At 8:15 AM, August 6, 1945, the militarized southern Japanese city of Hiroshima was utterly destroyed by the first ever atomic bomb to be dropped on a population. This, we all know.
The devastating power of this nuclear weapon was overwhelming – environmentally, militarily and emotionally.
Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the war was over.
Hiroshima is now a major tourist destination. The city has branded itself around peace and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is moving and factual. It does not so much explore causes, rather the direct physical and human impact of nuclear war.
The bomb exploded 600m in the air above Hiroshima and immediately incinerated virtually everything and everyone within the city. As all the city’s documents were destroyed, there will never be a full accounting of lives lost, but at least 70,000 people were killed that morning. Many thousands more would die from the after effects.
The population of Hiroshima in 1945 was roughly 300,000 people. Likely 1/2 of those perished as a direct result of the attack.
The museum and historical documentation emphasize that among the dead were Korean labourers (effectively war slaves), school children and American prisoners of war.
Should I have been present on that horrible day, I would hope to have been in the centre of the city, and therefore instantly vaporized.
After reading the many testimonials of survivors, the following days after the explosion would have been pure agony. With no shelter, no pain medicine, and the summer heat, the smell of scorched skin would have overwhelmed any senses. Thousands perished along the banks of the radioactive river. Desperate family members trying in vain to help – or find – loved ones.
Again, these are facts we all know. Visiting the Peace Park in the centre of the city offers a potent reminder of the utter brutality and senselessness of war.
Poignantly, while contemplating Hiroshima, we learned of chemical attacks against civilians in Syria. Sometimes one struggles not to lose hope in humanity.
The visitor experience in this most moving place does an excellent job of describing the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ but it perhaps skirts around the ‘why.’
I did arrive with the understanding that Japan has never taken the same kind of ownership of Word War 2 as has Germany. At least in terms of Hiroshima, I think this may be the case.
I am a fan of revisionist, post-colonial history and still believe a true reckoning of the very recent colonial period has not fully occurred and continues to haunt much of our planet. Japan’s colonial and military efforts culminating in the 1945 attacks were brutal and unrepentant, and this must be understood.
Theoretically, all sides in WW2 were signatories to conventions protecting civilians, but the mass bombings from London to Dresden proved such declarations entirely meaningless.
When the Axis powers capitulated in Europe, Japan continued fighting. The population believed their emperor to be a God and the Japanese military death cult suggested months of vicious battles. The museum told us the bomb was used to justify the high cost of its development – and to subdue Soviet expansionism. This may have some truth, but the reality of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant an abrupt and complete end to the war.
As brutal as the use of A-bombs may have been, I think I can, in part, understand the decision.
But now we can apply the brutality of military conflict to our modern world. Hiroshima is, simply put, the ultimate proof of the futility of war. When conflict leads to a parent holding their burnt child in their arms, we have all failed. When the environment is destroyed, when we believe a God – our God – wants us to murder, when the economy is co-opted to support a military-industrial system, when people are enslaved, when our scientific minds are dedicated to killing, we have failed miserably.
We are one species, on one planet and when our petty tribalism culminates in utter destruction, we have failed.
I first visited a concentration camp at the age of 18. More than 20 years on, I have seen atomic annihilation. I have led tours around more battlefields than I can remember and on each occasion, the conversation migrates to the pointlessness of war.
To quote Charles de Gaulle: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”
As this is primarily a travel website, I should add a few notes about modern Hiroshima. The city is well laid out and quite compact. Understandably, all of the architecture is modern, but the 16th-century Shogun castle has been rebuilt and is well worth a visit.
The city is located in a large river delta. Water is everywhere. The original castle was built upon stone oyster beds. The early city could have been a model for a European feudal principate.
We stayed in a very good – and surprisingly affordable – hotel, only a short walk from the Peace Park. The city’s residents were as friendly and polite as everyone in Japan, and the pace was a little slower than in the larger cities further north. Nevertheless, Hiroshima is home to well over a million people, yet is easily walkable.
On our second day, we took a train and a ferry to Miyajima, on Itsukushima Island. ‘Wild’ deer walk freely around the village and the many Buddhist shrines were lovely to visit. It was my first experience in rural/traditional Japan.
Oysters are on most menus in the region and food is delicious. We twice ate in restaurants where we ordered and paid by machine before the food was brought to our table.
Any trip to this part of the world should include a visit to Hiroshima. Learning about Japan’s steady march to brutal imperialism is as important as studying European colonialism. If there is a silver-lining, it is a pleasure to enjoy Japan’s post-war success as a modern, peaceful and almost pacifist nation.
To learn more about colonial history please read the story of Potosi, if you have not yet done so yet.