Natalie Marchant 25th October 2017
We had barely made it out of Tokyo’s Narita airport when our phones began to beep with news alerts telling us North Korea had fired another missile over Japan. This wasn’t really the start to our trip we were looking for.
The spectre of nuclear war is more real now than it has been in decades. Japan’s defence minister Itsunori Onodera described the threat of North Korea’s developing weapons programme as being at an “unprecedented, critical and imminent level”.
I remember being scared of all things nuclear as a young child in the 1980s. But since the end of the Cold War, this is not in the forefront of our national consciousness as it once was. Perhaps it should be.
Getting a tangible sense of the effects of nuclear war today is near impossible, which is why a trip to Hiroshima proved a stark reminder of its devastating effects.
At 8.15am on 6 August 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb – named “Little Boy” – on Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands and wiping out most of the city. Three days later a second one – ”Fat Man” – was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, with similar disastrous effects. To date, they remain the only nuclear weapons ever used in war.
The effect on Hiroshima was catastrophic. Tens of thousands of people were killed instantly in the fireball that reached temperatures of 7,000C within half a second. About 90% of the city’s buildings were destroyed or damaged by the immense force of the blast. All in all, between 100,000 and 140,000 are thought to have eventually died due to the explosion, out of a population of 350,000.
In Nagasaki, the geographic damage was more limited thanks to a ring of hills around the city, with about a fifth of the city’s buildings destroyed by fire. But the final death toll is still estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000.
The reason why no-one really knows the final death toll is that the long-term after-effects of radiation make it virtually incalculable. Those who didn’t die immediately due to the extreme heat or buildings collapsing around them, often suffered ill health in the years to come. Many still do.
When walking around modern-day Hiroshima, the most striking physical reminder of the blast is the Atomic Bomb Dome, once the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. This European-style building was directly under the centre of the blast, meaning that while everyone inside died instantly and the interior burst into flames, some of the walls and steel dome miraculously survived the immense downward pressure of the explosion.
The twisted shell of the A-Bomb Dome has since become a symbol of a city that has dedicated itself to the abolition of nuclear weapons by 2020 – a deadline which seems increasingly unlikely to be met.
But it’s not the physical scars of the city which are the most emotive. It’s the stories of those affected by the events of August 6 1945.
In the nearby Peace Memorial Park stands the Children’s Peace Monument, the statue of a young girl standing atop an elongated dome, holding a giant wire origami crane above her head.
This was designed in memory of Sadako Sasaki, who was just two when the bomb was dropped and who was diagnosed with leukaemia 10 years later. During her time in hospital, Sadako kept folding origami cranes in line with a Japanese legend, which states those who complete 1,000 cranes will be granted a wish. She folded more than 1,300 hoping for a cure, but her condition worsened and she died, aged just 12, on 25 October, 1955.
Sadako’s story inspired her classmates to campaign for the building of the Children’s Peace Monument. And here it still stands, surrounded by chains of paper cranes sent by children from across the world. Over a period of an hour, we saw multiple Japanese school groups come to pay their respects, singing a special song before placing their own colourful origami chains around the memorial.
Elsewhere in the park stands the Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims of the Bomb, which commemorates the estimated 20,000 Koreans who died anonymously in the blast. Many had been brought over to work as forced labourers during the Japanese occupation and they were only officially recognised with a memorial in 1970. Amid some controversy, this was only moved into the park itself in 1999.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking individual stories are told in the Peace Memorial Museum, which was set up in 1952, along with other monuments, as a reminder of the past and as a contribution to a peaceful future.
The centre is full of personal items, documents and personal accounts of those who survived the blast, as well as those who didn’t.
Particularly poignant are the videos of survivors talking about the blast. One woman talked of a “beautiful flash of light” the moment the bomb went off, while a man, then a schoolboy, told how “everything went dark”.
Another man talked of hearing the sound of a B-29 bomber from his school window. He and his friend knew it must be flying low because of the hum of the engines. Then there was a flash of pale light before the force of the blast knocked him between two desks. It was this fall which saved him from the effects of the explosion, while many of his classmates perished.
The heat and strength of the A-bomb was so strong that it left human shadows cast in stone and burned skin from as far as 3.5km away. One woman had the pattern of the kimono she was wearing at the time of the bombing burned on to her skin, thanks to the intense flash of light. A stone step outside a bank was left with a permanent shadow of man waiting for the bank to open. He most likely perished.
Many parents who lost their children in the blast have contributed their clothes and items to the museum, even decades later. Three-year-old Shinichi Tetsutani suffered body-wide burns while riding his tricycle in front of his house, some 1.5km away from the centre of the blast. He died later that night and his father buried him, and his friend, in the back garden along with his beloved toy. Some 40 years later, his father decided to transfer them to the family grave and donated the rusted tricycle to the museum. Elsewhere, some of the tiny paper cranes folded by Sadako sit in a glass case, donated by her family.
Walking around Hiroshima, we became increasingly aware that the devastation of that day – just 72 years ago – must still haunt so many of the city’s citizens. If not directly through illness, then through siblings, parents and grandparents who lived through it.
But from devastation comes rejuvenation, and modern-day Hiroshima quickly became one of my favourite places on our Japan tour. What was once war-scarred terrain has become a vibrant and welcoming city.
Next to the ruined A-Dome stands the Orizuru Tower, a multi-storey modern building named after the folded paper cranes – orizuru – that have become a symbol of peace, both for Hiroshima and around the world. From here, we watched the sun set over Peace Memorial Park and much of Hiroshima itself, while folding our own paper cranes to add to the tens of thousands on the Orizuru Wall down the entire side of the building.
But what struck us most was not the devastation of 1945, but the beauty of the modern-day city that it has become. In just over 70 years, the city and its people have rebuilt it from scratch and dedicated themselves to making sure that such an atrocity never, ever, happens again.
Something definitely worth remembering the next time the phone pings with a news alert.
Natalie Marchant 25th October 2017