Originally published in Sneaky Magazine.
Staring up into Hiroshima’s pale sky whilst imagining the ominous silhouette of an American B-29 bomber and an atomic bomb whistling through the air directly towards you is a sobering and reflective moment for any individual. Knowing that you’re at the epicentre of the single most destructive moment orchestrated by man in history; standing on the very chunk of earth that took the full brunt of a 6000°C nuclear fireball that consumed all combustible material within 3km, flattened 70% of the city’s buildings and extinguished 100,000 human lives in an incandescent instant, is a visceral sensation that burrows down and lies heavily in the depth of your chest.
It wasn’t until I’d witnessed this little square of atmosphere with my own eyes; this exact pocket of blue, now empty and clear, that I understood how it’s only individuals whose memories and lives were cremated into dust that will ever really understand the alien ferocity unleashed here 70 years ago. From this location, decades of incomprehensible suffering were bestowed upon Hiroshima courtesy of the two billion dollar atomic payload of ‘The Enola Gay’. Fortunately, for its 12-man crew, the somewhat distastefully named American Boeing Superfortress had already raced its shadow across the Japanese landscape for 18km by the time the shockwave of the mushroom cloud caught up with it. From relative safety, they could stare back at the apocalyptic scene with the satisfaction of a mission accomplished – jubilant in the knowledge they had just shortened “the agony of war” and saved millions of lives by giving birth to nuclear warfare in a country described by President Truman as having “abandoned all pretence of obeying international laws of warfare”.
But whether or not America’s efforts to directly associate the end of the war with the nuclear attacks on Japan was just a means of greasing the burdened wheels of American taxpayers –whilst smoke screening their desire to rise from the smouldering wastelands of WWII ahead of Russia as the world’s supreme Super Power, is a subject that is still indignantly contested by Youtube users to this day. Some of whom, robustly defend America’s right to manufacture diplomatic ammunition in the face of the inevitable ideological backlash, by drawing close comparisons in human rights abuses between Japan and the Nazis, to whom they were in alliance. The term ‘theatre of war’ starts to make sense as you find yourself wading through the histrionic political posturing, open letters and propaganda filled Presidential television addresses, all of which resonate with a certain austere, carved-into-the annals of history significance.
It’s the weight of this significance that makes the humble stature and concealed location of the hypocentre marker all the more surprising. The marble, bit-more-than-a-metre-high monument with a small plaque, sits on an unmarked city street, next to a nondescript car park and a few hundred metres away from the much more popular Memorial, Atomic Dome and Museum. The location, which to me, felt more significant than the busier areas, is easy to miss and slightly hard to find. It isn’t signposted, it’s not in Google Maps and as I sat at the base of it for half an hour, only one slightly reluctant American couple clutching Hiroshima pamphlets made their way past.
The hallowed area has a particularly ordinary atmosphere and is now home to apartment buildings with cascading green foliage, flashing neon signs, locals cruising cheerfully by on bikes, teenagers staring into their smartphones and businessmen popping cans of coffee from vending machines on their way to after-work drinks. As I watched a young Japanese gentleman focus all his attention on not scratching his bright red Toyota Supra whilst reversing it into a tight parking space, I realised that in this moment of concentration, living in the crosshairs of nuclear devastation was the last thing on his mind. He seemed an apt metaphor for a city that whilst never forgetting its past –has chosen to move on, rebuild and look towards to the future.
As soon as I had stepped off the Shinkansen earlier that day, and got my first look at a city that until that moment had just been a word thrown around arbitrarily as a totem of something incomprehensibly malevolent – a slightly surreal haze had descended over me. Now, the series of syllables Hi-ro-shi-ma was becoming something real, somewhere I could smell and touch, a city I could walk around within and respond to.
Later that afternoon, feeling willed towards the memorial area, I rode down the Peace Boulevard; a 100m wide, 3.6km stretch of road with generous footpaths, beautifully manicured gardens and overhanging trees. Still rationalising my surroundings, I couldn’t help but attach meaning to things that would normally hold no significance. All the buildings felt cleaner, straighter, perfectly aligned as if they’d been built with the utmost precision as a direct reaction to chaos. A crane working on new infrastructure represented what must have been the almost omnipresent sounds of construction for years after the bomb. The pigments in the flowers looked hyper-vivid, the sun beating down on my skin felt particularly piercing, old ladies on bikes with baskets made me wonder what memories their minds were full of, and old black crows with crooked eyes caw-cawing strangely in the grass seemed more ill-omened than usual.
