Hiroshima was one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been. Honestly, I struggle to find the right adjective. Of course, the area’s main claim to fame is as the target of the world’s first atomic bomb attack in August 1945, and I spent the majority of my time in that area, at the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial Park.
The material throughout the area are artfully presented to educate on the depths of the tragedy while also putting a positive foot forward. I learned of some misconceptions that I’d had about what had actually happened at Hiroshima. One major one is that I had always pictured the bomb as completely obliterating the area, causing a brutal but swift elimination of the local population. The reality was much more gruesome — buildings were reduced to rubble instantly, but in many cases human casualties were lengthy and painful. It is not a viewing for the faint of heart.
The Atomic Bomb Dome is the nickname given to the building that was formerly known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. This building was made of concrete and steel and thus was stronger than the wooden buildings that mostly surrounded the area at the time. In addition, the bomb detonated nearly directly above this site, thus ensuring that most of the force was downward rather than lateral. As a result, though everyone inside was killed instantly, the structure was one of the only ones left standing. After many years of debate, the decision was made to preserve the building as a memorial to those who died in the attack
I met a man named Mito Kosei who was born in Hiroshima a few months after the bombing. He is very fortunate to have survived, as many babies from that time and place were stillborn or had severe birth defects as a result of the impact and radiation during their mother’s pregnancies. Mito had a number of severe illnesses as a child but has since recovered and managed to live a long life dedicated to sharing his family’s story.
Mito’s grandfather was not so fortunate. He was in downtown Hiroshima at the time of the bombing and survived initially despite being buried for a couple hours and suffering severe burns. However, within a few days he began having purple spots appear on his skin and coughing up black substances that looked like fish organs. He died within a few weeks.
Surviving the initial explosion and immediate aftermath was not sufficient to ensure a return to relatively normal life. The high degree of radiation exposure meant that Hiroshima survivors have a much higher than normal incidence of cancer, even years after the fact. In addition, survivors were considered outcasts in Japanese society. For example, it was considered a stigma to marry a bomb survivor, as a result of concerns about genetic mutation.
In the vicinity of the A-bomb Dome is the Peace Memorial Park. This park was built over the remains of a region of the city that was completely destroyed, and serves to honor the victims as well as to promote a peaceful society free of nuclear weapons.
Children were disproportionately affected by the bombing. In addition to multiple schools in the area, several groups of children were working in the area to clear away evacuation paths in anticipation of potential attacks on the city.
Finally there was a museum in the park. The museum housed many of the remains and individual stories of people who were involved. There were some very disturbing images and stories.
One final shocking takeaway was the degree to which Hiroshima has re-emerged as a major city. Despite losing the majority of its population in the bombing, it is now over 1 million people and within the top 10 largest cities in Japan. Near the bomb site are upscale shopping malls, local businesses, and other signs of a vibrant thriving economy. It’s amazing to see how much the place has put itself back together, after having also seen the effects of some of the damage caused.
This visit was a particularly sobering one having come from the US. Oddly, a relatively low percentage of visitors are actually American, which I think is unfortunate as this is a place that I would recommend everyone from the US go to see. While I’ve been to Holocaust exhibits and to Ground Zero in New York before, it’s a different experience altogether to go to such a place and realize that it was your country that caused such destruction.
I’m not going to use this as a stand for some dreamy world peace or “white guilt” rant — the reality of the world is that conflict, war, and destructive urges are a natural part of human existence, and it is naive to think that they will ever cease altogether. Still, for the amount of energy and fear we dedicated to the detention and elimination of foreign threats, it is sometimes worth turning the microscope around and reflecting on the role that American policy plays in escalating and persisting existing conflicts.
Similarly, I can’t sit here and criticize President Truman for making the decision to drop the bomb. World War II was a complex set of events. I’m sure that the decision was not made lightly, and the time for Monday morning quarterbacking passed 6 decades ago. Yet when you understand how Hiroshima itself was selected as a target site, it is hard to deny that this decision was made with the explicit decision was made to cause as many civilian casualties as possible.
