Hiroshima's legacy for world peace

On the poor, poisoned ground, a city reminds everyone it recovered and grew


The city was incinerated on the morning of Aug 6, 1945, and some 1,40,000 people perished, with tens of thousands more dying later from radiation sickness. But almost immediately Hiroshima set about to rebuild itself, a task that posed a particular challenge.

Consider the options: Do you try to replicate it, as though nothing had happened? Do you start over and create something new? Do you remember the bombing, and if so how: a single memorial, a plaque, a shrine? In short, how do you integrate an apocalypse into the fabric of a city that is emerging, literally, from the ashes? Slowly.

“The first 10 years after the bombing was a real period of hardship,’’ Tadatoshi Akiba, the city’s mayor, said.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that planning policies were formalised. Among the goals: Hiroshima would become an “international city of peace and culture.’’ It would be environmentally friendly, giving maximum consideration to “harmonious coexistence’’ with the city’s rivers and greenery. And it would become “a city of charm and vitality.’’

It is plainly apparent that world peace is a big industry, and not in an abstract way. The rebuilt Hiroshima may be a big (population 1.2 million) and bustling city with its Mazda headquarters, an international trade port, and a new baseball stadium for the hometown Hiroshima Toyo Carp. But the legacy of the atomic bomb is never far from people’s consciousness or even their line of vision, and it informs almost every aspect of city planning and daily life.

Hibakusha

It’s most apparent in the thousands of ‘hibakusha’’ living here, the “explosion-affected people’’ who were near the hypocentre that day or were exposed to radiation from the fallout. There are more than 73,000 hibakusha in the area, whose average age is 75, and “they are in a constant state of suffering from PTSD every day,’’ said Mayor Akiba, an MIT-educated mathematician who taught at Tufts University in the 1970s and ’80s and is president of Mayors for Peace, a worldwide group dedicated to nuclear abolition. “When it comes to the suffering of the hibakusha, we are just beginning to discover what radioactivity does to those affected 60 years later.’’

Not surprisingly, the number one tourist attraction in the city is the Peace Memorial Park on Peace Boulevard. This is home to the haunting Peace Memorial Museum, familiar to anyone who has seen the 1959 French film classic ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’. The museum tells the story, in clinical detail and devoid of sermonising, of the bombing and its aftermath. It tells it more succinctly in the form of two clocks standing sentry at the museum door. One counts the days since the United States dropped the bomb: 23,369. The other counts the days since the world’s last nuclear test: 66 (numbers as of July 30). It was reset to 1 on May 25, the day North Korea tested a powerful underground nuclear weapon. Point taken.

Most eerie is the so-called A-Bomb Dome, formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall. When the bomb exploded directly overhead, it ravaged the building and killed everyone in it, but remarkably some walls were left intact, along with the skeletal framework of the dome.
It’s one of the only tangible remnants of the old Hiroshima, which alone makes a statement about the force of the blast (3,000-4,000 degrees centigrade at the hypocentre). I’ve toured ancient cities that have more to show for them.
But through a thoughtful combination of monuments and signage, the park does a remarkable job of sketching the contours of a city that’s no longer here. There are 75 monuments scattered throughout the park, each one commemorating a particular subpopulation that was annihilated. There’s a Monument Dedicated to Construction Workers and Artisans. Another is dedicated to the employees of the Hiroshima Post Office.

Remembering Sadako

There’s the poignant Children’s Peace Monument, which would resonate with any child who knows the story of Sadako Sasaki, subject of the popular storybook ‘Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes’. She was two when Hiroshima was bombed and died 10 years later from leukemia. But while she was hospitalised, she attempted to make 1,000 cranes out of paper, which, according to legend, would get her wish granted. Horrified by her death, her classmates solicited donations from around the world to build this monument, a three-legged pedestal topped by the bronze figure of a girl holding a folded origami crane. Japanese schoolchildren keep the story of Sadako alive by hanging chains of 1,000 cranes in a nearby glass-encased booth.

Akiba emphasised, Hiroshima is not only about peace, but also about ‘charms’. He seems particularly proud of the city’s hospitality and openness to visitors. In fact, I had noticed. I visited three other cities in Japan — Nagoya, Kyoto, and Tokyo — and Hiroshima made touring easiest for an English speaker. It has launched a ‘Hello International Travellers’, or ‘HIT’ campaign, with maps and tourist information widely available around the city.
A popular spot is the Shukkeien Garden, a beautiful landscape garden originally built in the 1600s and rebuilt after the bombing. Its name literally means ‘shrink-scenery garden’ because it miniaturises and mimics many scenic views including mountains, valleys, bridges, and tea cottages.

A 20-minute walk from the garden is the five-story Hiroshima Castle, built in 1591 and destroyed by the blast. It was rebuilt in 1958, its moat is populated with fish and turtles, and it is used to exhibit artifacts and tell the history of Hiroshima as a castle town.
Miyajima, an island, is considered one of the three most scenic spots in Japan, just a 30-minute boat ride from Hiroshima in the Seto Inland Sea. The island is best known for its ‘grand gate,’ the O-torii, a huge vermilion-coloured arch standing in the sea and presiding over the Itsukushima Shrine, which dates to the sixth century. Also, there are lots of tame deer roaming around town, nonchalantly greeting visitors.

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