Hiroshima—a City of Hope?

Text and Photos by Vivienne Mackie

Hiroshima. The name evokes images of a huge mushroom cloud; of destruction, death, dust, rubble; of dead, dying, and dreadfully wounded people.

A few stark remains of the almost total destruction of the city—the A-Bomb Dome, a few A-Bomb trees—do exist. Even the hypocenter is marked only by a plaque. But, except for these, the city has rebuilt and the modern city shows little of that fateful day, August 6, 1945.

Of course, the museum has documentation of the A-Bomb blast—the development of atomic energy, the lead-up to the decision to target Hiroshima, the record of events of that day and the aftermath, the fact that this was the beginning of the nuclear age. The visitor gets a visceral jolt when viewing many of the graphic photos and the mementoes full of pathos. But, one of the main purposes of the museum is a plea for peace, a hope that such a horror will not be repeated, a hope that by documenting that day we can all learn from these events. In fact, the whole city, the symbol of the complete annihilation by a nuclear weapon, has become a city of peace and disarmament, attracting peace organizations and summits. The Hiroshima Interpreters’ and Guides’ Association was established in 1992 to provide services for conferences, and the Hiroshima Peace Institute was founded in 1998 as part of Hiroshima University. The mayor of Hiroshima is the president of the international Mayors for Peace. Whenever a nation tests a nuclear weapon, the acting mayor sends a letter to the leaders of that nation expressing deep dismay.

Almost everything related to the atomic blast is concentrated in and around the Peace Park, on an island between the Motoyasu and Honkawa Rivers, two of the seven rivers in Hiroshima.

Start at the pivotal Aioi Bridge shaped like a letter ‘T’. The long arm crosses the river and from the center of that a shorter arm crosses to the tip of the island. This T-bridge was the target for the dropping of the bomb, and in fact the hypocenter is only a couple of blocks off, marked simply on a single stone plaque on the wall where once stood the Shima Hospital. This is Ground Zero at Hiroshima—the Uranium-235 atomic bomb exploded about 600 meters directly above this very spot. These days, it is on a small side street surrounded by car parking buildings and offices.

Next to the bridge on the riverbank is the A-Bomb Dome. When you first see this structure it’s hard to comprehend that this is the spot where 65 years ago a single bomb almost completely destroyed an entire city, and killed some 80,000 people directly, with a further 60,000 dying by the end of 1945 due to burns, trauma and radiation exposure.

Wander past the A-Bomb Dome (the “Genbaku Domu” in Japanese), its dome now a latticed skeleton, which has been strengthened with steel beams. It has become a symbol of the atomic bomb blast and an international committee was formed to actively preserve it. It stands as it was after the explosion, a symbol of devastation in the midst of a beautiful city. This building, which was the Industrial Promotion Hall at the time, is 150 meters from the hypocenter and apparently survived partially intact because it was so near the hypocenter that the blast came down on its roof rather than against the sides of the walls. Even though a large part of it remained standing, the blast caved in the roof and everything inside ignited immediately from the 4000 C fireball, of course killing everyone inside instantly.

Move on to the Memorial for the Mobilized Students nearby. In a totally different way to the defiant remains of the A-Bomb Dome, this memorial makes us stop and ponder on the meaning of life and death: This reminds us of all those young lives lost, of all that potential gone. During WWII more than three million Japanese students over age 12 were mobilized to help with various war efforts. More than 10,000 were killed, including some 6,300 by the A-Bomb. This ferro-concrete tower, with an unusual design that widens as it rises, was built by families and friends of all those students (see above, right). The day we were there, a group of Australian high school students were visiting with their teachers. They carefully placed many strings of origami paper cranes, in different sizes and colors, which they’d made and carried from Australia.

The story of these paper cranes in the Peace Park is actually linked to a young girl named Sadako Sasaki, who survived the blast but later died of leukemia. In Japan, tradition says that if you make 1,000 cranes your wish will be granted, or there will be a happy ending to a project. Sadako’s wish was world peace and her recovery, and when she became ill, she believed/hoped that if she folded 1,000 cranes she would recover. She only managed to fold 644 before her death, but her classmates finished the project and she was buried with the 1,000 cranes. Still today, young people bring strings of paper cranes to both memorials to young people:  Sadako’s Memorial on the island (actually called the Children’s Peace Monument), and  the Memorial for the Mobilized Students. The strings of cranes are draped in the open on the Mobilized Students’ Memorial, but at Sadako’s Memorial the millions of strings are preserved in glass cases.