All potential target cities were required to have a core city diameter of over ~3 km in order to ensure that the blast had intended effects. Further selection was based on topography conditions that would magnify, rather than contain, the explosion. The selection of Hiroshima as the first target site was based (incorrectly) on the belief that no American soldiers or POWs were there at the time. Finally, the decision was made to explode the bomb 600 m off the ground rather than at ground level, to ensure that the explosion would have great breadth rather than create a giant crater in the ground. All of this reminded me in various ways of the “shock and awe” tactics that started off the Iraq war — deliberate attempts at fear and intimidation with enormous cost to civilian lives.
One of the things that surprised me the most about Hiroshima was how the region has turned the tragic events of 1945 into a positive for the community. Rather than trying to hide the damage, the city has chosen to showcase it as an educational example for the rest of the world — setting up a museum, leaving standing structures preserved, inviting foreign leaders to visit. Hiroshima has also positioned itself as a global advocate for disarmament. A tradition has started where the mayor of Hiroshima will write a letter to any foreign leader who deploys a nuclear test, imploring that the testing be stopped. This has been going on for over 60 years and has resulted in nearly 600 letters being written, each written custom to the specific situation.
Notably, I also did not detect any level of animosity toward the United States in any of the official descriptions or survivor accounts. Obviously the US came up frequently, but purely in statements of fact without any emotional description attached to our actions, and I was uniformly welcomed by all there. If I put myself in the shoes of an average Muslim citizen visiting Ground Zero, would I expect to see similar treatment? I strongly suspect not. Obviously the time passage is much different, but Hiroshima’s model is an example of where our country should be within the next 10-20 years.
Finally, it is educational to see the subsequent political actions of our country through the eyes of another. Take the example of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT, in what appear to be a rather poor understanding of how acronyms work) which came into force in 1970. The treaty has 3 pillars: nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use of nuclear technology. Nonproliferation means that the 5 countries (US, UK, Russia, France, China) who had nuclear weapons at the time of the signing would remain “nuclear weapon states” with plans to disarm, while no other countries would not be allowed to start new programs. 43 years later, only token progress has been made on disarmament. Some countries (I heard comments to the effect from both Japanese and Australian visitors) may justifiably view this as an attempt to separate the haves from the have nots and allow these 5 armed states to maintain a monopoly on weapons technology. While the situation is complex enough that neither viewpoint is entirely correct, I think it is important to understand that inaction on our part looks in turn like a threat to much of the rest of the world.
Again, I’m not going to sit here and preach radical theories about what we should be doing. The notion of an end to all war is a long time away at best, and dangerous at worst if used as rhetoric to further the wrong objectives (let’s just say that World War I did successfully turn out to be the “war to end all wars”). A more effective goal would be to recognize and stop the unnecessary escalation that turns a conflict into a battle into a war into a genocide into an apocalypse. There are likely many conflicts from history that could have been stopped in a much less bloody way, and the only way to prevent similar mistakes happening in the future is through education and a complete understanding of the costs of war from all sides.
This is also not to pick on the US alone. This type of debate should be happening in every country, and I use the US as my example because it is where I as well as most of this blog’s readership have learned an understanding of the world and have the most to gain outside perspective on. It also stands to reason that when your military spending is as large as the rest of the world’s combined, that may be a bit on the extreme end and have some unintended consequences in the rest of the world, both in terms of practical effect and image. I strongly believe that one of the only ways to have intelligent debate on foreign policy is through the exchange of ideas with other cultures — without traveling to see and interact, it is simply impossible to understand how our actions have been or will be viewed.
I would highly encourage anyone who is visiting Japan to stop by Hiroshima. It’s a very evocative experience and particularly coming from the US, a sobering and educational look at the world. I hope that the small bit I have been able to share has been interesting and thought-provoking to you as well.