Posted by: Anna | November 4, 2011

Hiroshima and the Bomb

Today, Hiroshima is a charming, incredibly modern city in Japan. Looking at the tidy apartment buildings, pachinko halls, omonomiyaki (local specialty – a giant pancake, vegetable thing) restaurants, and bars, I would have never guessed this was the location of the first ever nuclear weapon used in history, causing total destruction less than 70 years ago. Masked by the orderly Japanese city is one of the most horrible events in the history of war.

We decided to stay at the World Friendship Center, a small bed and breakfast a little outside the main area of Hiroshima, mainly because the hostels we would normally book at were full. I’m so glad. The World Friendship Center is a non-profit started by an American woman who was moved by the impact of the bomb to start something for world peace and nuclear disarmament in the 1960s. The WFC offers a free tour given by an English-speaking, trained Japanese volunteer followed by a (free) hibakusha story, told by a survivor of the A-bomb and translated by a volunteer translator.

This was an opportunity to gain insight into the Japanese experience in a personal way that I never imagined I would have when we planned to visit Hiroshima. I expected to wander around the monuments in the Peace Park, visit the museum, and see the A-bomb Dome. All three of these are located only a few steps from the hypocenter (the bomb actually exploded in the air, so the epicenter is feet above the city) within easy strolling distance from each other. We welcomed this deeper and richer experience, although in the back of my mind I hesitated — would it be as anti-American as the Vietnam War (or American War, as the Vietnamese call it) Cu Chi Tunnels tour was?

When we arrived the evening before our tour to check into the B&B, warmly welcomed by JoAnn and Larry, the two American volunteer hosts who live at the B&B and run the day to day operations. We chatted comfortably with them for a while, enjoying the comfort of the traditional Japanese home in which the WFC is located. They gave us a synopsis of the history of the center, from its inception to its modern day operation. The center always has an English speaking couple living at the center and hosting the guests to ensure a comfortable stay for tourists. We got settled in our room and headed out for some omonomiyaki for dinner.

Larry and JoAnn shared the history of omonomiyaki, a famous dish of Hiroshima, with us. After the bomb, food was scarce. People, in an effort to feel full with limited resources, created this dish. A pancake as a foundation, covered with a giant pile of cabbage and bean sprouts, topped with a scrambled or fried egg and sauce. It remains a popular option today, and food tourist that I am, I had to try it. Turned out it was okay, but not a highlight of Japanese cuisine. Still, I loved hearing the history for a famous dish here.

The next morning we met our tour guide Michiko, a petite, funny, energetic Japanese woman. Our tour group was just us and one other British traveler. She immediately started out getting to know us and declared, “I love Americans!” My fears alleviated, I was ready to explore the park. Our first stop was at the Chinese Parasol tree which had survived the blast. Only about 80-something trees survived within the blast zone (2 kilometers from the hypocenter). This one was transplanted to the Peace Park and carefully nurtured. It still stands as a symbol of hope in Hiroshima, since after the bomb it was said that nothing would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years. I can testify that is completely untrue, as Hiroshima has lovely trees, including many within the Peace Park. Each tree in the Peace Park was donated from regions all over Japan to create the beautiful green space that stands there today. Before leaving the Chinese Parasol, Michiko gave us seeds from the tree with instructions (that she translated herself) on how to plant them as a gift – a symbol of hope for us to take home.

Parasol tree, still beatiful today.

Moving on, we next stopped at a stone monument with a poem carved in Japanese on one side and English on the other. It evoked the sorrow of the individuals who lost family to the bomb, plaintively calling them back. No matter the politics, war is full of individual tragedies and loves lost, embodied in this poem.

Only a few steps away was the monument to those hibaksha (survivors of the bomb) who have died, updated regularly. There are still over 200,000 survivors living today, although of course more are added to the registers every year. Behind that monument was the everlasting flame, or to those advocating nuclear weapon disarmament, the flame that will go out when all nuclear weapons have been abolished. The city of Hiroshima set a goal of 2020, although that looks highly unlikely today.

Strolling under the green trees, just starting to change to gold, we approached the children’s monument. In elementary school, I remember reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, the story of Sadako Sasaki, who got leukemia due to exposure to radiation. She tried to stave off her death by folding a thousand paper cranes. The children’s monument shows a girl holding up an origami crane surmounting a bell, which visitors can ring. Glass cases filled with senbazuru (strings of paper cranes) surround the children’s monument, sent from all over the world. Her story has made paper cranes a symbol for world peace.

We saw the hypocenter, which was then and is again today a hospital. The target was a nearby bridge, but a slight miss hit a hospital instead. A small monument stands to mark the spot. Somehow, it felt that no tribute could appropriately mark the spot, so after a quick look we moved on to the A-bomb dome. This dome is one of the only buildings to sort-of survive the explosion. Constructed in 1910, it was a tourist attraction in its day for its modern European design and attractive facade. The dome was copper, and it melted away in the heat, reaching 5,000 degrees Celsius at its max. Standing as one of the last ruins of the city, controversy raged during reconstruction about what to do. Some wanted to leave it standing as a reminder. Others wanted it torn down as an eyesore and because it was a painful reminder.

