Hiroshima, Japan

by - February 27, 2014

The Bomb Dome
Some cities, no matter what else they have to offer and what else they may have made of themselves, will always be indelibly related to certain events. Hiroshima is perhaps top of these places, a city of 1.2 million people which will always be tied to the United States atomic bomb attack – the first of only two occasions in human history where full-scale nuclear weapons have been used.  The journey from Osaka was on the famous bullet train and took just an hour and a half (which is impressive when you look at the map), allowing us to get up early and arrive before 10.  While there is no subway in Hiroshima, an equally efficient ‘streetcar’ system operates and links the station with the city centre.

Monument Inside the Peace Park
Our plan was to go straight to the Atomic Bomb Peace Park, the area close to the epicentre of the blast which is now entirely dedicated to museums and memorials about the bombing.  The first thing that you see is the so-called ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’, which is an iconic building that incredibly survived the attack almost intact. For all of the structural engineers who might be reading this, the preservation of the building was, amazingly, because the bomb detonated almost directly overhead and therefore only exposed the structure to vertical loading, which the columns of the buildings could withstand – whereas surrounding structures were struck with a horizontal stress of an enormous 19 tons per square metre.  The occupants of the building were obviously killed by the heat and radiation however and the structure did take considerable damage – leading to a debate about whether to knock it down or keep it as an iconic, though painful, reminder of the attack.  The latter argument prevailed and now it stands, spookily empty, between modern buildings.
The aftermath

A replica of the bomb itself
From the dome, we made our way into the Peace Park itself, walking past several memorials to different groups - students, Korean slave-labourers (who were 1 in 10 of the victims) and others, and also saw the memorial flame which is set to keep burning until the world is free of nuclear weapons. At the end of the park is the museum – a must visit site for anybody who comes to Hiroshima.  The museum is split into two wings.  The first of these is rather dry and is dedicated to the history of the city as well as the military build up to the bombing.  For me, the highlight of the first wing was a copy of the letters of condemnation which every mayor of Hiroshima has sent to international leaders (from George Bush to Kim-Jung Il) every time that they have tested a nuclear weapon since the Hiroshima attack – there are 609 letters, the last of which is addressed to Barack Obama from October of this year.

A watch stopped by the blast
Where the first wing is relatively dry however, the second wing is brutally real.  The wing has been designed around a mock-up of the city immediately after the attack, with low orange lighting, piles of rubble and dilapidated buildings.  The centre of the room is a model of the city after the bomb exploded which argued that the bomb was, for a very short period of time, the equivalent of a second sun existing 600 metres above the city – which really puts the carnage into perspective.  The exhibits are truly haunting, make difficult viewing and include the following (amongst many, many others):
  • The flaked skin and finger nails that were the only remains of a small boy – kept by his mother to show his father who had been fighting at the front.
  • The shadow on a stone wall of a person who had been standing by it – forever burned into the stone by the blast.
  • A schoolboy’s metal lunchbox with the charred food still inside.
  • The story of a young girl who survived the explosion and lived for ten years perfectly healthily, only to later contract leukaemia. She believed that if she could fold 1000 origami cranes (a Japanese symbol of revival), she would get better. She died before she reached that figure but her story was broadcast to the nation, causing the Japanese population to begin a national drive to fold origami cranes – which are now found all over the memorial area.
  • Photos of the burns, mutations and scars suffered by victims – one of the most striking of which for me in terms of the effects of radiation was the photo of a man’s hand, which had been resting on his windowsill when the blast occurred, exposing the tips of his fingers to radiation and causing his finger nails to grow black and curled (as well as faster) for the rest of his life.
The bomb was the equivalent power of a second sun sitting in the position shown

At the end of the exhibit there is a petition, set up by the mayor of Hiroshima, to protest against the continued testing of nuclear weapons – which has half a million signatures, now including my own.  Keen to not just come to Hiroshima to see the legacy of the bomb, we then spent a few hours strolling around the rest of the city, the highlight of which was Hiroshima castle.  Built in the same style as the one in Osaka (and like the one in Osaka, a remake but for totally different reasons), the castle and the surrounding fortifications and park were actually very beautiful and are definitely worthy of being tourist sights in their own respect.  In the mid afternoon we made our way back to the station and then travelled on two bullet trains on to Tokyo, via Osaka, where we would be staying for the next three nights.
Hiroshima Castle

The black rain on a paper wall
Hiroshima was a harrowing place to visit and is obviously the location of an unspeakable tragedy.  However it is very different to some of the other sites of human tragedies that I had visited, such as Auschwitz in Poland, the Killing Fields in Cambodia or Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan.  In all of these three cases, the tragedy was pure genocide, committed by an authoritarian regime against its own people, or people that they had subjugated.  There can be no excuse whatsoever for Auschwitz, or the Killing Fields or Halabja - it was pure, industrial-scale murder.  In Hiroshima however, there is slightly more of a debate - not of whether it was a tragedy or not (every death is a tragedy), but whether it was totally unjustified.  150,000 people are estimated to have died in or as a result of the bombing, the vast majority of whom were civilians.  But then, thousands of civilians died on both sides in World War Two - think of Dresden or the Blitz, not to mention the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.  Hiroshima therefore, to me, represents the absolute horror and folly of war itself - a horror that is subtly different to that in the three terrible places mentioned above which were the sights of tragedies that occurred separate to war.  I think that the citizens and government of Hiroshima have realised that and this is why there is no sense of vengeance in the city - they have acknowledged that the ‘tit-for-tat’ of war, that began with Pearl Harbour and ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can only be countered by support for pure, unadulterated peace and in that sense I left the city with far more sense of faith in humanity than I did in Auschwitz, the Killing Fields or Halabja.

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