So we went to Hiroshima.
Yeah, the place where the A-bomb struck. That’s pretty much the only reason anyone knows about this city. Which is really sad, when you think about it.
We took a bullet train south, from Odawara to Osaka to Hiroshima (it wasn’t be choice, it was very expensive and we weren’t pleased) and marveled at the smooth ride and flashing scenery.
The next morning we went out to see the sights. The two biggest things to see in Hiroshima are Hiroshima Castle and the Peace Park and Memorial. We easily did both of those in one day.
As we walked through the city, I was slightly nervous at the reception we might get as Americans. A year ago we talked to an Australian couple who stayed in Nagasaki and said they once had to pull out their passports to prove they weren’t American before the restaurant would serve them lunch. To be honest, I can’t really blame the restaurant.
So far, our trip through Japan had been wonderful (transportation issues aside), and we’d met some of the kindest, friendliest people. I talked with a Japanese girl who’d just returned form a three-month stint of travel in the States and mentioned how much it meant to her when Obama visited Hiroshima. “It made my heart move,” she said. Japan and the US have great foreign relations, and that extends to the everyday people, not just the government. Frankly, it’s amazing how much brutal history we’ve both been able to set aside in the past 70 years.
But in Hiroshima, no one batted an eye when learning we were American. I think Obama’s visit in May smoothed our way through the city, which I was grateful for. Still, as we walked, I wondered what it was like to live in a city known for tragedy. It’s only been 71 years. As beautiful as this thriving city is (and it really is a great city), 71 years is no time at all when you consider collective history and shared narratives of people groups. For example: one of their bus stops is called “the A-bomb dome.” What a burden that must be.
The peace park, museum, and memorial are set up just a few hundred meters from the hypocenter of where the bomb struck. At one end is the museum (200 yen per person), at the other, the one building that survived the nuclear weapon. In between is the ever-burning flame of peace, which will burn until nuclear weapons have been banned, the children’s memorial with a statue of Sadako and her cranes, a Korean memorial, and more.
The A-bomb was dropped at 8:15 on August 6, 1945. It instantly killed 80,000 people. Over 6,000 of those where middle school children in the city center working to create firebreaks. About 20,000 were Korean slave laborers the Japanese had brought over to work in factories for the war effort. Twelve were American prisoners of war. It is very difficult to gauge the death toll, but the museum estimated about 350,000 people died from the bombs and radiation afterward.
The bomb was detonated a little more than 600 meters above ground for maximum damage. While the city was used to air raids and bombers coming through, they stood still when the atom bomb was dropped. Three airplanes went past, dropping the bomb and two parachutes. Curious, people watched instead of fleeing for shelter.
The heat of the bomb was around 1 million degrees centigrade at its center. The heat of the explosion twisted steel, melted concrete, incinerated flesh and bones, and left only shadows of people behind. The few that survived were mostly 1km away from the hypocenter. They stumbled through the streets, some diving into the river, with their skin melting off their body. A few made it home, only to find their homes destroyed by fire and wind, even up to 4 kms away from the hypocenter. Others died, trapped in burning buildings.
Children ringing the peace bell together.
Those that survived the initial blast died 1-20 days later from radiation. No one knew what was happening. No one understood radiation, and many hospitals were destroyed in the blast. Few images exist of the first day after the bomb. One photographer went into the city to document, but was shocked by the thousands of corpses amidst the rubble, and could only take five photos before leaving. He later died of radiation poisoning.
This dome building, the peace memorial, was the closest surviving building to the epicenter. It was left just as the bomb ravaged it, with twisted steel rebar running through the interior.Known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, it was only 160 meters from the hypocenter. Everyone inside died instantly.
Hiroshima was a military city–it had been for many years before WWII, and the 5th division of the army was stationed there. That, coupled with the fact that there was nothing left of Tokyo to destroy, was why the American military chose Hiroshima as its target.
We wandered through the museum, looking a couple of gruesome mannequins and the few remains of a few of the people who died. A charred lunchbox sat on one end, the only thing that a mother found after combing through her the rubble of her son’s school for three days. There wasn’t enough of a body left to bury, let alone identify. A burnt and twisted tricycle was displayed in another corner, evidence of a four-year-old’s death. Artwork adorned the walls, showing women covered in black rain, digging through their burning homes to pull their children to safety. There is so much more I could tell you.
It was horrific. I had an audio guide which gave the testimonies of these things, and I had to skip through it. After two narratives I almost broke down in the middle of the exhibit, and I didn’t think that would be respectful of the Japanese’ story. “White tears” wasn’t something I wanted to cry when faced with the overwhelming, incomprehensible violence and loss of this city.
After the bombing, people believed nothing could grow there again for 75 years. It’s only been 71, to put that into perspective.
At the end of the exhibit was a display of photos of world leaders who had visited the museum and center. Front and center was Pres. Obama’s visit in May. It was obvious how special and healing the visit was for the Japanese people.
At the end were discussion books, places for people to express their thoughts and feelings. I thought this was very touching, since going through an intense experience of the museum really does churn a lot of emotions and concerns up. You can see what I wrote in the bottom right of the page.
Elsewhere in the park, a memorial was erected to remember the lives of Koreans who died far from their home in the atomic blast.
Once out in the park, we were approached by several groups of middle schoolers who were there on assignment.
“We have studied English for five years and have questions for you. Can we ask you questions?” Five inquired, blushing and giggling behind their notebooks.
“Of course,” Jordan and I responded.
“Where are you from?”
“The United States,” we said, a little uncomfortable with that fact.
“Oh, wow!” They grinned at one another, excited. “So why are you here?”
“To learn. It is important we learn about bad things in the past so we don’t repeat them. Especially the Japanese and the Americans,” I said.
“What do you think of a bombs?”
“They are bad,” Jordan answered.
“And of Hiroshima?”
“Very, very, very sad.” I said, trying to keep words simple for them. “So many people. So sad.”
“Thank you for your time,” the oldest said. “Here are two cranes. You know about the cranes?”
We nodded and accepted beautiful origami cranes from them.
After they left, we wandered around the park some more. Although the mood was a little somber, most people seemed stoic. We passed one or two people were were crying on the steps (I felt like joining them).
I’ve been to difficult places before–not Auswitz, but the Killing Fields in Cambodia and a museum on human rights in Chile. I’ve been to Pearl Harbor. Those were difficult. But this was different. It was much harder to walk through the park knowing my country caused these deaths. And yes, it was war, and by definition war is terrible and brutal and deadly, but these were innocents.
The visit was difficult and uncomfortable at times and absolutely heartbreaking, but I strongly suggest everyone visit Hiroshima if they get the chance. Especially Americans.
To end on a lighter note, here’s a photo of Hiroshima castle. It was originally built in the late 16th century, destroyed by the bombing, and rebuilt.
A tree in the courtyard, less than 1 km away from the hypocenter, survived the bomb. That tree gave the Japanese hope that one day, they could rebuild, that Hiroshima would be a city of peace once again. And they did.