After spending an afternoon with the fishes in Osaka, we jumped on a Shinkansen for the short ninety minute journey to Hiroshima, where we planned to visit the Hiroshima Peace Park.
Hiroshima is an industrial city that sits on the south coast of Japan’s Honshu island. Traditionally an industrial city with a purported reputation for being a bit “rough around the edges”, Hiroshima is home to some of Japan’s biggest brand names such as Mazda cars. The city is unexpectedly easy to like, with a feeling of space and room to breathe. As well as the Peace Park, the city centre is interwoven with seven wide, placid rivers and a mixture of open boulevards, glass tower blocks and gritty food shacks selling okonomiyaki.
But if you say “Hiroshima” to someone, their first thought is unlikely to be of industry or delicious noodle pancake stacks. Their first thoughts are likely to turn to the 6th of August 1945 – whether they could consciously name the date or not – when a bomb going by the deceptive moniker of “Little Boy” was dropped six hundred metres above the city.
The impact of the explosion is hard to envisage, although the aftermath is well documented. A fireball spread at a speed of nearly 1,000mph, causing a field of destruction that spread nearly 4km across. Nearly all within a 1.2km radius of the blast died: some were vaporised without trace by the 3,000 degree temperatures, others within a few days from uranium radiation poisoning. The total death count by the end of the year stood at 140,000 souls, although the numbers continued to stack up for years after as hideous aftereffects such as stillbirths and cancers claimed their victims.
I had a tenuous grasp of these facts before arriving in Hiroshima, but a day exploring the Hiroshima Peace Park and museum was an unexpected reality check. I had known but, at the same time, I had understood nothing.
We arrived at the Hiroshima Peace Park on a gloomy day – the sky a nondescript grey colour with no warmth in the air. Even so the park’s simple monuments were still incredibly poignant. Standing in front of the cenotaph (which contains the names of all known A-bomb victims and is still being added to even today), we could see down the park to the Flame of Peace, which has burned continuously since being lit in 1964. As part of Hiroshima’s identity as a city of peace, it will only be extinguished when all nuclear weapons have been disarmed.
Located in a quiet corner of the park is the Memorial Hall, which sits less than 200m from the hypocentre of the bomb. The water fountain just outside shows a clock set to 8:15am – the time of the bomb. The water is particularly poignant as it pays tribute to the victims of the blast, many of whom died pleading for water to quench their thirst.
Inside, the Hall of Remembrance shows a 360º panorama of the aftermath of the bomb, while the names of the affected districts in Hiroshima are listed below on 140,000 tiles. It is a beautiful, serene space for a moment of quiet reflection.
The Memorial Hall also holds extensive archives from victims of the bomb. We spent a fascinating, but sad, hour browsing the written testimonies from school children while photos of the victims cycled past on a wall. The range of faces, from chubby toddlers to twinkly-eyed grannies served to remind that no bomb can discriminate between the innocent and the culpable. A video interview with a victim described her life of illness, constant fear for her children (bomb survivors and their families sometimes faced terrible stigma due to their ongoing health issues), and guilt about the impact on her family. My heart ached for her. Survival had come at a terrible cost.
Moving on, we arrived at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to see a collection of artefacts about the bombing. We started our visit with a scale model of Hiroshima, which really brought home the relative size of the bomb explosion.
Walking past the miniature city, we found ourselves in the archives of items recovered from the aftermath of the A-bomb. Clothes, torn to shreds, sat next to a lunchbox scorched black and almost unrecognisable. The explanation said the box had contained a special lunch for the little boy who owned it. It was the only trace his mother found of him.
The display of personal possessions, household objects and random items such as melted glass bottles and preserved steps from a bank really brought home the strength and speed of the destruction. The steps had been salvaged from a bank, and on them was the outline of a person who had been sitting, waiting for the bank to open. Destruction and death had come before he had time to stand up.
The rest of the exhibition was a dispassionate examination of the scientific reality of what it means to unleash an atomic bomb on a city. There were exhibits on the terrible illnesses and after effects of radiation sickness, and the account of Sadako Saski – a little girl who died from radiation-related leukaemia in the middle of her project to fold a thousand origami cranes so that her lifetime wish might be granted. Her wish? To live.
At this point I felt utterly overwhelmed and stood at the end of the exhibit, tears rolling quietly down my face. It was all so awful. It all felt so unfair. I wasn’t the only one.
We walked back through the park to see the children’s peace monument, which is inspired by the story of Sadako Saski. The base was littered with paper cranes, made by children in tribute to her goal and also as a continual prayer for peace and a nuclear-free future.
Our final stop was the so-called A-Bomb Dome, which sits on the riverbank. Once upon a time this was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall – an ostentatious, European style building complete with flamboyant dome. Now a ruined husk, it is the closest surviving building to the bomb hypocentre and has been preserved as a memorial. Everyone who was in the building when the bomb was dropped was killed.
Even after spending a day at the Hiroshima Peace Park and the museum, I still struggled to imagine the reality of the day of the bombing. One August morning, life is normal and then the next moment the sky lights up in unfathomable colours and the world becomes a jungle of heat, fire, chaos and terror. This was the world’s first atomic bombing, and no one would have really known what was happening. It must have felt like an apocalypse.
Many terrible things happen in war, of course. The British bombing of Dresden and Hamburg claimed 25,000 and 40,000 lives respectively; the German Blitz campaign killed 40,000. The Japanese themselves committed terrible acts within the Asia-Pacific region. Yet there is something about the A-bomb dropping that incites unique revulsion in me.
Along with Little Boy, recording equipment was apparently dropped with the bomb. Hiroshima was also left relatively untouched by earlier bombing campaigns – purportedly so the impact of the A-bomb could be accurately measured. The whole thing feels like a perverse experiment.
The lingering after effects of the radiation have – quite literally, in some cases – poisoned a generation, the vast percentage of whom of course, were no more involved in the war than most Londoners affected by the Blitz. The idea of someone who wasn’t even born during the war being killed or maimed by it feels so very wrong.
The justification for dropping the A-bomb was that it would bring about an end to the war with Japan with less loss of life than a land-based battle. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. It took a second atomic bomb – dropped over Nagasaki – to bring about the Japanese surrender. It is impossible to know which route would have preserved the most lives. What a terrible calculation to have to make.
One thing that did strike me during our visit to the Peace Park was how Hiroshima has recovered. With what must have taken remarkable willpower and resolve, the city quickly established itself as a city of peace, reconciliation and a centre for the nuclear abolition campaign. At the end of the museum was the option to sign a petition calling for nuclear disarmament. Did I sign it? You bet.
If you want to visit the Hiroshima Peace Park
- Entrance to the park is free, as is the Memorial Hall.
- The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum costs ¥350 (£2) to enter. There was some work going on (due to finish spring 2016) when we visited, but even with some exhibitions closed it is still a worthwhile visit. Audio tours are also available and they are useful, but not essential.
- The Museum can be an upsetting experience and, without meaning to sound flippant, it can really affect your mood. It’s worth building a bit of time in to recover and process everything after your visit; we opted to visit ahead of our long train journey to our next destination.