Hiroshima is synonymous with one thing.
I felt our recent trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hiroshima. We were fortunate enough to be able to time our visit with the anniversary of the bombing, on August 6th 1945.
We weren’t sure what to say to people when we told them we were going to Hiroshima, it’s not exactly a happy place where people go to relax and enjoy the splendour of Japan. Straight after telling people about our plans, I’d attempt to justify it and say “A bit depressing I know, but we figured it’ll be interesting”
We believed we would be in for a depressing, morbid, sobering kind of day – even if we did think it would be interesting.
Our day in Hiroshima turned out to be one of the highlights of our three weeks in Japan. The day was anything but what we expected.
The crowds were enormous, it must have been the busiest day of the year in what is now known as the Peace Memorial Park in the area surrounding the hypocentre of the blast.
Thousands of protestors had gathered, marching against nuclear weapons, against nuclear power – campaigning for nuclear disarmament.
Several dozen right wing nationalists had also gathered, as a counter demonstration – heavily outnumbered by their opponents. They flew the flag of Imperial Japan, a symbol reviled across much of Asia, proudly.
At 08:15, the crowds fell largely silent, in sombre reflection and remembrance of the indescribable horrors that were happening, at this very spot, at this very moment, only 67 years ago. Some of the very people we were standing with, had lost family members, had seen it with their own eyes, and have suffered ever since. They wore black, as if they were attending a funeral. It was chilling, and difficult to grasp that what now seems like ancient history, happened in our grandparent’s lifetimes, and there are tens of thousands of people alive today (some of whom stood with us) who can still bear testament to the horrors of the first atom bomb.
At this point, it does sound a little depressing.
Only one building survived the blast, it is now known as the Atom Bomb Dome. It is a disturbing reminder, and makes for a stunning contrast with the 21st century Hiroshima that has risen up from the ashes around it. If it wasn’t for the Dome, you could be forgiven for not being able to tell what had happened here. Today, it is a vibrant, bustling, sprawling, high-rise 21st century metropolis of over one million people.
We soon walked over towards the Peace Memorial Park, where thousands of survivors (Habakusha), journalists, ordinary Japanese, tourists and VIP’s had gathered. We saw the Japanese Prime Minister, (not that we understood anything he said), we listened to a message on behalf of Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, and we stood, everybody, in silence.
Once the main peace ceremony had concluded, the crowds slowly petered out. We walked around, read the placards, the messages of peace, the protestors demanding an apology from the US, we even read the Japanese nationalists version of the war.
We soon headed back to the dome, where there was an almost carnival atmosphere. People were making paper cranes (A legacy of Sadaku Sasaki, and a symbol for the children of Hiroshima), they were signing flags of peace, writing messages of peace – for a world united, for a world without nuclear weapons, for a world without suffering and violence.
People danced, people sang, people hugged. People laid down flowers in tribute to the dead. But mostly, people smiled, they laughed, they joked and they shared a common purpose – to spread a message of peace, and to do their utmost to ensure this will never happen again. It was a giant hippie love-in, with elderly Japanese women leading the way.
For it is only they who truly understand the horrors and suffering that nuclear weapons can inflict upon a population, it is only the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who have borne witness to such a thing. The rest of us can only learn, listen and take note of their message.
Whilst en-route to the museum, we met a delightful elderly Japanese man who survived the bomb, having lost several family members when he was only 8 years old. He pointed to where he was when the bomb fell. He didn’t want sympathy, that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. He wanted to spread the message of peace and love, and to let the people of North-Eastern Japan know that the people of Hiroshima know their suffering, that they, and the rest of the world care and are thinking of them by signing his book and writing messages of good will. It was touching looking through his efforts. He will deliver the book in October to his friends in Tohuku.
We spent a couple of hours walking around the museum. It is one of the best museums (if not, the best) museum I have ever been too. Riveting would be an understatement.
Personally, what set the museum apart from others was the neutrality of it all. Quite remarkable considering we’re in Asia, where it seems there’s no such thing as neutrality, critical thinking, or an understanding of the concept of there being two sides to an argument – and where nationalism always wins over reasonable, critical thought. A sweeping generalisation I know, but one many westerners out here would agree with.
What I liked, there was no attempt to try and blame anybody, hold any party responsible, or tell us that what happened here was right or wrong. It was refreshing, even more so because we were in Asia. It presented the facts, in a fair and unbiased way, admitting the heinous crimes Japan committed prior to it, but rightly questioning the motives behind the Allies specifically targeting Hiroshima. Most importantly of all though, visitors are able to leave and be able to draw their own conclusions.
One of the most interesting facts which stays with me, and re-enforces my admiration for the Japanese is that within three days of the city being obliterated, they had the tram system up and working again. Quite incredible, and a magnificent example of the steely Japanese spirit and resolve that we all witnessed and have grown to respect in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis of last year.
I always imagined that if you are caught up in a nuclear blast, you would be vaporised and killed instantly, unless you are unfortunate enough to be exposed to the fall out. The reality is quite different, some people were vaporised and killed instantly – but the majority weren’t. A lot of them were horrendously burned, and suffered for hours, sometimes days from the burns until they finally succumbed to their injuries. It’s not a quick, instant, relatively painless death – it’s far from it for most victims.
One of the most frightening facts, is the nuclear weapons of today are several thousand times more powerful than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and there are enough to destroy the world many times over. I knew this already, but seeing it in this setting brought home the shocking reality. It only takes one nutter, and the world goes to shit. It happened before, it can happen again. Only it would be much worse next time. An interesting quote I read somewhere a while back, “One can be assured that if there is ever a World War IV, it will be fought with sticks and stones”
In the evening we gathered for the lantern festival. This colourful event involved thousands of people writing personal messages of peace and love on their lanterns. They then float their candle-lit lanterns downstream in a poignant tribute to those that suffered, and to try and spread a message of peace and love amongst all mankind.
I can’t say if it’s right to condone what happened in Hiroshima, many describe it as a necessary evil – a big part of me agrees with that. On the other hand, as an ordinary, relatively well-meaning human being I would find it very difficult to justify killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, even under the most pressuring and extreme circumstances, as per se in the summer of 1945.
Ultimately, we’ll never be able to fully comprehend the extraordinary nature of the world at that time. It’s all very well saying these things with the benefit of hindsight, but there’s nothing we will ever be able to do to change it.
There’s no point in dwelling on the past, as the Hiroshima Atom Bomb Peace museum rightly points out, we should only learn from the mistakes of the past, and work together to build a better, safer and more united future.
Our day in Hiroshima will live long in the memory. It was a special day, a day of learning, of joy, of sadness, of peace and of love, of reflection, of beauty, of singing and dancing, and perhaps most importantly, a day in which we learnt to embrace the hippies within us!
The message of Hiroshima is simple, and impossible to forget; THIS MUST NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN.
All the people of Hiroshima wish for, is nobody else to ever have to suffer like they have. Quite reasonable, wouldn’t you say?
Unfortunately, they are quite rightly frustrated the rest of the world won’t listen to them. They cannot comprehend why any sane, decent human being would want a world with nuclear weapons. They have a point. Perhaps they know they’re fighting a losing battle, but they will never give up the cause. Good luck to them, it’s in everybody’s interest to see that they don’t.
We have enough nuclear weapons to end the world many times over. And hardly any of us will ever do anything about it…