Today marks the 70th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bomb dropped on a civilian target. August 9th will mark the 70th anniversary of the second.
Three summers ago I had the privilege of spending five weeks studying in Hiroshima. What a wonderful place!
Some of my family members were concerned about radiation, but I reassured them an atomic bomb isn’t the same as a nuclear meltdown, like Chernobyl or Fukushima. A bomb explodes all at once in the air. It disperses faster in the atmosphere. A meltdown is more sustained over a period of time, closer to the ground, with a lot more radioactive material. People started rebuilding in just a year later. Today Hiroshima is alive and well.
Rebuilt so recently, it feels very modern. And it’s a nice size. It’s not Tokyo and it’s not Mayberry. Big enough to get lost, but not too lost.
Before going, I wondered what the Japanese reaction to my being there (as an American) might be like. There wasn’t one, as far as I could tell, beyond my just being another foreigner in an otherwise homogeneous society. Japan is a very hospitable place, and I felt this in Hiroshima especially.
I’ve never been anywhere so dedicated to the idea and spirit of peace. Throughout the city are these little monument poles that say “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in various languages.
The only other place I’ve seen one of these is at the Danforth Meditation Chapel at ASU, but apparently they originated in Japan and now there are over 200,000 in nearly every country. [The World Peace Prayer Society]
We went on many field trips in the area, but our instructors saved the Peace Memorial Park (平和記念公園) for last, because they said they wanted us to come to love and appreciate Hiroshima for itself first. And I sure did, I think Hiroshima is one of the greatest places on Earth by its own right. When we went to the Peace Park, the mood was already pensive since we knew we would be leaving soon.
It was raining. Our instructor, a professor of Japanese religion and an expert on Hiroshima, took us on a special tour through the park, pointing out the stories behind the individual monuments and memorials scattered throughout.
For instance, there is a giant stone turtle dedicated to the 45,000 Korean laborers who were in Hiroshima.
There is also a monument to the 20 or so US and Allied POWs who were held in Hiroshima and also died from the bomb.
The main museum mostly had artifacts – everyday items collected from the debris. Lunchboxes, photographs, dolls, clothing. They looked like set-dressings from a post-apocalyptic movie. A display that will always stick with me was a cement slab completely charred, except for the unmistakable silhouette of a person who was sitting in front of it. It was like something from a Road Runner cartoon. But this was the shadow of a real person.
Another museum was dedicated to the history and development of nuclear weapons up to the present day. Here was a display of the globe with rockets representing the number of warheads in each country.
But the most powerful exhibit in the whole park, was a quiet little gallery in the basement I just happened to wander into while we were waiting. It featured a collection of paintings or drawings by non-artist survivors, most of whom would have been children at the time. Some of the pieces were done decades ago, but most of them were made only within the last few years. And the amazing thing was how vivid they were. You could tell these were snapshots engraved in their memories forever. They were crude, but graphic. The people in them were usually red. Red with burns, red with fire, red with blood. Or black. Black with burns, black with smoke, black with black rain.
More than any description or photograph, these expressed what the awful turmoil must have been like on the ground. You can read more about the collection here, and view many of the drawings at this database, but in-person is better.
We also spoke with a survivor. In Japan, atomic bomb victims have an honorary tittle: Hibakusha (被爆者). I’ve never met a Holocaust survivor, but I suppose this would like German citizen meeting one. Hibakusha are and should be just as respected (though unfortunately haven’t always been so historically, partly due to superstitions about radiation sickness).
The hibakusha who spoke to us was an English teacher who later studied in the States, so he spoke in perfect English. He was a teenager in 1945, and the morning of August 6th was just another day at school. He sat by the window and he remembered actually seeing a plane, but not thinking anything of it since planes had routinely been flying overhead for months. But then he saw a very bright flash, heard a deafening boom and got knocked to the floor. He said he remembered feeling so unlucky because he thought it was just a regular bomb and he was unlucky to have been hit by it. He had no idea it was actually a nuclear bomb from several miles away. He showed us on a map where his school was in relation to the hypocenter. The map also had three zones. The major zone around the hypocenter meant near certain fatality either from the blast itself, or very soon after from radiation. The outer zone was a zone of minor radiation effects. He was in the thin intermediary between the two.
He still has some health problems due to the radiation, and visits the doctor regularly.
Someone asked if he knew or had any idea what a nuclear bomb was at the time. He said he had actually read something about the development of nuclear weapons before that, but he thought that was unusual and most people had no idea.
In the aftermath he ran away to get out of the city. But he said he always felt guilty about this – that he should have stayed and helped.
He said he felt so angry at the Americans for a long time after this. He talked a bit about the anti-American propaganda that was around during the wartime.
