A Reflection on Hiroshima
On August 6th, 1945, a United States Air Force B29 Superfortress bomber, the ‘Enola Gay’, flew over the city of Hiroshima on the south-western coast of Japan’s Honshu Island and dropped a single, stubby, black-painted bomb that its creators had nicknamed ‘Little Boy’. Less than a minute later, at 8.15 a.m., the bomb exploded 580 metres above the city’s Shima Hospital.
The 4,000 degree Centigrade blast incinerated everything and everyone in close proximity to its hypocentre. It generated a deadly, superheated wind that raced inland like a radiation-laden tidal bore, flattening nearly every structure within a two kilometer radius, scorching the earth, and literally flaying the skin of every living thing exposed to it. Then it struck the foothills of the Chugoku mountains to the north of the city. Like a vicious rip, the wind reversed its direction and swept back to lay waste to whatever was left standing.
Even from high above, the devastation was shocking. Watching the billowing mushroom of fire, radioactive dust and smoke, the Enola Gay’s co-pilot, Robert Lewis, was moved to write in his journal, “My God, what have we done?”
No-one is certain how many people died. The initial explosion killed tens of thousands, but the real attrition came in the months afterwards when as many as 140,000 of Hiroshima’s pre-bomb population of 310,000 succumbed to severe burns and radiation-related illnesses. By the end of the year, the world’s first atomic attack had killed around 200,000 men, women and children.
Visiting Hiroshima for the first time, the impulse to seek out any signs of the bomb is irresistible. There is the totem of bomb-like cylindrical marble fragments half-buried at different angles that greets one at the entrance to the airport, and there are countless small plaques and stone markers around the city. There are the yellow tags that indicate the gnarled, stunted trees, mostly Australian eucalypts and wattles, that still survive the blast, 58 years on, within a kilometer of the hypocenter. There are the few buildings that were not reduced to carbonized rubble, including the bunker-like Bank of Japan on Rrjyo-dori and the skeletal remains of the World Heritage-listed Hiroshima Industrial Promotions Hall, the dome of which, stripped to bare iron girders by the blast, is arguably the best recognised symbol of the city. And there is the city’s Peace Park, in which larger monuments and memorials, and an emotionally charged museum, are laid out across a wooded island splitting the Motoyasu River where it flows beneath what was, on that fateful morning, the ground zero of the blast.
The bomb is embedded deep within the psyche of Hiroshima. How could it not be?
The bomb is embedded deep within the psyche of Hiroshima. How could it not be? But there is no escaping the somewhat pragmatic dismissiveness that underscores most local references to it. The ruins of the Industrial Promotions Hall are known simply as ’ the bomb dome’, just as the annual commemoration on 6th August is ‘bomb day’. It’s as if, lacking any adequate way of coming to terms with the event’s persistent dreadfulness, let alone of understanding the impenetrable ambiguities of what caused it, successive generations of Hiroshima residents have tried to diminish it in their collective subconscious.
For a long time, they were intent only on overcoming its devastation. Among the most moving exhibits in the A-bomb museum are photographs of people trying to resurrect their lives from the smouldering and still deadly ashes. Being Japanese, they began by restoring structure: within two days, kindergarten children had donned their uniforms to kneel on tatami mats in make-shift open-air classes, and clerks at banks and post offices manned splintered counters. Before the end of 1945, homes were being rebuilt, and small stores had re-opened. And somehow, during the next 58 years, Hiroshima avoided the blight of haphazard, poorly planned and corruptly regulated development that, in the post-war years, turned most Japanese cities into densely populated, overbuilt, industrial ghettoes and managed to retain, well, some breathing room.
Hiroshima is small by Japanese standards. With a population of just under 1.5 million people, it helps that its urban sprawl is bound by exceptional natural beauty.
Hiroshima is built on a delta formed by six rivers flowing South into the Seto Inland Sea. Stone bridges span tree-lined banks to link irregular knuckles of land, and there are unexpected man-made canals and breakwatered boat shelters. From most parts of the city, you can see the densely forested slopes of the Chugoku mountains, and from the higher floors of office blocks and hotels, the steep, serrated peaks of shark-tooth-like islands strewn like ancient runes far south into the Pacific Ocean and west towards the Sea of Japan to form a jigsaw of protected straits and passages. At dusk, the islands recede like ghosts into the mist, their shadowy contours resembling the ink-wash monochromes of traditional sumi-e.
The complete destruction of the city allowed it to be reconceived and rebuilt with an atypical sense of space. The city centre is cinctured by boulevards that are almost Parisian in breadth, notably the Heiwa-odori, or Peace Boulevard, divided by tree-shaded centre islands, and the Rijyo-dori which crosses it to run straight to the moat surrounding the ruins of the famed ‘carp castle’ built in 1589 by the feudal lord, Terumoto Mori, and named for the giant, multi-coloured koi which still guard the moat.
There is a subtle weirdness in Hiroshima’s urban development.
