a black and white city
29.09.2011 22 °C
Hiroshima, I read, is the largest city in western Honshu. It is of course best known as the first city to ever be destroyed by a nuclear weapon when the US Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb over it in World War 2. I was only spending one night and one day here, so I wasn't sure how much I’d actually see or learn - we were passing through the city on our way to the Shikoku island. 'Learn the tragic history of this city and marvel at its recovery' said the guide book, but I wouldn't use it again. Tomorrow we were having a private tour, with a volunteer tour guide who would show us the 'real Hiroshima', I was very excited!
Hiroshima was a very lively place. Lots of bars and restaurants, with music and laughter spilling out onto the streets. I was tired from the drive, so after a short walk around, I retired to bed quite soon. As I lay in the dark, I could still hear the city around me buzzing with life and laughter, the sounds of which slowly disappeared into the morning.
The following day we set off to meet Reiko san in the Hiroshima Peace Park, where our tour would begin. Walking through the lush green park, we complimented the city on its beauty. A long river stretched out next to us, and the birds chirped noisily in the trees above. Hard to believe that there was once a time when nobody believed Hiroshima would even be able to grow even a single flower, for at least 100 years.
We saw a few statues and monuments as we walked, but in the distance, popping up through the trees, I spotted see a very strange looking building - a shell really, with the basic outline of a dome at the top.
I felt very intrigued by the building, it created an atmosphere of coldness, and of unease. Like the first time you see a spooky looking house in film, when its night time and a storm is about to break...the car has failed to start and the protagonist exclaims, “I'll go in and see if anyone is home...”
Standing beside the building was Reiko san, holding an umbrella above her head, as it had just begun to rain. The building in question was in fact the A bomb dome. When the atomic bomb had exploded some 580 metres above the city, this building (which was then an Industrial Promotion Hall) was one of the only structures left standing. It is extremely hard to find words to describe this building, and the haunting feeling that lifts the hairs off your arms when you stand next to it. This feeling followed me through the whole city of Hiroshima, which is laden with tributes, statues and memorials for the victims of the A bomb.
Most of these memorials contain a water feature – the bomb created heat of 4000˚c, along with blast wind and radiation, so the people who had survived the initial explosion were screaming out for water to drink, and to sooth their terribly burnt skin. The water in these memorials are to soothe the pain of the spirits.
One memorial which did not contain water, was the Children's Peace Monument. This was created for a girl, who was only 6 years old when the blast occurred. As she reached 11, she developed leukaemia and began a steady decline in her health.
There is a myth, that by folding 1,000 origami cranes, you are granted one wish. This girl spent the last of her dying days, making as many cranes as she could. As her suffering got worse, her cranes got smaller and more intricate. She, like many other children, died; so her school friends took over from where she left off, and created the remaining cranes to make it to 1,000.
The Childrens Peace Monument is huge – and hundreds of laughing and shouting school children visit this statue every day, from all over Japan, and bring their own wreaths of cranes to hang by the statue. All of the colours of the cranes and the noise from the children bring a bright life and beauty next to this grey and solemn statue, showing a juxtaposition so befitting in this city – a city of true contrasts – so much life next to so much death.
We moved on to the Cenotaph, which contained all the names of the known victims of August 6th. The Cenotaph is a memorial which frames the 'flame of peace' a flame which will only be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is destroyed – something that the people of Hiroshima demonstrate and petition for. It also frames the A Bomb dome in the distance.
After walking through the peace park for over an hour, taking in all of the memorials, we stopped for a coffee before heading into the Peace Memorial Museum. I was thankful for this break, there was so much to take in, so much information, and there was such a strong swelling of emotion in my throat, I needed time to digest everything before moving on.
As I sipped my coffee, an old man sat down on the table opposite me. He asked me if I was from America, “Amerikajin desu ka?”
No, I'm English! “Ie, watashi wa igirisujin desu”.
His face lit up as he explained that he had been to London before, and found it very exciting and interesting, and the people he said, were very nice. I smiled, I knew that his English was just as bad as my Japanese, but I am certain he would have had a much harder time getting around than I had experienced here in Japan... did anyone stop to help him read a tube map I wonder?
His name was Yamasaki San, and he spoke for some time to Reiko san, who translated to us that he would like to tell us his story. I sat open mouthed, as he explained that his families house was very close to the site of this museum. It was early, about 8am he remembers, and he was at school. Everything went black, and then white, and then he was on the floor, blind. It was very, very hot. This man, like many others, used his instinct to crawl back to his home to find his parents; the city was flat, he was just 17 and confused and frightened. When he arrived, his home was gone, and his parents dead. He was covered in glass – I later discovered that it depended on where you had been standing in relation to the nearest window...if it was to your right, the blast shot the shards of glass to cover the right side of your body. If you were face on, the window glass shattered into pieces and embedded itself into the front of your body, piercing the eyes. Most people were covered in burns and glass.