I rolled into the Peace Memorial and was presented with a huge expanse of tiled white concrete radiating heat and light. The park, which sort of resembles a 1950’s Thunderbirds-are-go science fiction vision of what they thought the future might look like, was established in 1954 to “comfort the souls of the victims of the atomic bombing and to pray for everlasting world peace”. It was now populated with large tourist buses, bikes rolling in every direction and hoards of Japanese children being herded into lines by their teachers.
Entry into the museum, almost monolithic in its architectural simplicity, is basically free with an admission fee of 50yen (50c) and starts off with the pre-bomb history of Hiroshima. The story panelling works much like a film that takes the time to develop characters and the viewer’s empathy with the storyline. The protagonist, in this case, is the city of Hiroshima itself, which had a background as a military stronghold and a bustling modern metropolis renowned for its high-quality University education.
As you make your way around the building and its chronological material, the ambience is provided by a marauding soundtrack emanating from the looping black and white introductory movie at the entrance of the building. Around the centrepiece of two dioramas graphically demonstrating the city before and after the bomb, cabinets are filled with old political posters, watches frozen in time at 8.15am, a letter to President Roosevelt signed by Einstein outlining the potential for nuclear weaponry, rusted tricycles, food ration cards and a heart-breaking outfit hung off a wire mannequin made up from the remains of three children’s scorched uniforms. However, it wasn’t until I got to pick up and actually hold roof tiles and bottles deformed by the intensity of the heat in my hands, that the strength of the explosion and the emotional weight of my surroundings really starting sinking in.
The museum’s decision to focus on the details of individuals caught up in the firestorm helped put names and human faces on otherwise unfathomable death-toll statistics. I felt particularly moved by a photograph of first-year student Shigeru Orimen and the physical immediacy of witnessing his jet-black, petrified lunch of rice and pickled vegetables on display in a charred, dented lunchbox. As tears started to form in the corner of my eyes, I forced myself to stare, face and absorb every aspect of black and white photographs depicting the terribly deformed, black-blistered bodies of human beings writhing in agony in hospital – all of which died later from their injuries. The museum is unapologetic and pulls no punches in describing and displaying the graphic and terrible nature of what happened on August 6th, 1945, but does so in a commendably objective fashion. This is no anti-American shrine of bitter resentment, and in fact, parts of the accompanying text implicate Japanese atrocities in the war, discussing their forced labour camps and describing the draconian initiatives of the Japanese government to control its populous as “denying even freedom of thought.”
The facts and figures of Hiroshima and WWII are readily available online and in textbooks, but there were a few fragments of information that helped put things in perspective. Things like their war slogans: “extravagance is the enemy” and “want nothing until we win” seemed to sum up the maniacal Japanese propaganda machine particularly well. The fact that the Allies deliberately held off attacks on A-bomb target cities to maximise casualties and damage was harrowing; and after the war, Japan was occupied by allied forces who dictated strict censorship of broadcast and published material. So severe, that a lot of Japanese people outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only learnt of the implications of the attack after 7 years when the occupation ended.
Through all the horror, suffering, memorabilia, photos, politics, infographics, videos, models, glass cabinets and stories, the museum’s untiring dedication to nuclear disarmament and eventual ‘world peace’ shines through as their primary objective. Their international efforts, that continue to this day, are best illustrated by the multiple walls covered with engraved copies of the over 600 open letters sent by successive Mayors of Hiroshima protesting and condemning every nuclear test around the world since 1968. This degree of hope and faith seemed distinctly Japanese and at the end of the museum, there is an opportunity for visitors to add their weight to the issue by signing their own name on a petition calling for a world free of nuclear weapons.
After signing my name, I walked back out into the park, around the fountain and sat down near the eternal flame flickering at odds with the burning sun. Surrounded by gardeners on their hands and knees with tiny trowels reverently manicuring the gardens, I noticed a group of young foreign girls taking selfies at the Memorial Cenotaph next to Japanese people in prayer and considered the concept of Disaster Tourism. Hiroshima is, after all, one of Japan’s leading tourist attractions, but what exactly compels people to visit areas of devastation? Do people, like the group of girls at the monument who walked off jovially discussing their night ahead, really come here to reflect on any part of themselves, our violent tendencies, history and the nature of what it means to exist as a human being? Or is modern day Hiroshima just the credits of a real-life horror movie people think they need to sit through at some stage of their lives?
