I had no particular plans for the last day except to try and squeeze in the “Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum” (or “the atomic bomb museum”) and maybe the castle. My first priority was breakfast so I ambled around the edges of Peace Park looking to see what restaurants there were.
I only found one, a little Italian place and it wasn’t due to open for another hour so I headed off to the atomic bomb museum first aiming to breeze through it and then have brunch.
The Peace Memorial Museum was excellent and deeply moving. It covers the story of Hiroshima city before, during and after it was hit by the first atomic weapon ever to be used in anger. It tells the story of what Hiroshima used to be like, principally a University town with the only major University outside of Tokyo at the time. It also had strong ties to the military, due to the 5th garrison of the Japanese army being stationed there, and a thriving entertainment district.
It explains why the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; a decision that was as much taken to see what it would do as it was to end any war. The museum has originals and copies of many of the key documents leading up to the bombing with men such as Einstein and Roosevelt explaining in their own hand what they were thinking at the time.
This section is also surprisingly even handed. Whilst I came away with the impression that America were dicks there’s very little commentary on the process and a greater emphasis on getting you to read the documents themselves. And whilst there’s some level of selection here Japan doesn’t exactly come across in a great light either. It would be very easy for Hiroshima to act the bitter victim, claiming total innocence but they don’t. Instead the museum explains the thought processes of the Japanese war machine and the daily life of Japanese people during World War Two (which they call the Pacific War).
Most harrowingly the museum demonstrates the effect of the bomb and the immediate situation afterwards. There are a number of exhibits that really hammer home the impact of the bomb. Paintings by survivors showing what happened, twisted and burnt materials, human shadows and pictures of the day. Three things in particular stand out. The first is a pair of models showing the city of Hiroshima the day before and the day after the bomb. The first looks like a regular model town full of houses, trees and buildings. The other is a grey wasteland with nothing visible except roads and some foundations. Two buildings still stand, the Industrial Promotion Dome, now known as the A-Bomb dome and miraculously an elementary school which is still standing even though buildings on all sides of it are gone. Above this model a giant red ball hovers showing how big the fireball was after the explosion. A wax statue of a mother and family walking through the town with the skin melting off their bodies also hit home but nothing, nothing is as heart wrenching as the room of belongings. It’s full of burnt school uniforms and lunch boxes and underneath are stories about the people they belonged too. Mostly stories of how a small child found their way home despite all the skin being gone from their body and dying shortly after they reached their home. By far the worst is a twisted misshapen tricycle belonging to a 5 year old boy. When he died his father thought hew as too little to be buried in an adult cemetery so he buried him in the back garden with his tricycle so that he would have something to play with. Years later he dug him up again and moved him to a cemetery when he thought he was old enough. It was everything I could do not to cry.
After this the museum explains the continuing problems that survivors faced, radiation sickness, burns not healing properly, cancer and worst of all those survivors who weren’t yet born when the bomb was dropped but who nearly all suffered birth defects and massive developmental problems. How horrible a weapon is it that it can ruin lives before they’ve even begun.
Finally the museum explains the current global situation regarding nuclear weapons, which countries have them, what mutually assured destruction was, etc. This section can get a little bit preachy and some people would probably say that its a little bit naïve (it certainly is biased) but I would argue that as the only survivors of a nuclear attack Japan is the only country that can possibly understand what their effect is. In this section there is a wall showing a copy of telegrams sent from the mayor of Hiroshima to the Japanese ambassador of various nations. Ever time a nuclear weapon is tested the mayor sends a telegram expressing his distress and desire to move away from nuclear weapon research. The wall is huge and sadly seemingly futile.
It doesn’t take much familiarity with Japanese pop-culture to realise that this is a nation that abhors war more than any other. Although Japan was previously one of the most jingoistic and imperialistic war like nations in Earth’s history (sadly something it shares in common with my home country) after World War Two popular opinion swung right the other way. In almost all Japanese pop-culture that deals with conflict there is an underlying anti-war message, questioning the necessity of war and its impact. Even a relatively light piece of fluff like the Gundam series constantly asks questions about what war does to the humans that have to fight it and the humans that are victims of it.
Yes Gundam. The same show that gave us a robot dressed like a fish.
Also gave us relatively sophisticated arguments about why human beings fight wars.
Most famously of course Godzilla, that most quintessential emblem of the disposable and insane pop-culture of Japan is also a metaphor for the danger of nuclear weapons.
