Hiroshima: Shadows

20160326_142202There’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.

20160326_141436After 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.”

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Gabe

Kyoto: Dentures

Part I: A Couple of Thoughts

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Yum yum

After three days in Kyoto, I’m back on the Shinkansen, this time absolutely bombing across the countryside, bound for Hiroshima. Well, I say countryside, but those of you who have experienced the bullet train before will be more aware than most of the existence of the Taiheiyō Belt. For those who don’t know, Honshu – Japan’s ‘main’ island – has a belt of settlements across most of its southern coast from Tokyo to Fukuoka, around 700 miles. As you blaze through them on the Shinkansen, you realise that they all kind of bleed into each other with very little space (if any) in between. It’s like one giant, giant city. To put this into perspective, we left Kyoto 19 minutes ago and we’ve just stopped at Kobe, having also already stopped at Osaka. I mean this is a fast train but it’s not that fast – these cities are extremely close to each other, and are fairly seamless.

There have been destinations on this round-the-world trip that I have gotten extremely excited about, but I have to admit that none of them have conjured up as much anticipation as Hiroshima. Realistically, no matter how much you want to try sugar-coating it, it goes without saying that the dropping of the atomic bomb Little Boy is what made Hiroshima a universally-known city. And while visiting the site of the single-most destructive weapon ever detonated is a fairly macabre reason to be excited, I think we’d all be lying if we attempted to convince ourselves or others that the historical significance of the event wasn’t the focal point of our trip. Hell, I’m not even trying to hide it; I’m going one step beyond and taking the train to Nagasaki two days later.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

What can I say? I’m fascinated by WWII, and that is perhaps what makes me so excited about these next two cities – the war from a different perspective. Many people will be aware of Japan’s often questionable attitude toward some of its wrongdoings during the war (most notably the country’s foray into human experimentation at Unit 731 and the brutality of its occupation of China). After decades of silence, pacifism and shame regarding its behaviour during this time, Japan has more recently seen some state schools reportedly alter or cover up parts of Japanese WWII history within its syllabi, or in some cases drop it altogether. I have been told on many occasions that the museum in Hiroshima dedicated to the bomb is extremely impartial and balanced, and treats the event as a course of action that could have been avoided had both sides done things differently in the months prior. While undoubtedly Japan and its never-surrender attitude needed to be put out of the it and everyone else’s misery by mid-1945, I hope Hiroshima will acknowledge the endlessly-debated morality of the bomb as a means of forcing Japan’s hand. While I believe the bomb was an unfortunately brutal way to bring the war to a close, I also believe it was the only choice left; Japan had made it very clear that it was not willing to give in, and an Allied land invasion would of course have been far more costly in terms of life and money.

For me, the dubious morality lies in two aspects of the endgame of WWII; the first is the bombing of Nagasaki, three days after Hiroshima. After just having a nuclear weapon unleashed on its population, the US gave Japan very little time to comprehend what had just hit it, considering up until that point the existence of the atomic bomb had been top-secret. We will never know if Japan would have surrendered after the first bomb given more time, but it seemed premature to suddenly drop another – even more powerful – bomb on Nagasaki. I guess the Americans wanted to make absolutely sure.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

The second aspect is something I recently discovered about the first bomb that struck me as rather dark. Original US discussions about the use of the first bomb had tabled Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama and Hiroshima as possible targets. The US military decided against Tokyo, as they did not want to destroy the entire high command and risk killing the emperor, for reasons I’m not entirely sure on. Kyoto was, rather compassionately, spared because of its cultural significance and the presence of hundreds of shrines dating back to well over a thousand years. So why Hiroshima? Up until that point, it had been an important city militarily (it featured a large army base nearby), and yet had been left completely untouched. In a display of major overkill, the Americans wanted to showcase the full force of their invention by reducing an entirely functional, pristine city to ruins in one go. (This is also the reason Yokohama was shelved as a target – it had been heavily damaged by firebombing campaigns before this point). This, of course, means Hiroshima was fully populated at the time of detonation and was given absolutely no warning to facilitate evacuation.