Yamasaki san eventually found his grandparents, and went to live in another town with his grandmother. His body was filled with broken glass, the fragments of which, over time, slowly worked themselves out of his skin. There were maggots he said, many maggots, and he found it hard to breathe properly and walk long distances. His friends from school were dead. They had been out creating fire blocks when the bomb was dropped – all that remained of his best friend, was his lunch box- which he told us we would see later in this very museum. Yamasaki san later went and studied at university in Tokyo. The American occupation was strict, he said, in terms of not mentioning the A bomb and effects of the people there. Medical students at his university would come to his dorm room late at night to run tests on him, in exchange they would give him whatever food they could afford to spare. Yamasaki san told us that for many years, nobody knew the bomb was a nuclear bomb; it was kept a secret. His health is not good, and he is very lucky to still be alive today. He has many scars on his body, and his fingers were all bent and broken. BUT, he was alive, and it was a miracle.
We finished our coffees and said goodbye to Yamasaki san. He told us that he comes to this museum every day, to be close to his parents again. He wished us happy travelling and to look out for his friends lunch box in the museum.
The museum was huge. Reams and reams of letters, some from Einstein to President Roosevelt, to Churchill, everything building up to that fateful day. Possible targets were discussed, and eventually narrowed to Kyoto, Hiroshima and Niigata. The size and shape of Hiroshima was 'better', as yet it had not been bombed and ascertaining the effects of the bomb would be relatively easy. The morning of August 6th was described in many testimonials, by adults and children. We heard of the bright colours from the explosion, the smells, the silence, we heard of people walking for miles to find loved ones, friends carrying each other on their backs, people so thirsty they began to drink the black rain and die instantly. We heard some terrible, disgusting, painful, tragic and harrowing stories.
“The skin of the legs peeled to the anklebone and dragged, a yard long, on the ground. People couldn’t help looking like apparitions. If they walked with arms down, the skin hanging off their fingertips dragged painfully on the ground, so they raised their arms and held them at shoulder level, which was less painful. Even if they wanted to run, the skin of their legs was dragging along on the ground, impeding their steps. Shuffling one step at a time, they proceeded, a procession of ghosts.”
Within the first two months, the acute effects of the bomb killed 90,000 – 166,000 people, the vast majority of which were normal civilians.
Then... we reached the lunch box. The lunch box belonging to the school friend of Yamasaki san. It was a shrivelled up, charred black lunch box, which had been prised away from his body, as he lay face down clutching it to his stomach. This image was engraved so clearly in my mind, I had nightmares about it that evening. It was all a bit too much to take in the museum...so many pictures, so much information, so much sadness...it didn't feel real. All of the watches in the museum had stopped at 8.15am. The whole city was completely destroyed. If you are to dig into the earth in Hiroshima, you will find endless rubble from old buildings and houses. Peoples clothes were ripped off their backs, their belongings melted or smashed to pieces. Their skin dripping from their bodies.
There is so much more to talk about, but I fear that this blog entry could go in forever... So, I will cut to the end. Before we left the museum, we walked past a wall, covered in letters. They were all the same template, written out again and again and again, and addressed to same countries each time.
Each letter informed the government that it had come to his attention that the country had been experimenting recently with nuclear power. The letter is a plea to stop this experimentation, and to cease any more experiments of its kind. After this wall of letters, there was a depressing display showing the current count of nuclear weaponry in the world.
What an experience. I was glad to be back outside in the park, listening to the school children as they splashed in the puddles in their yellow rain macs.
Hiroshima experienced so much tragedy; generations of people whose health and homes were taken from them, scores of mothers who lost their children, and children who lost their parents, it issued me with a stark reminder of not only what war can do, but what the atrocities of nuclear weaponry can achieve...and how terrifying the subsequent cold war must have been.
All the information on radiation also gave me a new, deeper understanding of the terror in Fukushima earlier this year. As we walked back through the park towards the car, I asked my tour guide how the people of Hiroshima reacted to the news in March. She said that the people of Hiroshima had extreme empathy for their situation, and were pleased that the radiation level was so low. I was surprised by what she said, and asked her how low the level actually was in Fukushima. She told me that luckily, it was such a low level, nobody would be in any direct danger of death or illness.
I stopped walking and looked at her for a moment; “Is that true?” I asked.
She sighed and said, “That is what we are told.”