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April 10th 2016
Published: April 11th 2016
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The word conjures one event, one image: the mushroom cloud rising after the first atomic bomb was dropped on 6 August 1945.

When I mentioned that I was going to Japan, I was surprised to hear how often Hiroshima was described as a must-see, and by whom – a retired Royal Navy officer, a long-term Australian resident of Japan, a New York lawyer-colleague, amongst others – and so it went on the list.

I’ve seen my share of memorials to the sickening horrors that man can inflict on his fellow man – Phnom Penh’s notorious security prison S21 and killing fields, a plethora of genocide memorials in Rwanda, the convict incarceration centres in Port Arthur and Fremantle – and steeled myself for one more.

But Hiroshima is not just one more. In the wake of the Second World War’s end, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law was enacted. This was going to be no ordinary reconstruction project. It aimed very specifically at rebuilding the war-shattered city as a symbol of eternal world peace. Unique among the horror-memorials that I have visited, there is no attribution of fault in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In fact, I don’t think I even saw reference in the exhibition itself to it having been the Americans who dropped the bomb (though I stand to be corrected). Instead, the Museum examines, in painfully accessible words and images, exactly what happened when just one of the approximately fifty kilos of uranium in the nuclear bomb “Little Boy” underwent fission approximately 600 metres above the city centre.

With precision, each human story, each artefact, each photograph is described by reference to the point directly below the explosion, the hypocentre. There’s an awful hypnotic quality to the audio-guide’s unemotional introduction each time, “He/she was exposed to the bomb at a distance of metres from the hypocentre”, the number spelt out in carefully enunciated words.

Methodically and graphically, we are taken through what happened. A pressure blast of several hundred thousand atmospheres was created in the instant of the explosion. The temperature at the centre exceeded a million degrees Celsius, generating a huge fireball. And then there was the nuclear radiation, lethally affecting those within a kilometre of the explosion, many dying within a few days, and affecting those further away, or coming into the area in the following weeks, to varying degrees. Later that day, “black rain” containing high levels of radioactivity, as well as soot from the fires and dust from the destruction, fell across the region. It is estimated that, by the end of 1945, 140,000 people had died as a result of the bomb.

The numbers are stratospheric, incomprehensible, so the exhibition makes it real for us through evidence of real stories about real people. Waxworks drip melted flesh. Blackened figures lie in the dust, barely recognisable as human. Shredded clothes are displayed in glass cases with the story of their owner carefully recreated in our ears. Lunchboxes half-opened show their carbonised contents, the bereft parent often remembering exactly what those contents had been. A watch stopped at the moment the bomb exploded. Spectacles bent out of shape. A lone sandal. Photographs of the injuries of those who made it to some kind of help, albeit many were beyond the power of medicine by that stage. Many thousands of these stories are of children, at the time mobilised in teams to demolish houses and create firebreaks. An incredible number seemed to make it back to their homes, only to die agonisingly that night, the next day, a few days’ later as their parents struggled without medical supplies or water. With the massive extent of the city’s destruction, any child making it home at all through the chaos and rubble, never mind so awfully injured, seems incredible in itself. One swam across the river.

Then it is the turn of the buildings themselves. Within two kilometres of the hypocentre, almost all buildings were crushed and burned. Tiles melted together, looking more like lava than construction materials. The Sumitomo Hiroshima Bank –surprisingly near the hypocentre – was only damaged, but its steps show the imprint of someone resting there, maybe waiting for the bank to open. The bomb was like a photographic negative, leaving on walls outlines of things that were nearby. A pale ladder seems to ascend one wall. A fire hydrant’s outline crosses the pavement. The pressure wave pushed violently outwards, and the resulting vacuum caused a strong wind to pull back to the centre. Resisting that double-onslaught was almost impossible.

When the bomb was dropped, no-one really knew what its longer-term effects might be; Hiroshima was to be the laboratory that provided some of that missing information. The wee boy who seemed unscarred in the immediate aftermath, yet fell suddenly and dramatically ill, and died only days later. Sadako Sasaki, whose story moved the city to construct the Children’s Peace Monument, only two when the bomb fell, developing leukaemia ten years’ later. Desperate to live, she began to fold a thousand paper cranes, orizuru, the symbol of longevity. But time was not kind to her and she died with the task incomplete, so her classmates took up the challenge. Now strings of colourful paper cranes and pictures made of cranes form the backdrop to the hauntingly simple monument.

And those long-term effects are not over yet. The survivors, hibakusha, defined by statute as those within two kilometres of the hypocentre on the day of the bomb or in the two weeks afterwards (or in utero at the time) may benefit from government and medical support, but suffer from severe discrimination in relation to marriage or work because of public ignorance about the consequences of radiation sickness. That discrimination can even apply to the children of hibakusha. Today’s Japan Times quotes the story of Sunao Tsuboi. He doesn’t remember the moment the bomb fell, only that his body was severely burned and covered in blood. Now aged 90, he’s had a dozen operations since 1945 but, incredibly, holds no grudge against the USA, relishing the forthcoming G7 summit in the city as a chance for world leaders to be reminded, once again, of the horrors of nuclear weapons.

If I were ambivalent about nuclear weapons before visiting the Peace Memorial Museum – perhaps even, on balance, in favour of the deterrent argument – I now find myself sickened by the impact of such weaponry. What could possibly justify this horror to this extent on such numbers of civilians? I appreciate that travelblog.org is no place for politics, but I would hope at least that every leader visiting Hiroshima this week now thinks long and hard about this issue.

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12th April 2016
strings of paper cranes at the Children's Peace Monument

Peace, peace, peace
Your excellent account of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum moved me to tears. As the museum focused on the unfolding horror of that day and on individuals, so did you, which allowed me to feel it and them too. How forgiving of the people of Hiroshima to declare their city one of eternal world peace rather than blaming the perpetrators of the destruction, for grudges lead only to bitterness and not to healing. Brilliant that the G7 conference will be held there, so that, as you said, the leaders can be faced with the reality of nuclear war. Very moving blog!

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