It’s not easy writing about a visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum. Everyone knows what happened on August 6th 1945 at 8.15 am. It has become part of our shared history and yet it’s still shocking to be at the place where it happened and learn in depth about its effects. In the drizzle, I pass the Genbaku Dome, the former city hall whose ruins are preserved as a ‘peace memorial’. At the museum, in the first room, there is a scaled down model of the city and the destruction wrought, with the location of the detonation represented as an orange ball (witnesses describe seeing the explosion as something like a small sun). In one instant 70,000 were killed and a further 70,000 were to die of fatal injuries (often torturous burns and mutilation) and radiation poisoning, meaning fatalities accounted for over half the population of the city. 70% of buildings were destroyed and many more damaged. The bomb was dropped by parachute and was only 3 meters long. The nuclear blast and heat-wave did most of the damage, followed by a ferocious firestorm which consumed everything in its path. Almost all life near the hypocenter was extinguished (one part of the exhibition displays part of the stone steps of the nearby bank where there is a ‘shadow’ left by a vaporized victim sitting there at the time). Testimonies from survivors describe hell on earth.
In another room, there are exhibitions about the after-effects of the bomb and radiation poisoning. Of these, one of the most moving is the story of Sadako, a girl who was 2 years old at the time of the bomb. She lived a healthy life for nine years after surviving with no apparent injuries. She died at the age of 12 after a year-long battle with leukemia, which was caused by radiation exposure. When she was in hospital she learned of an ancient Japanese story which tells how anyone who completes a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. In the hope of surviving, she completed over 1,000 tiny paper cranes before she died. The paper crane has become a symbol of peace since then.
In another part of the museum, there are photographs of shocked-looking ‘world leaders’ standing over the scaled down model of the city. There’s also a visitor’s book were people write their thoughts and I spend ten minutes putting pen to paper. Outside, there are a group of local survivors who sit with anti-nuclear banners. Japan being the only country to be a-bombed and have witnessed the horrors of nuclear weapons, has been stridently against their development and bulid-up around the world. This campaign has waned somewhat over the years along with the international Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with their combined total of almost a quarter of a million fatalities has dangerously eroded over time and that’s why this museum continues to be so important. Today there are nuclear weapons over 3,000 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. Nine countries possess thousands of war-heads (mainly in the US and Russia). This insanity has led to some close shaves in the past few decades, the most infamous of which was in 1983, a couple of months after I was born, when a Soviet colonel, Stanislav Petrov, detected incoming ballistic missiles. He realized it was a false alarm and didn’t inform his superiors but if he had been doing his job by the book, he would have informed them that an attack was detected and they would have launched nuclear warheads at the United States in response. His actions prevented World War III and a nuclear winter.
The technology for the atomic bomb came about after years of research and work by the Manhattan Project, a secret government program. The researchers and politicians couldn’t wait to try the bomb out on a pristine target; the five Japanese cities on the a-bomb list were untouched by US firebombing, which devastated other cities. The US government has never apologized for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan (and neither has Japan apologised for its massive crimes in Asia during the war but I’ll come to that in another post). The orthodox view and myths about the reason for dropping the bombs (that they were necessary to force Japan to surrender and to save the lives of millions in the planned US invasion of Japan) are still dominant in the minds of the US public today. The evidence points to another view; the bombs were dropped mainly for experimental purposes and to intimidate the Soviet Union which was about to enter the Pacific war. Japan had basically accepted defeat before August and was looking for a way out of the war which would maintain the sovereignty of the nation. The decision to bomb was rushed through despite the other alternatives, to ensure the unconditional surrender of Japan (more about all this in this excellent essay: Racing Towards the Abyss). For any sane, rational person, the indiscriminate barbarity of nuclear weapons is clear. The argument that they are a deterrent only and have prevented endless conventional war, ignores the fact that conventional war still happens and nuclear weapons are a real threat to the survival of our species. The need for total global disarmament ties in with need for social justice, a fair economic system and genuine peace.
After attending a seminar on testimonies from survivors in another part of the peace park, I ask a lady at the reception desk why there isn’t any campaign in Japan for the US to apologise for what they did. With typical Japanese politeness she replies, “Ah, it’s political. American and Japan are friends now”, and then goes on to say that young people in Japan love Western culture and have no interest in the past. It’s a predictable response but one that still leaves me secretly gobsmacked as I nod and feign understanding. The US government is the biggest risk to world peace and has used depleted uranium in Iraq (causing the cancer rates in Falujah to go through the roof). Without any remorse for their crimes, they continue to cause carnage. I’m subconsciously thinking all this as the lady gives me two tiny paper cranes in a little paper box as a present. I thank her and leave the peace park to explore some of the rest of the city.
Today, Hiroshima is a pleasant modern city. With its remarkable recovery, it’s easy to see how distant the past must seem to young people. Hiroshima Castle is one of the highlights and I enjoy the views from the top as the sun sets. Around the castle everyday life continues as families take pictures of their kids in nearby parks and temples. As I walk around, the experience of the peace museum and park is still with me and I feel slightly emotional; it’s been a long day and a lot to take in. It’s one thing to know something at a distance; it’s another to see it up close and get a profound feel for the reality of it. I didn’t expect to be moved so much; I expected to feel a detached shock as I did at the Killing Fields in Cambodia but when you seriously contemplate it, the absolute evil and horror of an atomic bomb is more terrifying than anything else in the history of humanity.
A few days later, I get a train to what I think will be a good hitch-hiking spot outside the city. As I wait for the train, an elderly man is sitting beside me reading in the morning sunshine. After a while he asks me where I’m from and we get chatting. I ask him if he’s from Hiroshima. He tells me he is and that he was born in 1942, just three years old at the time of the bomb. Many of his family died. I’m a bit surprised about his direct honesty but welcome it. From the expression on his face, he knows that I know that this information is important. He has a kind, dignified face. The train comes and we both get on amidst other passengers. At the next stop he waves goodbye before getting off, with the same expressive, gentle smile. I wave back, grateful to have crossed paths with a survivor of one of the worst episodes in our history.