Hiroshima sits in a bowl between mountains and sea, a setting of stunning beauty. Drained by seven rivers that flow through its streets, dotted with bridges, waterside parks and cafes, the city is just across the water from the famous floating Tori Gates of Miyajima Island. Trams, old and new rumble through Hiroshima’s clean, airy streets. There are gardens, temples, shrines, a mix of modern and traditional architecture. There are castles and art galleries. And at the city’s heart, where once there was an elegant green-domed waterside structure designed by a Czech architect, the prosaically named Industrial Promotion Hall that housed exhibitions and cultural events, there is now a mournful concrete shell, the unmistakable silhouette of the A-bomb dome. This eerie World Heritage Site, a symbol of both hope and utter dejection, stands at the centre of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, the sober complex of museums and memorials from which everything in this modern city radiates.
I can’t say when I first became aware of Hiroshima. The bomb was always part of the landscape of our lives when I was growing up. We knew it had been dropped, we knew that if it were ever to be used again the world would come to an end, that World War Three would unleash unthinkable destruction. The fear of the apocalypse lurked in all of us. But it was only when I happened to see the film Hiroshima Mon Amour that I began to understand what all this could mean on a human scale. Grainy black and white images of blank-eyed suffering, of people staring in disbelief at their own burned and devastated flesh. A camera panning slowly over the empty grid of what was once a bustling city. And of course the familiar mushroom cloud burgeoning above an unseen city.
So, for me, a visit to Hiroshima was a necessity. My parents had spoken of it to me when I was a child, they had been given a permit to visit in the days when the bomb site was closed to outsiders, they had seen the flat emptiness that had replaced the once bustling city. I came to the reborn metropolis almost seventy years after its destruction, just a few weeks before Obama’s visit, the first from a serving American president. I was not surprised to read that this visit was controversial. I had learned during my years living in the US in the 1970s that my own view, that it had been wrong to use nuclear weapons to force Japan to surrender, was not at all current in the US. The accepted view was that if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been destroyed, the war would have dragged on and on with ever greater loss of life. The Peace Museum in Hiroshima sets out all those arguments with great dignity, the debate goes on. But the survivors, their descendants and the citizens of the new Hiroshima, a city devoted to the promotion of world peace, were grateful that Obama came. No apology was expected, his presence was enough.
I set aside a full day for the Museum and Peace Park. It was harrowing, of course. Hard work threading methodically through the complex of statues, structures and parks on the site where the explosion was centred. The museum itself is simply laid out. You take a headset in the language of your choice and make your way through the displays. Most moving are the artifacts from victims: watches, burnt clothing, children’s toys, all with a simple explanation of what that person was doing at the time of the bomb, and the circumstances of their deaths. Some died instantaneously, some after suffering ghastly burns and radiation sickness. Glass bottles, twisted and melted, charred tattered clothing from adults and children alike, lunch boxes and bicycles recovered from the debris. For many of the items there is a sobering account of the fate suffered by their owners. There are personal accounts of what it had been like to witness and survive the events of that day. On the train on the way to Hiroshima I had read John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, written in the aftermath of the bomb, a slim volume that gives voice to a handful of survivors. In clear-eyed, simple prose, ordinary people describe their experience of that day: their bewilderment in the face of the noiseless, blinding flash that erupted in the sky on a clear, sunny morning; their naïve but reasonable assumption that this had been just another bomb; the gradual realization that this was an event without precedent. They talk of the black rain that fell after the bomb, of the firestorm that destroyed the buildings left standing after the blast, of the children who simply vanished. Of the overwhelming numbers of burned, sick and blinded victims who made their way to makeshift hospitals and treatment centres that were themselves hopelessly understaffed and almost completely devoid of medicines or supplies. And after all this began to abate, the onset of the unknown sickness that killed some within a few days and delivered a lingering death to others. The museum tells the same story, and with the same unadorned simplicity. Visitors ponder the exhibits in silence, each person immured in his or her own world, headset clamped to the ears.
And after the museum there are the memorials of the Peace Park complex, the lists of names of victims, the reminders that there were not only Japanese people killed that day, that among the victims were American prisoners of war and thousands of Koreans conscripted into forced labour in Japan. The Children’s Peace Monument to all the thousands of children who died, festooned with paper cranes in memory of a young girl who folded paper cranes in a vain effort to fend off her own death from radiation sickness. The cenotaph and flame, a symbolic flame that will only be extinguished when the world is rid of nuclear weapons. Small displays, handouts and booklets to read, some from hibakusha, the survivors of the bombing, telling their stories and making the plea for world peace. And finally there is the dome itself, huge and imposing in its stark emptiness, shored up by scaffolding, the remnants of the structure left as it was on that day.
Impossible to come away from a day at the Peace Memorial Park without being sickened by the horror of it all, moved by determination of the citizens of Hiroshima to ensure that this never happens again, that the world will find its way to peace.
After the park I made my way to the Shukkeien Garden, a reconstructed garden in the centre of the city, a haven of beauty and order like so many gardens in Japan. Amidst the gently curving bridges and walkways, I came upon a great gingko tree, leaning at an impossible angle, its strangely shaped leaves offering dappled shade. This venerable tree survived the blast while the rest of the garden was obliterated. Its seeds are gathered and sent around the world to be planted as symbols of peace and hope for the future. Crossing the domed bridge over one of the garden’s elegantly sculpted ponds, brightly coloured carp jostling open-mouthed at my feet as I passed, I turned back to look again at that gingko tree, trying to impress its structure into my mind and willing myself to carry away with me its silent message of hope.