There’s something about Hiroshima that is undeniably special. Yet, as many people I’ve met who have passed through here will tell you, it’s not the most exciting city you’re likely to visit in your life. It’s small, quaint and – by Japanese standards – rather quiet. And it is that quietude, that oddly sleepy peacefulness that can be felt across the city, that holds the door open for what makes Hiroshima a place I will never forget.
As everyone is fully aware, Hiroshima was the site of the first atomic bomb to be used on living people, be they military or civilian. At 8:15am on 8th August 1945, the US dropped the A-bomb on this city, destroying 92% of all structures in a 2-mile radius and killing upwards of 140,000 people in one monumental flash of energy. President Truman, 16 hours later, ordered the immediate surrender of the Empire of Japan, an order which was, seemingly, ignored altogether. Three days later, on 9th August, a second bomb was dropped on the town of Nagasaki, killing a further 60,000 people in similar fashion. On August 15th, Japan finally surrendered to the Allied Forces, and WWII was over.
I wish I could talk about the events of 6th August 1945 in a similar fashion to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. That is, with little talk of the war, or who was right and who was wrong. However, the museum and memorial, which I visited yesterday, is one of most truly saddening places I’ve ever set foot. Such was its impact on me, I feel I have to discuss more than just the events that took place. I always thought I had the bombings and their consequences sussed in my head, but I could not have been more wrong. After years of hearing about the bombing as a distant piece of history, it wasn’t until being stood at ground zero, the speck of land where thousands of people died, that I really felt the truest sense of unease and melancholy of my life. I didn’t know what to think.
After my first day in Hiroshima involved going to the majestic Miyajima Island and finally indulging in some real Japanese karaoke, I decided that the full 24 hours of my second day would be devoted to the bomb. Waking up in the morning, I dragged myself to the train station, put my luggage in a locker, and headed for the streetcar. Checking the map revealed that ‘A-Bomb Dome’ was the name of one of the stations in the dead centre of the city, at the end of a bridge over the meeting point of two rivers. If you’ve ever done any research on post-war Hiroshima, you may be aware of the A-Bomb Dome that the station takes its name from; a once-municipal building that is now a concrete, rubble-laden shell. It was almost directly under the fireball when the bomb detonated, and yet, while the building was totally hollowed-out by the blast and portions of it were knocked down, most of the structure inexplicably remained standing. And here, almost 71 years after Little Boy was dropped, it still stands, untouched, as an inadvertent memorial. As I headed towards it, I thought I knew what to expect – a building. And not just any building; a building I’ve seen many photos of. I knew what it looked like, where it was, and the history behind it. Yet, when we approached the bridge and the Dome came into view from behind a row of trees, I got chills like I had never ever felt before. I got off, walked over to the front of the building, and just stayed there, staring into the front doors at the piles of bricks in the lobby. While it may have once been a truly impressive feat of architecture, it now looks on the verge of turning to dust.
For about 20 minutes I just stood in awe of this hideously disfigured structure, and yet at the same time I can’t quite figure out what it was that I found so moving about standing in front of this building. If anything, it doesn’t really retroactively demonstrate the power of the bomb; although it is some sort of bizarre miracle that it remained standing, that doesn’t hide the fact that the bomb, from directly above, couldn’t destroy this simple concrete structure. Yet I know, deep down, that in a fraction of a second, every person standing in this now-gutted coffin of a building on the 8th August 1945 was vaporised in an instant.
In fact, that is perhaps the most disturbing – and in my opinion the most telling – fact regarding the power of the two bombs dropped on Japan. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, over 6,500 are still listed as missing – their bodies were never found. 6,568 civilians, going about their normal morning routine, were, without warning, disintegrated into thin air in the blink of an eye.
One of the things that hit me hardest in the museum was along these lines. The steps of a bank in the centre of the city had been cut from its original structure (or presumably found in the rubble), and placed behind glass in the museum. On the second white marble step was a faded grey-black stain about 2ft across. It was revealed that a man had been sat there when the bomb went off, waiting for the bank to open at 8:30am. And within one second, all that we could look down on through the museum’s glass case was all that he had become – a shadow on the pavement.