And crossing Rrjyo-dori, the Hondori, a long, covered pedestrian precinct lined with shops and restaurants which has been the main artery of central Hiroshima’s commercial and social life for three hundred years. In Hiroshima, as in every Japanese city, shopping is the primary cultural preoccupation, but here it has yet to overcome a parochial sociability which gives the downtown area an almost village-like atmosphere – if the village you have in mind has elegant Hermes and Louis Vuitton stores, and outlets for arcane street labels such as A Bathing Ape and Hysteric Glamour.
There is a subtle weirdness in Hiroshima’s urban development. Beneath the city’s main shopping boulevards, there is another city: part subway system, part underground mall and food market (complete with Starbucks), part all-white, sanitized pastiche of Sixties’ sci-fi cinema, the Shareo spans most of the city centre, and it doesn’t take a huge conceptual leap to interpret it as a coolly atavistic experiment in self-preservation by a community determined to be ready for whatever traumas might befall it above ground in the future.
Few of Hiroshima’s residents today are even remotely connected to, let alone acquainted with, survivors of the bomb, but the survivors are still visible: the elderly who, in the middle of summer, cover themselves from head-to-toe, wrapping their faces with scarves and wearing long gloves, long-sleeve shirts, wide-brimmed hats and dark, wrap-around sunglasses. For them, the apocalypse is still now.
I’ve lived and worked in Hiroshima for the past two years, consulting for the city’s largest company, Mazda Motor Corporation. Mazda has been based in the city for 83 years, and its plants, its design, engineering, and research and development facilities, administrative offices, dockyards, warehouses, hospital, supermarket, and internal road system spill across more than five kilometers of waterfront on the south-east side of the city. It is own self-contained suburb and employs around 22,000 people from Hiroshima. My connection to Mazda has allowed me to have a tenuous emotional connection with the city, to insinuate myself in some way into its social fabric, if only because, as in any company town, whoever works for the company is given a measure of local forbearance, albeit temporary.
When I first visited Hiroshima, European faces were still relatively uncommon. Except during summer, those you saw were rarely visitors but most probably Ford executives on secondment to Mazda (which is 33 per cent owned by the American company), researchers from the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (founded by the US and Japanese governments to study the effects of radiation on the survivors of the atomic bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki), US military personnel or Mormon proselytizers. There were also – and still are – the odd incidents of hostility: the taxi driver who would refuse to allow you into his cab; the young, right-wing yob who would jab an accusatory finger at you from a safe distance.
To some extent, the true heart of the city remains veiled to all of us.
The city has opened up during my time here. There are more American and European exchange students, teachers, writers, artists, entertainers and even entrepreneurs who live there all year round, choosing the city’s comparatively reasonable cost of living – it is still on the lower rungs of Japan’s slippery economic ladder – and sheer liveability over the sardine-can outer suburbs of Tokyo or Osaka. And yet, to some extent, the true heart of the city remains veiled to all of us. Most Japanese cities maintain a level of inscrutability, if not stony imperviousness, to outside attempts at understanding, but Hiroshima is different. Foreigners do not make friends easily here. None of the Japanese with whom I socialize regularly were born in Hiroshima, and one can’t help but think that the bomb has reinforced the city’s insularity and its people’s adherence to social protocols (and prejudices) that are already decaying in Tokyo and even nearby Osaka.
I often sit on the wide stone steps leading down from Peace Park to the murky eddies of the Motoyasu River. In the days after the bomb, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people dived from the walled embankments of Hiroshima’s rivers in the desperate misapprehension that the waters would soothe their searing radiation burns. But the rivers were more deadly than the earth, swirling with gamma rays and neutrons that amplified the burning and accelerated death. The whole delta echoed with agonized screams and the waters became clogged with bodies.
Now the tree-lined banks are silent. At weekends, at low tide, children play on the muddy banks and young families picnic atop the sandstone embankments. Flatbottomed tourist vessels stem the tide around Peace Park so their passengers can photograph the ‘bomb dome’. And in the grey-green waters are the reflections of modern offices, apartment blocks and hotels, the baseball stadium (home of the ‘Hiroshima Carp’), brightly lit restaurants, and modest memorials that attest to the city’s resilience.
The self-proclaimed City of Peace survived an horrific, almost incomprehensible destruction, and a dreadful instant in which a centuries-old faith in the continuity of human existence – and, arguably, the very meaning of history – was obliterated. Whatever the reasons for it, it was an infamous inhumanity. But the city’s rebirth over the past 68 years demonstrates the irrepressible hope that defines the best of our humanity. In these troubled times, we should reflect on that.
C.C. O'Hanlon is something of a 'wild' polymath. Tech'-entrepreneur-turned-internet-apostate, photographer, small press publisher, sea-steader, map collector and ceaseless traveller, his occasional writings have been published in The New York Times, Griffith Review, and elsewhere.
Image via xiquinho