But he also talked about his experiences studying English and becoming a teacher.
In conclusion he said, “Americans and Japanese, we used to be enemies. But you know, all these years later, I’m happy that now we can be 友達.” I’ll always remember he said that last word, ‘friends’, in Japanese.
This was just over a year after the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima incident. There was a lot of effort to conserve power since the country was completely off nuclear energy. So someone asked what his thoughts were on Fukushima and nuclear power in general.
He shook his head and shrugged and said, “You know it seems to me we learn about this new technology too quickly. Maybe this technology can be a good thing, but the dangers are so high, and there is so much we still don’t understand.”
If you haven’t been, Heiwa Koen is one place in Japan you really need to visit.
My experiences in Hiroshima really made me rethink some of my high school history lessons. The textbook version pretty much goes like: Japan bombed us first, and Japan was ready to fight to the last man. A land invasion of Japan would have been a bloody mess to an already too long and devastating world war. This was the cleanest way to do it.
Maybe so. Imperial Japan did to Asia essentially what the Nazi regime did to Europe. The Sino-Japanese wars were not pretty.
But what is usually failed to mention is that the U.S. had ulterior motives in getting a quick and unconditional surrender from Japan: The Pacific Theater was contested territory with the Soviet Union. A joint defeat of Japan with the Soviets may have resulted in a splitting of Japan like Germany and Korea. Which seems like King Solomon’s solution to cut the baby in half instead of letting it work out its own independence with dignity. We had to drop a bomb instead of figuring out a way to work out our differences with Russia.
The Manhattan Project also represented an enormous financial investment, so there was a lot of pressure to put the bomb to use.
I remember telling someone I was going to Japan, and he said, “I’m still kinda pissed at them for Pearl Harbor.”
This took me aback. First of all, I wonder if he is still pissed at England for the Boston Massacre?
Second, anyone responsible for Pearl Harbor or WWII is long out of power, and many of them were tried for war crimes. 5,700 were convicted of war crimes in the Tokyo trials, 920 were executed, and 475 received life sentences. 
Third, Pearl Harbor was a military target, not a city of civilians.
Fourth, just as a numbers game, 2,403 Americans died and 1,178 were wounded at Pearl Harbor. That’s a lot. But try 90,000–166,000 killed in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 killed in Nagasaki. These estimates don’t include those who died years later due to the effects of radiation. And they don’t include the non-nuclear bombings of Tokyo and other parts of Japan. By conservative estimate, we repaid Japan for Pearl Harbor 50 times. But it’s not a numbers game, is it?
In the old days, there were rules to warfare. You would go fight it out on the field away from the cities, and the best side won, and that was that. World War I came around, and the old ideals of just warfare went out the window of the biplane as all sides realized they could drop fire from the heavens. And with drones and Apache helicopters, we’re still in that era.
Because it’s easy to push red buttons. It’s easy to kill people when you don’t have to get your hands dirty. It’s easy to write it all off as unfortunate, but necessary collateral damage.
But I say, anyone who wants a nuclear weapons program, go spend five weeks in Hiroshima.
Just a few weeks ago the United States and Iran signed a deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. But it seems that it is still business as usual. Why should Iran listen to us while we continue to stockpile?
The problem is that we know how to make the bomb. We can dismantle every nuclear weapon on Earth, but people will still know how to make one. We have partaken of the bitter fruit. It cannot be unlearned, it cannot be forgotten. The Cold War comedy is here to stay. Thus we all have the infinite responsibility of constant vigilance.
But it can be done. We’re still here, aren’t we?
Who will be the first to lay down their sword?
Sometime later I was traveling in Kyoto, and I happened to pass through the Ryōzen Kannon(霊山観音)Temple. Just founded in 1955, it’s relatively brand new. Except for a friendly monk who wanted to practice English, it was deserted. To the right of the main building and daibutsu, I found something unexpected. Inside was a statue of Kannon Bodhisattva (Goddess of Mercy) and a memorial to the Unknown Soldier.
And in the next room I found only these:
I pulled a few of the drawers out and they were packed with simple namecards. When you read individual names, it makes it that much more real. Names transcend statistics. I’m not really directly related to anyone who died during World War II and it’s well before my time, but this gesture touched me profoundly. It’s one thing when your own country dedicates a memorial to its fallen, it’s quite another when the ‘other side’ dedicates the memorial.
I think it’s pretty cool that we are such awesome friends today with Japan and Germany. I hope one day there will be programs like JET in places like North Korea and Iran. Maybe we can all still be 友達.
Dower, John (2000). Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, p. 447
James likes adventure, obscure films, and craft beer. He lives deep in the mountains of Yamanashi.