And there would have been hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of these all over Hiroshima. People emphatically not partaking in Japan’s wartime aggression against the Allied Forces, who were mere bystanders to the truly horrendous Pacific Theatre, bore the brunt of the US’s quest for revenge. Having studied the bomb in the past, having conflicted views internally about its morality and now actually being stood at the site where the bomb fell, it’s very difficult for me to see it any other way; it really felt like a revenge mission by the Allies. The Japanese had put their soldiers through hell all across the South Pacific with ruthless barbarism and unwillingness to surrender when the war was already lost, and I firmly believe that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets in order to exact vengeance on the Japanese people as a whole.
There will forever be debate about the morality of dropping the bomb on civilians. That goes without saying. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen because up until that point they had been spared any bombing campaigns. Thus, the destructive power of the bomb would be fully showcased. However, I personally feel that this power could have best been demonstrated elsewhere. A port or a military base. Or, perhaps, that the US could have given Japan a last-minute warning; tell them that they have a weapon ready to be used that will destroy an entire city in one go, and at least give the Japanese a chance to evacuate some civilians. But instead, the bomb was dropped with no prior information imparted, and we absolutely obliterated an entire functioning, living, breathing organism of a city in one go.
However, I’m not self-righteous. I think of myself as a realist and I wholeheartedly do not buy into the theory that it was inherently wrong to drop the bomb, and I also like to think I understand the American perspective in the run-up to the event. Rather than being reductionist and naively dismissive by suggesting that the US should be ashamed of themselves, or that they were just thirsty for blood, I feel like if you had been an American citizen during the Second World War, what happened would have been a preferable outcome for three reasons.
First, it ended the war. Simply put, that was just about the number one priority for every nation on Earth at that point, apart from Japan. The second is along similar lines; the invasion of the tiny Japanese island of Okinawa was brutal and bloody enough as it was, yet, had the bomb not been a strong enough deterrent, an Allied land invasion of mainland Japan had already been planned as a backup. This likely would have dragged the war on for many more months and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands on both sides.
The third is a little more controversial. I know people love to be pious and holier-than-thou about this kind of thing, but I can hold my hands up and admit that I know, if I was in America in the 1940s, and I had seen men from my country being dragged off to die at the hands of an enemy of such relentless brutality and aggression, that I would have wanted to put them in their place. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, to use the old cliche, and looking back now perhaps the conduct of the US was less than ideal, but at the time I would’ve wanted word of that bomb to be on the lips of every man, woman and child from Hokkaido to Kyushu. They were a distant, unusually cruel and ruthless enemy and we had to stop them. But that’s war. Of course we would’ve been wrapped up in overwhelming anti-Japanese sentiment at all times, that’s just how it worked. Yet now, in 2016, standing in Hiroshima, as a well-travelled 24 year old who has never experienced war, it’s difficult to feel anything other than sadness.
I’ve put forward as many points as I can to correspond with the points of view of the Americans and the Japanese, but, arguments aside, the very crux of the issue is that we didn’t need to destroy Hiroshima. We needed to win the war, but we didn’t need to erase this city’s history, kill half of its people and leave it stuck in a bubble of cancerous radioactive fallout for decades. We not only obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we punished its future generations, tasked with rebuilding from the ashes, starting from scratch, all while severe health defects caused by the near-lethal dose of radiation many received hung over them like the Sword of Damocles. Because we used a bomb that I think even the US didn’t fully understand the ramifications of, we burned people alive, we disfigured others, we caused a wave of disabled babies to be born, and we handed innocent children slow, painful deaths at the hands of leukaemia. I know it’s easy for me to say, and I’m not pretending to know all the ins and outs of the situation, but there must have been another way.
After finishing the museum, I went and stood at the official memorial, surrounded by flowers as the Japanese flag waved overhead. I looked around and saw two types of people. One, tourists. Selfie-sticks in hand, they would stand with their back to the memorial, camera-phone in the air, and smile. Like they were at the Eiffel Tower, or the zoo. Why would you want a selfie with that memorial? If you want a photo, take a photo, but please show a little more respect than wearing your sunglasses and sticking your tongue out/doing the stupid peace sign with your hands while taking a selfie.