A visit to anywhere with deep emotional implications, without any real intent to connect, seems a false emblem of awareness; serving as nothing more than an opportunity to upload a photo in an effort to create the air of empathy and a mirage of cultural sensitivity. Conversely, does sitting down and taking the time to contemplate how the mountains were the only witness to the river boiling and writing notes to the chimes of the trams and leaves blowing in the wind really make an individual any more connected to the ether of suffering history and the human condition subjects us to? Articulating ideas of this nature doesn’t suddenly elevate a writer into a holy realm of illumination, but there does seem to be degrees to which people open themselves up to self-reflection and contemplation.
The next day I visited the park in the summer rain a final time and imagined the flesh melting off the bodies of a couple making love and everyone I care about being incinerated by a radioactive fireball. It’s safe to say, an hour later, when I sat down on the Shinkansen bound for Tokyo I hadn’t quite reconciled my feelings about Hiroshima and felt no closer to understanding what had drawn me here in the first place. Whilst I admired and related to Hiroshima’s optimistic vision of a Nuclear-free world, after seeing their 3D model of how many countries around the world still maintained nuclear weapons, I couldn’t help but think how tokenistic my signature falling into the box yesterday had felt. As the train accelerated and the raindrops on the windows traced their way back towards Hiroshima, images of the wall of Mayoral letters growing unabated until finally being razed in the next apocalypse ran through my mind. Fortuitously, before I could get too lost gazing out the window meditating on my less than optimistic stance on the future of humanity, I was tapped on the shoulder by a grey-haired elderly gentleman who graciously wanted to know if I’d like a coconut flavoured chocolate stick.
His name was Hiroyuki, a 70-year-old ex-nuclear engineer, with slim and veiny arms sporting a black Casio G-shock watch. The providential nature of meeting someone who knew how to enrich uranium whilst pulling out of Hiroshima station was not lost on me. Like a lot of Japanese people, he was incredibly welcoming and friendly. Unlike a lot of Japanese people, he actually spoke pretty good English. He started telling me how he’d been in Hiroshima to visit his 93-year-old mother. A woman, whose mind was once filled with countless memories of her family, the war and a life well lived, but now, due to Alzheimer’s couldn’t remember what happened an hour ago. This elderly stranger’s monthly ritual of visiting his geriatric mother (who he described as “his worry”) despite the fact she wouldn’t remember or have any concept of the effort he was making, struck a chord and reminded me that in every pocket of the world there are kind-natured people acting selflessly out of love and consideration for others.
Whilst conversing, Hiroyuki was studiously looking over papers, still working into his 70’s as an agricultural engineer. He told me that after he finished his work he’d be drinking the rest of the way to Tokyo and that he’d start by buying two beers, “one for me and one for you”. I told him I was changing trains in Osaka, but we worked out that we were both transferring at different stations onto the same Tokyo bound train. After the transfer, he made the effort to come find me and told me that once we’d past Kyoto (where a lot of people would get on) it would be an opportune time to come back to his carriage and see if he had a vacant seat next to him.
Sure enough, when I popped my head into the compartment the first thing I saw was his hand waving vigorously from the back of the carriage. As he ushered me into the seat next to him he passed me a giant can of Kirin Lager beer, which he assured me was the “best beer in Japan”. He’d also gone to the effort of buying us a smorgasbord of snacks and promptly opened the packets and arranged them around both our drop-down tables. He seemed upbeat and slightly exhilarated at the mischievous nature of swapping seats to get drunk together, and as we toasted “kanpai” with rice patties blurring past the window at 300kmh, I could sense Hiroyuki’s generous and kind nature starting to steer the bow of my metaphorical ship back towards the metaphorical light.
A few beers and a terrorist scare due to my unattended bag later, we were laughing at his pronunciation of his cat “Meron” (like the fruit), discussing his high-achieving adult daughter who lived at the base of Mt. Fuji and how he was against Japanese whaling but used to eat whale meat in University because it was cheaper than beef. Angling the conversation towards his childhood, it turned out that he’d actually been born in occupied China during the war and his father had been captured by the Russians after Japan’s surrender – but had been released after a year because he did not work for the military. His family had then escaped on American sponsored boats that offered passage for retreating Japanese nationals in an effort to undermine Russia’s influence over Japanese citizens on the continent. He seemed incredibly grateful and credited the powers above and almost paradoxically America, with saving his life and that of his family.
