On August 6th, 1945, 75 years and 6 days before I arrived in Hiroshima, an atomic bomb dropped by an American B-29 bomber detonated about 600m above the Shima Hospital. It completely destroyed (almost) everything within a mile radius, obliterated the island district of Nakajima, instantly vapourised hundreds of people, killed thousands from the blast and subsequent firestorm, and tens of thousands more from injuries and radiation poisoning over the subsequent decades.
Many of the dead and injured were mobilised children, working in Nakajima district to demolish buildings to create firebreaks.
At the time, many people predicted that plants would not grow in the blast zone for 70 years. However the rebuilding of the city began almost immediately. With the war over, displaced people returned to Hiroshima to help with reconstruction, and people from elsewhere in Japan came to help with the relief and reconstruction efforts. Unfortunately many of them were also exposed to the effects of radiation, but this danger did not prove as long-lasting as initially feared, and now Hiroshima is a vibrant, thriving modern city.
One of the few buildings to (partially) survive the blast was the Prefectural Office Building. The outer structure was largely destroyed but the central column and dome survived, and this “Atomic Dome” has become the focal point and symbol of Hiroshima’s horrendous experience and its durability. Close by, taking up most of the space where Nakajima used to be, is the Peace Memorial Park containing the Peace Museum, which contains artefacts, photographs, drawings and testimony from survivors.
Modern Hiroshima is a baseball city, and its team is the Hiroshima Carp. They were playing a match in the Mazda Stadium the evening I arrived, which you can see from the train as it approaches Hiroshima Station. Throughout the evening I saw groups, couples and families decked out in Carp uniforms, carrying souvenirs, making their way back from the game.
I picked an APA hotel, the same chain I used when I first arrived in Tokyo, because I knew it was good value, and I knew what I would get. This was bigger than the one I stayed in in Tokyo, I was on the 11th floor, and it had its own restaurant and spa. It was next to a river – Hiroshima has three main rivers and various connecting sections, creating a series of islands like Nakajima. In fact the name “Hiroshima” means “wide island.”
The rivers stopped the fires spreading and also appeared to be a source of sanctuary from the heat. But as more and more people jumped in the river, the number of bodies increased. In the days after the blast, men were using hooks more or less continuously to fish body after body out of the rivers.
I had two full days in Hiroshima and booked a guided tour on the first day. I was greeted at the meeting point by a young student called Momoka, who said I should call her “Peach” (Momo in Japanese). I was her only customer today, in fact I was her first customer since the state of emergency was declared in March. She was studying English but I reassured her that her English was very good.
We walked down a main street and she pointed out a former bank building to me. This was one of the few buildings that survived the blast, she told me, because all the top floor windows had been blocked. Not much further down the road, we arrived at the Peace Museum. Momo got me my ticket and said she would be waiting outside – she was not allowed to do a guided tour inside the museum. But I could take as long as I wanted.
The museum was largely the result of work by Shogo Nagaoka, its first director, who took it upon himself to research and collect debris from the blast area to demonstrate exactly where the blast was centred and how it caused the effects it did. The city ultimately commissioned architect Kenzo Tange to build a museum to exhibit some of this collection. Survivors and relatives of victims then began to make their own donations, of clothing and personal objects, photographs and stories. Many of these are very powerful and moving.
There was an ID wallet from a 15-year old boy called Kijima Kazuo. He had been trapped in a building but his rescuer was unable to get him out from the rubble as the fire burned stronger. “I can’t save you, please forgive me!” the rescuer said. “Thank you” said Kazuo. “Please give this to my family on Miyajima.”
There is also a section of the museum focusing on the Manhattan Project and the decisions to build, and deploy the atomic bomb. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that it was a political decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan. The war could have been won without them. The main concerns were Japan’s ideological unwillingness to surrender and bring shame upon the Emperor, and the risk of a Soviet invasion resulting in a post-war communist satellite state in Japan. The USA needed to end the war quickly and decisively for its own political convenience.
I met up with Momo again and we walked through the Peace Memorial Park. We found a tree that had withstood the blast and was still alive and growing. This tree had its own song which you could hear by pressing a button. It was not a good song. We then walked on to the fountain and the Peace Memorial, inspired by traditional Japanese houses, and representing a safe haven for all the souls of the victims of the bomb to find shelter and safety. A big theme is water, as most of the victims were desperately calling for water as they died – to stop the fire, to soothe their burns, to quench their thirst and clear the ash from their mouths and throats.
