Hiroshima may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday destination. Bearing witness to the very worst of human suffering can dampen your mood a little. But whether such tourism – like visiting Auschwitz or the Somme – is considered macabre or respectful, Hiroshima has become one of Japan’s top visitor destinations. And if we can’t learn from our past, what hope do we have for our future?
Before subjecting yourself to the horrors of war however it is possible to indulge in the more spiritual side of Japanese culture just an hour’s train and ferry journey from the city. Miyajima Island, home to the Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage site, is regarded as an Island of Gods.
With the high tide and sunset in harmony, and the great Torii gate seemingly floating on the water, it is ranked as one of the finest views in all of Japan. Too bad then that we didn’t get our timing right. We must have arrived shortly after noon and within a couple of hours had walked around the shrine, photographed the vermilion temple and the vermilion gate from every conceivable angle, eaten our ice cream and had a couple of beers, and were, by that time, a little weary. It soon became apparent that the sunset wasn’t going to be magical and we weren’t going to get that prize-winning photo. So a return to the city beckoned.
But you can’t escape the inevitable, not that Hiroshima makes any attempt to hide from its unfortunate past. The nearest streetcar stop to what other nations may have labelled something more delicate is called ‘A-Bomb Dome’. There is no way of avoiding the history that so dominates this city.
On August 6, 1945, the US dropped a uranium gun-type atomic bomb, Little Boy, on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, the US dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb, Fat Man, on Nagasaki. An estimated 90,000–146,000 people died in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians.
The A-Bomb Dome is what remains of the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, and is the most recognisable landmark in Hiroshima. Being directly beneath the bomb’s hypocentre when the bomb was detonated 600 metres overhead the building somehow survived, the heat of the blast incinerating everyone and everything inside but leaving its concrete walls and steel frame in place, albeit rather ruined. While many people wanted it removed, the powers-that-be respectfully opted to keep it as a reminder of that day. And it is magnificent in its twisted and crumbled glory. The iron frame of the dome stands naked atop the industrial red-brick and grey-concrete shell. Against the rain and gloomy March skies it forms a ghostly and melancholic silhouette; defiant and yet beaten at the same time. Tastefully lit at night, it becomes even more spectral, more haunting.
The Peace Memorial Park is located across the Motoyasu River from the A-Bomb Dome and contains some fifty or so memorials of various sizes.
Some of the displays in the Peace Memorial Museum are historic, illustrating the history of Hiroshima, the advent of the nuclear bomb, the dropping of the bomb, and the suffering it wrought upon Hiroshima’s people.
Some are harrowing – scorched clothes, shoes, spectacles and ID cards; an incinerated child’s tricycle; pictures of horrifically burned bodies; watches frozen at 8.15am.
And some are simply heroic. Successive mayors of Hiroshima have written letters of protest in response to every atomic weapons test that has taken place since, numbering over 640 by March 2013, and the last dozen or so addressed to Barack Obama, a reminder that the US continues with nuclear weapons testing to this day. Never one to be too explicit with my opinions, usually balancing those Libran scales and believing there are two sides to every story, I found myself signing a petition calling for the end of all nuclear weapons.
The walls of the subtly-lit Remembrance Hall are a panorama of the city shortly after the bombing, made up of 140,000 tiles – the number of people believed to have died as a result of the bombing. It’s a space for a moment of quiet reflection. I took a seat, put some headphones on and listened (quietly) to OMD’s Enola Gay and Deacon Blue’s He Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now. That may sound a little disrespectful, or even cheesy, but given that, prior to coming here, I probably knew more about the bombing from those two songs than any other source, it worked for me.
A bank of video screens shows photographs and profiles of those who died, giving personality and humanity to otherwise impenetrable numbers. And it relentlessly turns over to new faces. And over. And over.
Personal stories abound. The one that dampened my eye, commemorated at the Children’s Peace Memorial, was that of a 12-year old schoolgirl, Sadako Sasaki, who developed leukaemia. Japanese folklore has it that folding 1,000 paper cranes will cure a person of sickness. She set about folding her paper cranes but died before she could finish. Her classmates picked up the task, and folded the remainder in her memory, creating a legacy that is continued to this day as a symbol of peace.
Other memorials include a clock set to 8.15 (“…and that’s the time that it’s always been…” OMD’s Enola Gay again), an eternal flame that will burn until all nuclear weapons are destroyed, and a mound made of ashes of those who were cremated in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.
And while the young girl’s story – and numerous others – set my bottom lip aquiver, the whole experience was not as upsetting as I’d expected. Tuol Sleng in Cambodia affected me more. After a while there’s a feeling of it being holier than thou, as if the Japanese were the only ones wronged by the Second World War, when they were of course guilty of some of the worst excesses. Visit museums dedicated to the Rape of Nanking or Burma’s Death Railway and the perception may be slightly different. To their credit the museum does acknowledge Japan’s culpability for various acts of war, and the deaths of many conscripted Koreans in Hiroshima, but you have to look hard to find it.
It’s not about keeping score, but estimates for Hiroshima and Nagasaki put the combined number of casualties at around 200,000. Estimates for the Nanking massacre alone are similar. And another 180,000 or so died on the railways in Burma and Thailand.
At the end of the day, those two bombs effectively ended the Second World War, prevented the loss of God knows how many more lives of all nationalities, and if it’s made the current generation of Japanese a more peaceful people than their some-time barbarous forefathers then maybe some good can come out of something so atrocious. For while Hiroshima immediately became synonymous with the horror of nuclear war, it is now a hard-earned symbol of peace.
The Peace Memorial Park is not all doom and gloom; it’s a pleasantly green and grassy park playing host in spring-time to family gatherings enjoying the hanami, cherry-blossom viewing. But aside from the park, a few memorable whisky bars and the world’s shortest escalator (just seven steps), that is more or less it for the city of Hiroshima (although it does also have a castle which we didn’t visit).
In truth, Hiroshima is a little one-dimensional. Its tragic past has become its primary legacy.
Lest we forget.