Cross the river on the Motoyasu Bridge onto the island and Peace Memorial Park, with the Children’s Peace Monument (unofficially called Sadako’s Memorial). Most of the monuments, memorials and towers are on the north part of the island, in the large green park setting, all beautifully tended. We thought that one of the most touching is this Children’s Peace Monument, especially when you know the story of Sadako Sasaki, who inspired it. You can read Eleanor Coerr’s children’s book, “Sadako & The Thousand Paper Cranes” for the full story. There is a bell that many people, including many young kids, come and ring and then bow. Rather touching.

Wander round the park, noting the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound and the Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims of the A-Bomb. Go past the Peace Fountain, Flame of Peace and the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb victims. Below the Cenotaph is the Peace Memorial Hall, with photos, memoirs and stories of the A-Bomb victims. The Hall of Remembrance offers a solemn space for mourning and contemplation.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the park is the Peace Memorial Museum —if such an event can have a highlight. The entrance fee into the museum is only 50 yen, a token really, but so many thousands pass through that it must add up very quickly. It’s a sobering, thought-provoking place and the thousands of visitors from all over the world are generally quite quiet, unlike in many other types of museums.

In the museum, which has extended into two linked buildings, the story told along its walls and passages with photos, videos, text and artifacts is pretty comprehensive, beginning with the history of the city before the bombing, the lead-up to the war (not overlooking Japan’s own part), to the actual day and finally the horrific after-effects. There is also lots of information about nuclear weapons in general, how they were developed, how they work, what type was used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which countries have them, who is suspected of having them and how many they currently have. The museum makes several pleas to the world to ban nuclear weapons and band together in peace. To achieve that, it might be a good idea if all children—future leaders—from around the world visited Hiroshima Peace Park and the museum, as many displays make a huge impression. For example, at the entrance is a watch that stopped at precisely 8:15am, the time of the bomb. You see the actual stone steps where a human shadow was etched in stone, and a wooden wall with a shadow of a soldier and ladder. In each case, the surface was turned white-ish by the intense heat rays but the place where the person was, was left dark. There are numerous personal items found at various distances from the hypocenter, such as: torn, burned and bloodied clothing, and pictures of victims with burns patterned on their bodies, depending on the color of the fabric—the heat rays burned the dark part of the fabric onto the skin; children’s metal school lunch boxes with charred food still inside; a charred toddler’s tricycle; and disturbing aftermath photos of victims and their surroundings.

There is way too much information to absorb in one visit so we decided to buy the museum book to peruse later, called “The Spirit of Hiroshima”.

Outside, on the ground floor, facing the park, is a small café where tea, coffee, or a soda is most welcome when coming out of the museum. It’s facing the so-called Phoenix tree; one that seemed dead from the blast, but grew again. There are a number of A-Bomb trees around the city, some in their original position, some that have been moved—all a miracle.

If you have time (and energy by then!), stroll up to the Hiroshima Castle, also known as Ri-Jo or “Carp Castle”, in its huge park, enclosed by a moat. It was destroyed by the blast, but rebuilt in 1958 and is very attractive, as a “typical Japanese” castle. In the grounds are the remains of other destroyed buildings—previous castle administration offices—of which we can just see the outline of the foundations. Another reminder of the recent history here.

Then catch a taxi back into the city for an okonomiyaki dinner—a real Hiroshima specialty and treat! (See here for information on Okonomiyaki: http://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2010/10/24/yumm-okonomiyaki/ ). In the city you realize that the population of Hiroshima has moved on from that tragic day. Once you leave the park, it’s not too difficult to put the dark history out of your mind and just appreciate this city for what it is today: a thriving modern city.

A book to read is “Hiroshima” by John Hersey (Penguin, 1946). This is a reporter’s account of the bombing and its aftermath. A stark story.

More information at www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp : click on the English button, top right.