Monday, January 10, 2005

Hiroshima

Approach Hiroshima with care and reverence, I thought, as I had done Salem, Massachusetts, only to find witches decorating every second house. But that was a relatively small scale incident nearly four hundred years ago. When I went to Auschwitz I found the locals taking their dogs for walks around the camp, and the Arbeit Macht Frei gate was a favourite stopping-place for to dogs to take sniff and a piss. Life must be lived, and we cannot disconnect a whole city from the daily affairs of human life.

And so it is with Hiroshima, which reminded me a little of Coventry, the city in the UK which proportionately suffered the most bomb damage in World War II. Hiroshima, like all cities in Japan, is rich and vibrant: Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Armani, a large pink-light entertainment district, smartly dressed people exuding prosperity.

As in all of Japan on this public holiday, Coming of Age Day, all who reach the age of 20, must register at the Town Hall. It is custom for girls to do so in kimono, and for many this is the first time they will ever have worn one. Unaccustomed to making short and dainty steps, they stumble, trip and fall. Many just call a taxi.

The Hiroshima Swimming Club is holding a dip in the chilly waters of the Motoyasugawa River, just next to Peace Park. They enter the icy water silently, do not complain about the cold, then a quick 50 metre dash. Some synchronized swimming, then two swimmers open out parasols and fans. We are told the next swimmer will draw the kanji for peace while in the water to provide a nice shot for the press with Genbaku Dome, the building that survived more or less intact and which has become a symbol of Hiroshima, in the background. But no, the kanji he draws demand that the city council provide his baseball club with a ground. Life in Hiroshima is certainly normal!

Hiroshima is at the forefront of Japan’s official pacifist policy. The Mayor, of whatever political affiliation, will write a protest letter to any country that carries out a nuclear test.

And this is the theme that runs through the Peace Memorial Museum, which meticulously describes the history of pre-war Japan, the build-up of the military barracks in the city, from where forces were despatched to Korea and China, the blast itself, the immediate tragedy, the reconstruction, and the consequent illnesses such as microcephaly, cancer and leukaemia, which many later suffered from, and the problems which many of these hibakusha still have to cope with. Blasted household items and burnt clothes are exhibited; I remember a toddler’s tricycle, a tin helmet, and various handkerchiefs. We see photos of the charred victims and the desolation of the city. Particularly poignant was a shadow etched on some stone steps where the victim took the force of the blast and prevented the step from darkening.

At the exit we see drawings by the survivors: a man taking his very last swig of water; blackened corpses; bloated corpses in a backwater; a son with his sister on his back looking for his father amidst more corpses in a river.

Of particular interest are the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Roosevelt early in the war outlining the advantages of the bomb and excerpts from the diaries of the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Japan’s growing militarization is not spared, but neither is the American desire to prevent the Russians from getting a foothold in Japan, and Truman’s need to prove that the US$2 billion invested in research for the A-bomb was worthwhile.

In the adjacent Peace Memorial Hall we are surrounded by a 360 degree photo of the charred and desolate city and can look up records and pictures of those who were killed and enter a huge computerized file of personal memoirs of the survivors.

My hotel overlooks the Yanagi-bashi Bridge over the Kyobashi River, some two kilometres from the epicentre of the blast. Now it is flanked by offices, flats and tree-lined walkways. But I imagine that on the 6 August 1945 some of the 150,000 victims of the A-bomb were desperately seeking water and some relief in this now tranquil river.

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