. It is filthy and hollow. Nothing lighter than the grey of ash is visible. Concrete shells hunker over amorphous debris.
The most heartening thing about the Hiroshima bombing is the response of its people. People came in from the surrounding region to help the wounded, which was crucial as almost all of the medical staff were incinerated in the hospital. The fallout meant that these rescuers suffered radiation sickness for payment. Debris clearance began immediately. The first streetcar resumed three days afterwards. On the first anniversary of the blast, when people were still suffering from radiation sickness, and rebuilding their homes, Hiroshima began campaigning for peace. Imagine another country killing half the people in your city, then a year later asking for reconciliation. It is as if they saw the true face of war, and rejected it unthinkingly, instinctively.
A wall is plastered with the protest letters that Hiroshima mayors send in response to every nuclear weapons test. Over 600 so far, and four this year, including a couple to the recipient of the world’s first ever pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize. A mayor of Hiroshima has set up a global network of mayors calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons (check for your city here http://www.mayorsforpeace.org/english/membercity/europe/united_kingdom.html). Every year there is a peace festival on the day of the bomb. They add the names of hibakushas (bomb victims) who have died in the past year to the coffin at the main memorial, and float coloured paper lanterns down the river, into the darkness.
The first section covers the concepts, the build-up, and the aftermath. We walk past a burned horse carcass, over a bridge to the main building, which contains information about what happened to the people of Hiroshima. Later I realize this is because after you hear about what an atom bomb does to people you can’t really think straight. A dark brick corridor leads to a map of the city after the blast, with the fireball after one second hanging above. Human models show survivors creeping through the wreckage, clothes torn, forearms at 90 degrees. This is because the skin on their forearms is hanging off in tatters, presumably from shielding their eyes against the light. All the horrible articles are here, which have now become almost clichéd. In the flesh they are weighty and shocking.
Glasses melted together. Rooftiles with bubbles that look like human eyes. A human shadow on the steps of the bank. A child’s tin lunchbox filled with foamy charcoal. Fragments of skin and nail that a victim carried home before dying. The dark patterns on a girls kimono burnt into her back (dark colours absorbed more heat). A rusty tricycle. The dead child’s dad had buried his son and his favourite toy in the garden, because he felt he wasn’t old enough to be buried far away in the family grave. Reading this is heartbreaking. Decades later, he moved his son’s remains and gave the tricycle to the museum. The most shocking thing is reading the stories of individuals besides their clothing, which is torn and stained dark. They are uniforms, and look sort of like pajamas. The general narrative is this: person X was working at place Y, suffered 50-90% burns, wandered home as there was nowhere to go (the hospitals were gone), and died after Z days of suffering. What hits home are the individual details; the things which make you see them as people rather than 1 in 140000. After five you realize this is too many, and see those vaporized as the lucky ones. The death toll for Hiroshima is 140000, but only half of them died immediately. The other 70000 (those that died by December 1945) died slowly and painfully due to burns or radiation sickness or both.
With almost cruel thoroughness, the next section describes the long term effects of the radiation. A firestorm burnt through what was left of the city centre and the people there. The radioactive ash spiralled up into the sky and fell back as black rain 30 minutes later. People were suffering from smoke inhalation. Most of the clean water had been disappeared when the bomb went off. Those not drinking the pus from their burns blisters could look forward to the black water in puddles. A mother’s diary records what happened to her seven and five year old children. Their appetite vanished first, then their hair. They began vomiting, and passing blood. Teeth fell out. Eventually her younger son died after around a month and her older daughter survived. People’s skin grew into strange lumps, and 20 years later their eyes were still growing cataracts. Trying to block out what they had seen. The Americans set up a station to monitor, but not treat, the radiation sickness and the cancers that followed. They chose not to share this information with the Japanese doctors treating people. Children born after exposure in the womb suffered from microcephaly, and require extensive help to survive. They were innocent.
The last panel is a picture of the first plants to grow after the blast. We emerge wet-eyed, blinking, stunned, wretched. The peace park stretches below us, and a neatly dressed security guard thanks us for coming. The walls on the way out contain drawings by hibakushas, showing the attack as they remember it. One woman draws a column of dishevelled people dressed in rags, shambling past fire and holding their arms like zombies due to the skin tatters. Her caption says that what most affected her was that they were silent, and stumbled towards nowhere, stunned, like wounded dumb animals. There are visitor’s books for notable visitors. Gorbachev has been, but no US president. No UK prime minister as far as I can see. The queen has turned up. An American diplomat has hurriedly scrawled one line: “with utmost sympathies” which really pisses me off. The people sitting above the buttons that control all these terrifying weapons should see what they do to the little people.
For a few years I have hated nuclear bombs, and felt that there is never a morally justifiable occasion to use them, but here everything is amplified. I begin to feel incoherent anger, and injustice, and sad that children are born into a world such as this one. This all sounds a bit whiney and teenage, but it doesn’t feel that way, if you know what I mean. In Hiroshima you are not able to imagine what it was like, as such, but you can begin to realise just how far you are from being able to imagine it. You have to start climbing Everest to understand how high the summit is.
The inscription on the memorial cenotaph reads “Let all the souls here rest in peace; for we shall not repeat this evil”.
Very upset, we left, and Hiroshima was beautiful and the sun was shining and children were playing on the grass. That was something, at least.