Returning to Hiroshima in 1946, he grew up as a child with many orphan friends. He taught himself English from allied military radio and over the next 16 years saw the effect of nuclear fallout on its victims whilst witnessing the rebuild of Hiroshima unfold with his own eyes. With a hint of nationalistic pride, he told me that Hiroshima had managed to restore power to certain areas the day after the bombing and within three days the tram service was back up and running. Later explaining that the trams in Hiroshima still symbolise regeneration and hope to its locals today. After insisting I try a can of his favourite black coffee from the trolley pushed by a woman in a well-fitted beige uniform, he added that he was against war of all kinds – stating “from this point of view, I cannot have anger at Americans”. Instead, he talked about the Japanese mistreatment of prisoners of war, directed frustration at the stubborn Japanese politicians of the time and described the conflict as being caused by a “fundamental misunderstanding of each other as human beings”. His attitudes towards opening Japan to foreign immigration to counter the Japanese population crisis (where he suggested I find myself a Japanese wife and add to the population myself), anti-nuclear opinions in regards to Fukushima (where he knew many people involved and warned science could never contain nature) and active life-style (he still swam, played chess, literally invented machines and was teaching himself software programming) all helped paint a picture of him as a liberal, forward-thinking gentlemen living a simple life of work and pleasure with kind hearted, open-minded wisdom; who at 70 still had a verve and energy for learning and living that held the lifestyles of people five decades younger than him to the flame.
With the unusual sensation of coffee and beer working in concert, the tunnels and concrete vistas flashing past the window signalled our imminent arrival into the megalopolis of Tokyo. As we stepped off the train, into the subterranean nest of rush hour Shibuya, Hiroyuki led me to my platform and we parted ways, but not before one last farewell gift: a packet of two peanut butter cookies his wife had given him as a treat for the journey. Whilst just a simple snack, one last kind gesture seemed to typify the nature of this purveyor of wisdom, whose real-life demonstration of Hiroshima’s values had really helped ground the legacy of Hiroshima in my immediate reality. Shaking hands and exchanging “name cards”, we said goodbye and I was left, half drunk and tripping on caffeine sitting on the platform contemplating the last 48 hours of my life.
Cracking open my peanut butter cookies, and watching the crumbs tumble onto the same shoes that had stood at the epicentre of a nuclear bomb, I supposed that it is the indiscriminately murderous nature of atomic warfare and its lasting effects that separate people’s emotional reaction to it from other atrocities of war. To sit and try to come to grips with every facet of a tragedy of this magnitude could drive any person to the doorstep of darkness and begs the question: can individuals from affluent Western countries of our generation ever really quantify, fathom or have any real understanding of what it is to suffer on such a scale? The simple answer is no, and regardless of what lens you focus your opinion of potential conclusions to WWII through –be it nationalistic, spiritual, strategic, mathematic or philosophic, there is no single answer or outcome that doesn’t result in violence, tragedy and the gratuitous loss of lives.
The fact that war and conflict still exists, serves as a reminder that as a collective species we aren’t anywhere near as evolved as we’d like to think. Envisaging this idea at Shibuya station, where over three million strangers a day pass through, the old man on the train’s philosophy of “connecting and living as human beings before living as animals” seemed a poignant one. Unfortunately, it seems that until we are lead by those who can spread a unified message inspiring great tracts of humanity to abandoned outdated cultural dogmas and constantly utilise our tools of consciousness and critical thinking, the sea-change for our planet is many generations away.
Whether or not this utopian vision for our future eventuates, depends on our ability as a species to rise above our us versus them mentality and to replace our dependency on distraction with one of self-exploration. There seems a direct correlation between the unresolved skirmishes we carry within ourselves and the nature of the political power structures that dictate our lives. Conflict at its most basic represents an absence of communication and an unwillingness to understand someone else’s truth. I’d seen the result of thousands of years of the same tribal attitudes with my own eyes, and it seemed to me we lived in a world as fraught with tragedy and confusion as any time in our history. Without at least attempting to explore ourselves and improve our levels our self-awareness, we’ll never get close to understanding each other and living in any kind of collective harmony. Sitting there listening to Japanese station announcements echo down the tunnels, watching the trains come and go and with the conversation with Hiroyuki still fresh in my mind, comprehending ourselves and accepting each other, felt like one in the same.