This week is Golden Week in Japan, a series of three public holidays which give an almost unheard-of five days of consecutive holidays. Normally, Tokyo empties and people use this rare opportunity to get out of town and travel. This year, I did the same, jumping on a bullet train and heading for Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is on the west coast of Japan, about five hours by bullet train from Tokyo. Compared to the 13 million-odd people living in Tokyo, it’s home to a little over 1 million, and has a distinctly more laid-back feel than the capital. However, it’s difficult to talk about Hiroshima too much more without talking about the event that really defines it for most people. It’s one of the few cities in the world where the name of the city is more famous as a single event than as a city.
I wasn’t sure what to expect before visiting Hiroshima. Would the atomic bomb be a taboo subject? Not at all, as it turns out. It’s very much a centerpiece of the city, centered on this building:
The above building is called the Atomic Bomb Dome, and it’s World Heritage listed. At the time of the bombing at 8:15am on 6 August 1945, it was the pride and joy of Hiroshima, a beautifully designed regional trade hall. The A-bomb exploded 600 meters almost directly above. Since the incredible pressure and blast came from directly overhead, it was one of the few buildings to stay standing within two kilometers. All the occupants of the building were instantly killed by the intense heat, along with 80 000 in the surrounding area. By the end of 1945, 140 000 would be dead.
There was lots of debate in the following decades about whether to knock down the building and move on, or to preserve it as a memorial. As Hiroshima’s reconstruction progressed and more reminders of the horrors of that day disappeared, it was decided it should stay. It’s certainly eerie to be standing at the place of one of the most infamous events of the 20th century. It’s one thing to read statistics about death and destruction, and another to be able to see them in the context of a living, breathing city. It’s certainly something which leaves a deep impression.
The large area of Hiroshima surrounding the A-Bomb Dome, as it’s called, is devoted to the memory of the event: the 200 000 total deaths attributed to the bomb, and the ongoing effects through to the present, such as survivors affected by radiation, called hibakusha. It’s a sobmre-looking building built in the middle of a beautiful Peace Park:
The museum is full of personal effects and models to demonstrate the scale of what happened on that day. Here is Hiroshima before the bombing (the building with the green roof is the A-bomb Dome, near the centre of the explosion):
… and here it is after the bombing, with everything bar a few buildings reduced to ashes:
And here again on a bigger scale (the red orb is where the bomb detonated). It’s staggering to think that this devastation was caused by a device not much bigger than a refrigerator:
Naturally, the museum contains a great amount of factual information about the bombing. To its credit, it has a lot of extra material looking at the complex causes and effects surrounding it. It talks in fairly unvarnished terms about Japan’s militarism in the years leading up to the war, and about Japan’s aggressive acts during WWII. It also spends some time talking about the development of the atomic bomb, discussion why America may have made the decision to drop the bomb without warning, why they picked Hiroshima (it was relatively unscathed by conventional bombing and so the Allies could accurately judge the success of the new technology), how dropping the bomb was thought to give America a strategic advantage against the Soviet Union in the post-war years, and how they needed to justify the enormous manpower and material costs of the Manhattan Project. It never assigns blame or boils the whole affair down to any particular root cause, but rather presents a complex series of issues and decisions.
There are lots of personal effects of victims throughout the museum, some rather horrific in their implications of the injuries sustained by their owners. Among the most haunting, perhaps, are the watches of victims which stopped at that exact moment in history:
These days, the word you’ll notice in Hiroshima more than any other is heiwa, peace. There’s a famous story about a young girl who survived the bombing, only to be diagnosed with leukemia a few years later. To pray for her recovery, she folded over one thousand paper cranes. Sadly, she succumbed to her illness, but the paper crane has become one of the symbols of Hiroshima, with visitors bringing thousands and thousands of them each year in tribute:
While the A-bomb in some ways defines the city of Hiroshima, there’s plenty of other great things to see too, which I hope to write about soon. For a start, beautiful sunsets near rivers where paper cranes gently float: