Hiroshima itself is a very modern city with broad, six-lane streets and massive department stores, although the area right around the station looks as though it’s locked in 1955. The north end spills up into the mountains, which, rather than the uniform lumps of broccoli to be found in Shizuoka, are sharp with scraggly trees on top, like something out of Dr. Seuss.
We visited the Peace Memorial Park, making sure to have a lovely lunch at an Italian restaurant across the street beforehand because we were certain we’d have no appetite for some time afterwards. Before crossing the street, we took a moment to look at the Peace Arches, a set of rectangular metallic arches engraved with the word “peace” in a dozen languages.
The Peace Memorial Museum is virtually free, demanding only a nominal 50-yen fee, which is likely just to cover the paper for the tickets.
The museum started with a surprisingly critical history of Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia in the 1930s. It did, however, skirt over the Rape of Nanjing: rather than mention mass rape or bayoneted babies, the display simply stated that “opinions vary” as to how many died—between 40,000 and 300,000, though nearly everyone outside Japan has agreed on the latter—and accompanied this with an unsettling photo of a parade held to celebrate the capture of the foreign capital. Nanjing is in perennial danger of being erased from Japanese history texts by government revisionists, and A. later confided that she was concerned by this lack of information even in Hiroshima.
The centre of the main floor was taken up by a vast model of the city after the bomb, with a red orb hanging above it at the site of detonation. Within a 2-kilometre radius, there were no more than six buildings left standing, and these were nothing but hollow shells.
At the back was a collection of documents from major thinkers and policy-makers of the time, including Albert Einstein. Reading them, the cynicism surrounding the use of the bomb was extraordinary. While it’s often characterized as having been used to stop the war, that is an oversimplification: it was used to stop the war on more favourable terms. The Japanese had been discussing surrender for months, but the US consistently tabled only proposals that they knew the Japanese would refuse, primarily by insisting that the Emperor be removed from power. Meanwhile, the US had spent 2 billion dollars on the bomb and needed to justify the cost. They had to prevent Russia from entering the war and gaining influence over post-war Japan. And they wanted to demonstrate the power of the bomb, for which reason Hiroshima, despite being a major military hub, had been left largely untouched by Allied bombing runs. Kyoto had been on the short list of possible targets.
After the war, Hirohito would continue as the nominal ruler of Japan until his death in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell.
Following a series of models showing the extent of the damage, the other half of the museum was largely devoted to a collection of remnants from the estimated 6000 children who were killed in the blast. Hiroshima, like much of Japan, had a very dense structural layout built largely of wood, and junior high school students had been conscripted to tear down buildings for “fire lanes” that would prevent fires from spreading from one area to another during bombing.
Unnervingly well-preserved toys, watches and school uniforms were displayed in glass cases, and in one macabre case were the skin and fingernails that had melted off the hand of a student, which were all his mother could keep of him to show his father when he returned. In one corner were two life-sized wax figures fleeing through a street with their skin melting off. There were also displays of massive lesions removed from patients suffering from radiation sickness, and a section on Sadako, the girl of the 1000 paper cranes. Unlike the traditional Western interpretation, she actually made over 1,300 cranes before she died, her designs becoming more intricate and using just about every kind of paper she could find as she approached the end.
While the upper levels presented the physical evidence of the bombing, the basement sought to address the censorship of the time. Beyond images of structural damage, very few photo documents remain, as photos illustrating the human effects were often forbidden for publication or destroyed.
To compensate, over the years survivors have been asked to draw pictures from their memories of the event, and these are displayed in the basement of the museum. A recurring theme was that of students flooding into the rivers, clothes burnt off and skin melting, until they finally succumbed to clog the waterways with the dead.
Outside the museum was a different world. The weather was beautiful, and people were taking smiling photographs everywhere: in front of the cenotaph memorializing the dead; in front of the Peace Memorial Flame, which is to be extinguished when the last nuclear bomb is destroyed; and in front of the A-Bomb Dome, above which the bomb detonated, and which stands as a silent, gutted sentinel above a river that once flowed with corpses. Hiroshima is a beautiful city. It seemed an abomination that it could be so.
This said, there is also a danger of exaggerating the legitimacy of early Japanese offers of surrender. Despite their massive losses, in June of 1945 the Japanese, too, were hoping to gain favourable surrender conditions, and they intended to do so by inflicting massive casualties in any invasion of the mainland. The battle of Okinawa alone had already claimed 150,000 Allied and 175,000 Japanese lives (That’s more than twice the population of Prince Edward Island wiped out for a piece of land not even a quarter the size).
While Japanese agents had been discussing surrender with the Allies, unanimous parliamentary approval was needed for any offer to be ratified. Even after both bombs were dropped, there were government hard-liners causing gridlock by insisting that they fight to the last man. Though Emperor Hirohito himself had indicated that he would fight to the end rather than abdicate, he changed his mind after the bombings and his personal intercession brought government to agree to surrender. Then a military coup was attempted to prevent it.
Ultimately, as I consider 214,000 suffering and slaughtered by two acts of science in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I find that I cannot help but weigh it against 300,000 tortured and slaughtered by as many individual acts of men in Nanjing. And as I looked over the mayor of Hiroshima’s most recent appeal for the destruction of all nuclear weapons, I couldn’t help but think that the position was untenable. It's not only nuclear weapons that cause unspeakable suffering. All warfare does.
Radiation melts the skin; white phosphorus burns it off, and US forces used it in Fallujah in 2005. Radiation poisoning causes lifelong suffering; so do severed limbs and missing eyes, not to mention the psychological damage of rape and torture, regardless of who inflicts them.
At the museum, I had been hoping to be hammered with the evil of nuclear weapons. But ultimately, the difference between nuclear and conventional weapons seemed to me to be only one of degree, and I was saddened to think that a matter of degree will not hold all of humanity at bay forever. Someone, somewhere, someday, will decide that one little degree isn’t all that significant, and I can only pray that when that day comes, cooler heads prevail among the wounded party.
If you would like to be further informed, fairly objective and well-annotated articles are available at Wikipedia:
And if you want to learn about white phosphorus, check out its entry in Wikipedia, including the link to its use in Iraq: