There are days that start out confronting, challenging and emotionally disturbing, yet something compels you to press on, regardless. It was this kind of day when I set out to explore the city of Hiroshima.
Hiroshima today is a bustling, cosmopolitan town of over a 1.2 million people. In comparison to other Japanese cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo, it is spacious, well laid out with a modern downtown, distinguished by the weather-friendly covered shopping walkways off the main streets. Tramcar buses run the length of these main streets, making this an easy and accessible city to enjoy, only 2.5 hours from Tokyo via Shinkansen (bullet train).
If history had been different, Hiroshima might be known today as a centuries-old castle town, distinguished by its grand boulevards, gentle, flowing canals and crisscrossing, elegant bridges. Instead, it is now known the world over for what occurred at 8.15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. It was then that the first atomic bomb was used in an act of war. The bomb was dropped by the U.S.’s Enola Gay aircraft, and detonated 580 meters above the Shima Hospital in the Saiku-machi precinct of Hiroshima.
This terrible legacy is poignantly presented by the city in the beautiful statues, memorials and museums within the tranquil surroundings of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Skeletal remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall still stubbornly stand, despite the fact the streets around it were reduced to unrecognizable rumble. A simple black and white photo, dated October 1945, drives this terrible point home. It is reproduced as part of the historical marker next to the building, and is evidence that this world heritage site has been expertly preserved in its damaged yet still standing condition. This is now known as “The A-Bomb Dome” in honor of the exposed steel supports that capture the shape of the destroyed, dome-like feature of the building. For the Japanese, it is also a symbol of the resilience of the people of Hiroshima, who remain standing despite the terrible destruction that befell their city.
A simple memorial is tucked away just a few hundred meters from the A-Bomb Dome to honor the first victims of the atomic bomb. They were the workers who were out in the open that morning, doing the backbreaking work of clearing firebreaks around previously bombed buildings. But these were not Japanese soldiers or adult laborers, but young junior high school students and forced laborers. In the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a small display tells the anguish of the mother of one of these children. She recalls her daughter’s typical teenage plea of illness that morning, trying to avoid going to her assigned worksite. Having to later witness her daughters agonizing and painful death from burns received in the bombing, the mother laments her words of encouragement to her daughter to do her part for her country, rather than allowing her to stay at home that fateful day.
Children feature heavily in the displays and memorials that make up the precinct of the Peace Memorial Park. For in addition to this memorial, a touching statue to the most famous of child victims of the blast, Sadako, stands here. Her name may not be familiar, but the story of her paper cranes is known worldwide. A victim of leukemia approximately a decade after the bombing, she decided to fold 1,000 paper cranes, hoping to receive her wish of recovery. Sadly, she died before reaching her goal. But other children from Japan and all over the world took up her challenge and finished the cranes after her death. To this day, cranes continue to be made in Sadako’s memory.
At the base of the statue, glass-encased display booths hold the colorful cranes that continue to arrive daily from school groups and youth clubs from every corner of the globe. This rainbow of color is a joyful display to a courageous little girl who, although long gone, continues to aspire the youth of today to the simple word picked out in cranes in one of the countless offerings within the booths — “Peace.”
But children were not the only victims of the blast. The victims were soldiers and civilians, citizens of Japan and its enemies, the aged and the yet unborn. Whether they died on August 6, 1945, or in the following years, their names are added annually to the records held within the crypt that borders the reflective pool surrounding an eternal flame. This memorial appears in the sweeping boulevard leading up to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
In this museum, along with historical records, photos and displays of Hiroshima both before and after the bombing are pitiful displays of burnt personal belongings and the stories of their owners. A scorched school book, a damaged watch, a burnt cloth bag or a lone, blackened button sit along side a short story of the victim, their family and the repeated tragic tale of an agonizing and painful death without access to medical help or comfort.
There are few photographs of the immediate carnage. Those who did record a few images in the immediate hours and days after the bombing tell of the sheer horror that they witnessed that day – images too difficult and painful to record on camera.
The city of Hiroshima takes its position as the world’s reminder of the impact of nuclear and atomic devastation with a resigned yet unwavering commitment. This is no more visible than in the paneled floor-to-ceiling wall display within one corner of the memorial museum.
Each time a government anywhere in the world conducts a nuclear test; the Mayor of Hiroshima sends a letter of protest to that nation’s leader on behalf of his/her citizens. The letters always end with this statement: “It is our sincere hope that this letter of protest is the last that we will need to send.” Over the last five decades this ritual has been carried out with alarming regularity, with the history of nuclear testing on this planet captured in these simple letters of protest. It is these letters that make up the panels on this telling and continually growing mosaic on the walls of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
IF YOU GO
Japan National Tourist Organization