The Memorial Park is lush, verdant and full of different beautiful shades of green, far greener than anything in Tokyo. It is as if the plants are gleefully defying the predictions that nothing would ever grow again.
Our next stop was the Atomic Dome itself. All fenced off, and carefully strengthened to prevent further collapse, it is a potent symbol, but a controversial one. Many voices in the city wanted it demolished as a painful reminder of the destruction. But it survived and has become perhaps the most iconic image of the city.
Not far from the Dome is the new Shima Hospital. Built on the ruins of the old hospital, its current director is the grandson of the founder, Kaoru Shima. On the day of the bomb, Dr Shima was out of town assisting with a complicated operation. His hospital was completely obliterated, all his patients, and all his staff died instantly as the bomb exploded directly above the hospital. The hypocentre is therefore the location in the air where the bomb exploded, but the hospital site can be considered “ground zero” – the greatest impact of the blast.
Momo then took me to the new Orizuru building. Orizuru is the Japanese word for “paper crane” – the very common origami construction that you often find in Japanese hotel rooms. We had dinner there – Nama chips and a delicious strawberry smoothie, sitting in the rooftop garden overlooking the city. Just below the rooftop is a room where you can make your own paper crane, which I did – it wasn’t perfect but it was serviceable. I then got to drop it into a huge glass column climbing the side of the building, where 16,000 orizuru had already been dropped before mine. They are planning to fill the whole column with paper cranes. The paper crane is another symbol of peace because of a girl, Sadako Sasaki, who was a victim of the bombing but managed to fold 1000 orizuru before dying from leukemia.
I didn’t know about the black rain. Some time after the explosion, it began to rain in certain parts of the city. The rain was black and sticky. It was highly radioactive, but the people of the city did not know that. They were hot, they were thirsty, they were wounded. So many just opened their mouths to the sky and drank the poison that would kill them. Some of the clothes in the museum still have black raindrop stains on them.
Hiroshima had a long history before the bomb. It was a castle city in the Samurai period, after the Meiji restoration the castle grounds were repurposed as a military base. One of the reasons Hiroshima was selected as a target was because of it’s key military importance. The other main reason Hiroshima was selected was because it was wide, flat, and surrounded by mountains that would contain and focus the blast for maximum destruction.
The wooden castle tower and grounds were completely destroyed by the blast, though it did not catch fire. In the years of reconstruction, a faithful replica of the castle tower was created. This is a five-story pagoda on a hill, offering many pleasing views of the city. It is also now a museum, telling the story of Hiroshima’s history with the focus on the castle.
After my tour finished and I said goodbye to Momo, I continued exploring on my own and made my way to the castle. It was very hot, very sunny, and I was worried about sunburn and heatstroke so I needed to find something indoors. The castle is surrounded by a protective moat and again there were a couple of trees in the grounds (a willow and a eucalyptus) that pre-dated the bombing and survived it. There are no elevators in the castle, so to get to the top I had to climb the hill and five flights of stairs. I took my sweet time about it, and took plenty of rest breaks!
Eventually I started walking back to my hotel near the station. It was about a 20 – 30 minute walk, maybe 1 or 2 miles. There are pictures at the station showing that the devastation reached that far at least. I tried to imagine what this walk would have been like 75 years ago, no buildings, no roads, no traffic, fire and smoke everywhere, burned and blinded people crying for water, bodies and body parts strewn haphazardly.
Nobody knows how many people died in Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. Many victims left no remains. Many victims died with their entire families, so there was no-one to look for them. Many people had been displaced by the war, and records of who was living where were sparse. And many such records were destroyed in the blast anyway. Soldiers, Korean labourers, even American prisoners of war, all died, mostly unaccounted for.
Seeing the place where this happened, reading the names and stories of victims we know about, and the horrific photographs of unimaginable injuries, maybe it can begin to give an idea of the kind of horror that people experienced that day. But only a beginning. I hope no-one ever gets to learn the full extent of such horror.
One survivor said “There were only three colours in Hiroshima. Black, brown and red. When I was young I used to visit a temple and see pictures of what Hell looked like. At least in Hell there is a little green. In Hiroshima, there were only three colours.”