Furthermore Japan doesn’t even have an army! Alright, for most intents and purposes it does have an army, with tanks and everything. However this is officially designated a “self defence force” and the Japanese constitution explicitly forbids Japan from declaring war or moving combatant troops overseas.
Those of you that have been keeping up with news in Iraq are probably confused right now as surely Japan was in the coalition of the willing right? Well the troops they contributed were strictly non-combatants. That they assisted with the occupation and invasion of Iraq at all is not exactly living up to the ideals of peace that they typically espouse but Japan are still a damn sight more committed to the pursuit of world peace than America or Britain.
So I definitely recommend the atomic bomb museum. It’s incredibly moving and informative.
After the museum I headed back to Italian place for what was now lunch and had an awesome dinner for a bargain price. Suitably refreshed and happy I had a wander around Peace Park again.
I liked Peace Park in the evening but I liked it even more on a sunny day. It was green with wide open spaces and beautiful monuments scattered about. Peace Park marks the spot where the A-bomb was actually dropped and where most of the existing buildings and roads were destroyed completely. The main focus isn’t actually in the park itself but is just over the river. Genbaku-domu-mae, the A-Bomb dome. This is the site of the former Industrial Promotion Dome. Once upon a time this was a remarkable building with a distinctive green dome. Its main job was hosting events to promote the city of Hiroshima as a tourist destination. It was the symbol of the city and still is. Then it was a symbol of prosperity and power, of international influence culture. Now it is a ruin and a mute reminder to the events that once happened here. The green dome has gone and in its place is the framework for the dome, still bent and distorted from where the blast hit it. It forever points to where the blast came from.
The dome was very contentious for a long time whilst the city was being rebuilt. Many people thought it was a dangerous ruin and that it only served to bring back painful memories. Others, quite wisely in my view, suggested that something should still stand as a reminder of the destruction of that day and so the A-Bomb Dome remains. A skeletal reminder of what once was.
The other main monument in the park is that children’s monument in memory of Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was 2 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped and when she was 12 she contracted leukemia. There is an old Japanese tradition that if you fold a 1000 paper cranes and make a wish on each one it will come true. During her hospitalisation Sadako folded paper cranes constantly wishing on each one to get well. Her effort was in vain though and though she managed to fold more than a thousand cranes she died within the year. Her classmates suggested a memorial to Sadako and to all the children that the atomic bomb had claimed.
The memorial is filled with thousands of paper cranes which are constantly refreshed by volunteers from around the world, mostly schools. The paper crane has since become a symbol of peace for many.
Another particularly moving monument was that to the Korean victims of the bomb. During the war many foreign residents of Japan, mostly from Korea and Vietnam, were forcibly conscripted to work in labour camps to fuel the war effort. On the day of the bomb many of them were working outside clearing demolished buildings in order to make fire breaks. When the bomb hit they had no protection and many died instantly. The rest, delirious from their injuries, leapt into the river to try and soothe their burns. For years these foreign dead were denied a proper burial and worse for their relatives they died far away from home and their souls were not enshrined to be looked after. This simple turtle, wrapped in paper cranes commemorates a suffering which is still not really understood today.
The Peace Flame was lit in 1964 and will remaining burning until the world is free of nuclear weapons.
Finally the cenotaph, a simple arch bears the following inscription.
“Repose ye in Peace, for the error shall not be repeated”
We can only hope so.
There are dozens more monuments in the park, too many to cover in this space or to see in one trip. I only hope that the people those monuments commemorate aren’t offended that I didn’t have the time to contemplate them personally.
I bid Peace Park goodbye and headed off to find the castle.
Hiroshima-jo, also known as “carp castle” (this city is obsessed with carp) is, well it’s a Japanese castle. It isn’t as architecturally as impressive as Osaka-jo and it doesn’t combined with nature as harmoniously as Himeji-jo. Plus it’s a reconstruction, the original, unsurprisingly, was destroyed by the bomb.
For all that it’s still a nice castle to visit. The castle was hugely important in shaping Hiroshima’s history. The establishment of the castle turned five towns on a series of islands into one cohesive city (named for the widest island). The castle was also the reason the 5th army garrison was stationed here, which ultimately was a factor in the city’s tragic fate. It’s informative but not exactly riveting stuff.
Finally here is a dog in a hat driving a car.
I bloody love this country.
And that was my trip to Hiroshima. I shall probably return there, girlfriend in toe, and not make the same mistakes I did this time. I enjoyed my break immensely and can easily recommend it as one of the finest places to visit in the whole of Japan.