A young girl finally decided it. She realized that she had leukemia due to exposure, but she did not tell her parents so as not to worry them, since little could be done to help her. She did however keep a journal that was found after her death, describing her symptoms and experience during her illness. She also expressed that she wanted the dome to stand as a reminder to others; her journal was taken to the city council. The dome stands today, as a ruin, her lasting mark.

This building actually survived as well as it did because it was so close to the epicenter that the blast hit mostly vertically, rather than horizontally.

We crossed over the bridge that the bomber had aimed for. As we walked, Michiko explained that after the bombing the river bursted with corpses. Some survivors prefer to avoid seeing the river today as it recalls such a powerful image. The burns sustained caused those still alive to leap into the river to cool the burns, but the river is strongly tidal (Hiroshima is close to the ocean) and the tide swept away and killed many injured who were too weak to swim.

In Japan, it’s easy to forget that there are any people living here except Japanese. During the war, however, there were two million Koreans living in Japan. Michiko told us that approximately 20,000 Koreans forcibly imported by the Japanese to labor were killed by the bomb. The Korean government erected a monument of a tortoise, symbolizing the Korean belief that people travel to heaven on the back of a tortoise after death.

I have left out many details from Michiko, including many of the more gruesome. All the horrible details you could ever want are available in books. After walking through the park with Michiko, I was left with a sense of compassionate dignity on the behalf of the Japanese and a heartfelt expression of the desire for world peace through the park. Michiko referred briefly and appropriately to Japanese atrocities committed during the war, and I never felt that there was any impetus to erect the park or the monuments therein to convey anything other than to honor those who suffered, survived, and died as well as a desire for peace in the future.

The second part of our experience was hearing the story of a survivor.  Kiyomi Kohno told her story using her own artwork from a book she created. When the blast happened, she was 14. Although out of the city the day of impact, she headed in less than a day later to look for family. Her art expressed that day in a way that words could not, and although the translation was very well-done, my heart understood the pictures more deeply than my ears could ever do.

This image shows her at the moment of impact. She described the sound and her emotions at the moment. She was helping her younger cousin eat breakfast. I was reminded that tragedy hit a moment no one was expecting, while people went about their daily lives.

Although the bomb is certainly an indescribable horror, and the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons sounds wonderful, I remain unconvinced that it is possible. As long as we know they CAN exist, I believe some madman (Kim Jong-il or his brethren) will always seek them. Responsible powers must keep nuclear weapons in order to act as a deterrent to their use. Mutual destruction is simple but logical. I don’t see a way around it. The other major question that arises during my experience in Hiroshima is whether America should have ever used the bomb in the first place. On this question, I remain undecided, as I do not feel that I know enough to have an educated opinion. Since that is the case, I abstain from forming an opinion on this complex issue here. However, being in a position to learn more about the bomb in Hiroshima and its aftereffects has been a blessed educational experience, largely fair and moving. Regardless, the desire for world peace, however I may believe it is best achieved, was affirmed by my experience in Hiroshima, and for that, I am grateful.

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Responses

  1. Wonderful account. As a student of WWII I too have mixed emotions. I understand why it was done but don’t want to believe it was necessary.

  2. Hey Anna and Tommy….can’t believe you two are still freaking traveling. It was just over a year ago when we met. Well, I’m glad I’m a Razorback fan rather than a Texas fan (ouch!). So cool to see you are traveling in Japan….and I enjoyed reading about your experience in Hiroshima. About two months before we met I visited Japan and also stopped in Hiroshima. The experience at the Peace museum was so moving that I inquired at their offices if there was a survivor with whom I could speak. In an unbelieveable stroke of luck, a day later they had found a Japanese man who had been a kid in school when the bomb was dropped. Not only that, but he knew English….taught it as a school teacher. So he (Mr. Matsumoto) met with me and two friends privately in a room at the Peace center, and he talked in vivid detail about his experience with the bomb…how he was in school that day, heard the planes above, looked out the window, saw the plane (it was a clear day), and then moments later a bright flash in the sky. Then he was blown across the room between two desks….and the two desks gave him protection, as most of his classmates perished. Anyway, very moving. I hope you will be going north to the the northern most island. There is a park called Daisetsuzan National Park…..very reminisicent of the Scottish Highlands….just incredibly beautiful. You can hike and there are huts along the way where you can crash and meet fellow hikers. It was one of my Top Ten experiences in my entire 1yr and 8 mos. of travel. Good luck…..when the hell are you returning to Austin? 🙂
    Mike


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