In all honesty, I can cut this history lesson short now and just say you’re a hopeless idiot if you can’t understand both sides of the argument about whether the bombing was carried out in the most appropriate manner. If you believe one belligerent or the other was 100% in the wrong, you haven’t done enough research. And really, that is what makes it such a fascinating event; WWII in Europe featured hundreds of fairly black-and-white incidents of good vs. bad (that is if you ignore most of the USSR’s involvement), but the dramatic conclusion of the Pacific Campaign is so steeped in philosophical debate that it’s difficult not to find it a catalyst for interesting discussion.

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Part II: Cones & Cones & Cones

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Daigo-Ji

Kyoto is spectacular. There’s no real getting around it. I’m going to go all out and say it and balls to how offensive some may find it; it is superior to Tokyo in every way. For me, Tokyo is not somewhere you enjoy – it’s somewhere you experience. It’s eye-wateringly bright neon bullshit can’t really mask the hostility of a city so wrapped up in Japan’s infamous work-until-you-die attitude that it never really feels like somewhere a sane person would want to find themselves for any extended period of time. While I can’t say I actively disliked Tokyo, I can’t say I liked it either – the week I spent there felt like an extreme sport that never stopped. The absurdity of the Tokyo lifestyle lends itself to hilarious stories, amazing urban landscapes and a real ‘I can’t believe I’ve been there’ feeling, but Kyoto… well where to start?

First things first; Kyoto locals are frighteningly different to Tokyo-ites. On my first night in Kyoto, I headed to the east of the city to check out the city’s ‘old quarter’ Gion which, aside from being absolutely stunning, is also teeming with people. But this wasn’t Salarymen pushing past each other to leave work at 11pm, this was groups of men and women of all ages, hanging out, drinking, eating good food, laughing and relaxing. The people in Kyoto are some of the cheeriest I’ve ever come across, like every day they wake up and thank God they don’t live in Tokyo. Instead, they grab a beer and maybe some sushi, head down to the river bank and just sit and socialise. It’s great. A small observation that I think speaks massive volumes about Kyoto too; I saw one face mask during my three days there. That is the difference between Kyoto and Tokyo – you get on a subway train in Tokyo and 80-90% of people will be wearing face masks, a facet of the city’s lifestyle that, although I’m an outsider, I find really stupid and paranoid; as far as I can tell the most threatening epidemic in Japan is suicide, not airborne disease.

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The amazing Daigo-Ji

I hit up a few temples on my first day and then headed to an onsen – a sort of Japanese bathhouse with hot springs. After the little old lady at reception almost had a heart attack as I stepped inside still wearing my shoes, I made my way into the baths where – unfortunately – I discovered swimming costumes were not allowed. But I guess if everyone’s doing it then whatever. Long story short, the baths were hot, the sauna was even hotter, and then an old guy disgustingly attempting to clear his nostrils on the floor accidentally snotted all over himself, then sneezed so hard that his dentures fell out. A dignified moment.

Next day I headed to the excellent Fushimi Inari Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site compiled of thousands and thousands of gates winding up a mountain. For some reason I ran to the top, then ran all the way back down, then got on my bike and headed over to the amazing Daigo-Ji Temple, which, flanked by cherry blossoms, was just about the most Japanese thing you could ever wish to see. I sat for a while before heading back on my bike, at one point stopping next to a bus. I peered inside, and it was full… but it was just cones. Literally traffic cones. The bus was full of just cones and cones and cones. And it was a regular commuter bus going to the station. I looked to my left as we pulled away from the traffic light, and in the lobby of a building I saw two children, one with a baseball bat, being thrown badminton shuttlecocks by the other. There were maybe 70 shuttlecocks littered across the floor. Why not do it outside? Why shuttlecocks?

Add to that the fact that I went past a restaurant advertising ‘not filling steam bums’ (unfilled steamed buns I assume), and you have a weird and wild coupla days in Kyoto. Onto Hiroshima!

Gabe