When I was a kid, I read this book with stories from the children in Hiroshima who survived the explosion, at least long enough to tell their story.
Where they were on what they simply called ‘that day’, what they did when they saw that bright light, when they flew through the air, when they were burned, how they tried to help classmates, how they carried their siblings home to find no one, how they lost their hair, how they died within days or weeks.
It’s a heartbreaking book, and I kept it, it survived the triage of things that went to donations, or were kept for storage. I thought I was prepared to visit Hiroshima.
Still, the first impressions were totally trivial. A modern city. Not unlike any of the cities I had seen on my trip trough Japan. They are all modern.
Owed to the destructions of WWII in Japan, but also owed to Japanese sense for modernity, or lack of sentimentalism. When a building served its purpose, built a new one. Higher, bigger, more modern.
You have to have a close look at Tokyo or Osaka to find the old buildings. Still, they do exist, some wooden houses, or smaller buildings here and there.
Hiroshima has none of that. When the city was attacked in 1945, it consisted mostly of wooden buildings, all of them being burned and vaporized by the enormous heat, radiation and shockwave, coming down as dust in the black rain after the bomb.
The city is lively though, I liked it. Not too big, only 1.1 million people. I had a hotel close to the station, and could walk to the centre, or take one of the rattling 1950s trams. Shopping arcades, restaurants, coffee shops, people in the streets and on their bikes.
Only four or five buildings in the centre survived the blast. Genbaku Dōmu, the iconic A-bomb dome that was the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, a school, and some other buildings that were somehow spared destruction. Mostly because they were right underneath the explosion, the shockwave didn’t blow them to pieces.
What was once the bustling heart of the city is now the Peace Memorial park.
Maps show you the old street grid and what houses stood where, but it is all a park now, one axis leading from the A-Bomb Dome to the Eternal Flame to the cenotaph, holding the names of all known victims, over to the Museum.
Only one human being survived the explosion in all this vast area, in one of the buildings that still stands today.
However, the area feels somewhat ‘normal’, with people walking, visiting… It does have some kind of serene atmosphere though. The constant sound of the peace bell rings through the park. Visitors are encouraged to ring the bell for world peace. The surface of the bell is a map of the world, and the “sweet spot” is an atomic symbol, appropriately.
You recognize the skeleton of the A-Bomb Dome from pictures you have seen, and it is a sad, serene sight. Still, I didn’t feel that moved by it.
What moved me more was standing on the very spot above which the bomb exploded, in 600 meters height: ground zero, in its original meaning, not the post 9/11 one. Only meters from there, a little statue made of stone, the Shinto god of children.
Burned by the radiation and the heat, the stone became rough, only in its shadow can you still fell the smoothness of the stone. It was weird to touch it. Something that has actually survived a nuclear explosion.
I walked over to the museum, which gives a good explanation of the mechanics of a nuclear weapon, gives some historic background and, overall, a pretty balanced view.
It explains the Manhattan project and the decision leading to dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the poor second victim that often gets overlooked.
Visiting the second floor might be tough, as you are confronted with the direct effects the bomb has had on the city, wiping out much of it, and hitting its citizens without warning.
You can imagine the immensity of that explosion by the massive metal window shutters that were pushed inwards by the blast, the watches that all stopped at 8.15 o’clock, the charred lunchbox of a child.
You can see the shadow a human being left on granite stairs and walls, protecting the stone behind it with its body, the surrounding stone burned in the radiation and heat, while being incinerated in the blink of an eye.
There are some pretty drastic pictures in this exhibition, the first pictures of the city taken the day after, the people walking in long, silent rows through the remains of the city, their flesh hanging literally from their bones, charred black.
I had to stop looking at the items in the exhibitions, and reading the stories of the owners of these items, because I was really close to losing it completely.
While war is always terrible, I wonder what makes the difference between the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the destruction of Dresden or Tokyo in the firestorms of 1945, or the victims burned in Rotterdam or in London. The bombing of Tokyo on 10 March 1945 actually claimed more victims than either of the nuclear attacks.
Besides the long term effects of the radiation and the decades of suffering this has caused – and still causes – I guess the difference is that humanity had a brief moment looking eye to eye at its own annihilation.
If ever there was a moment when we lost our innocence as a species, this would be it.
Whoever might live in hundreds of years, and whatever civilization might exist on Earth, I am pretty sure they will know the name of the city of Hiroshima.