The other set of people were Japanese, and they gave me an image I will never forget. If you stand at the memorial long enough, you’ll see locals passing by. You’ll see workers on their lunch break. You’ll see policemen patrolling. Every single one of them will stop what they’re doing if they pass the memorial, walk up to it, close their eyes and give a long, solemn bow. One group of businessmen heading to a meeting, lanyards around their necks, stopped their laughing and chatting, and spontaneously formed a small queue, so each one could take a moment to remember the dead.
That was a sight I found so noble and moving that I, for some reason, felt it right to join their queue. I got to the front, put my hands by my side, closed my eyes and bowed my head to the cenotaph. I opened my eyes to find one of the businessmen had watched me do this. He smiled, turned to me and bowed. I assume as a sign of respectful gratitude. After I bowed back, he left, I sat on a nearby bench, put my sunglasses on, and just stared out across the city.
Despite the historical spectre of death and destruction still looming large over Hiroshima, the city and the people in it have done something with its infamous legacy that I was very pleased and surprised to discover. Although Japan has been criticised and questioned in recent years for an apparent societal resurgence of nationalistic ideas and historical revisionism, Hiroshima, as a city that unexpectedly became the final frontline of the last great war, has gone vast lengths to distance itself from that aspect of Japanese society. Although there is a lot to say about Japan’s status in the later stages of the war, the city of Hiroshima is simply not interested in talking about it. It may seem slightly questionable to some that the Japanese would not address their numerous proven atrocities across Asia and the Pacific during the war, but once I personally had gotten over that omission, I realised that Hiroshima is also absolutely determined not to see itself as a victim.
The memorial and museum treats the A-bomb like the reset button on a stopwatch. The moment the bomb detonated, the paradigm went back to nought. One part of Hiroshima’s history was over; the bomb had drawn a line underneath it and turned the page. This city isn’t interested in what happened before the bomb, or why it happened, or who was right and wrong. All that concerns them is that it happened, their city was destroyed, and they had to rebuild. It was a period of hardship the likes of which nobody else had ever really known, but, further than simply discussing it as a singular destructive event that happened a long time ago, Hiroshima has dedicated itself to promoting peace.
Across Hiroshima are protesters calling out for an end to conflicts worldwide. They stand on street corners, crudely made signs in hand, shouting indecipherable noise into a megaphone. And there are hundreds of them. They don’t care whether people think their signs look amateur, or whether their points are getting across. They’re just there, taking time out of their lives to call for peace. That’s something I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and an unspoken lust for revenge, they use their experience as a warning to all others; whether you instigated hostilities or not, whether you truly believe you were fighting for good in this world or not, war will almost certainly come back to haunt you in some way. The systematic killing of hundreds, thousands or millions is never something to be glorified, no matter the method and no matter the cause. Hiroshima is one of only two cities on Earth that have experienced the full destructive force of nuclear weapons and, whether they were the aggressor or not, they don’t want to see it happen to anyone else. Enough pain and suffering was bestowed upon them as civilians to know that there will always be a better solution. While the validity and morality of the bombing as a means of forcing Japan’s hand in surrender will forever be a topic of debate, there is no denying that what happened in Hiroshima was a truly tragic consequence of a long, costly war.
There’s a small stream of water surrounding the cenotaph commemorating the dead. In the water is a collection of small plaques, all with the same message, all in different languages. I’ll leave you with the inscription, as I believe the words engraved into it, which have sat as the centrepiece of Hiroshima since 1952, are genuine, and speak to the dignified, defiant communal spirit of Hiroshima and its people.
“Let all the souls here rest in peace,
For we shall not repeat the evil.
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This monument embodies the hope that Hiroshima, devastated on 6 August 1945 by the world’s first atomic bombing, will stand forever as a city of peace. The stone chamber in the center contains the Register of Deceased A-bomb Victims. The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima – enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.”