By Nancy T. Lu
Mention Hiroshima and memories of the bombing of the city by the United States on August 6, 1945, are revived. Another bombing just days after, this time of Nagasaki, brought Japan to its knees during the final days of World War II. The country’s unforgettable wartime atrocities and defeat forced it to face postwar constraints imposed by the American Army.
Yet today, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is arguing for the expansion of its military role by going to the extent of reinterpreting Japan’s Constitution. Many – Japanese and non-Japanese included – find such controversial shift in his politics unacceptable. Japanese high school students very recently were at the center of a loud protest against alarming Japanese policy of militarization under the leadership of Abe. Abe on the occasion marking the 70th anniversary of Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 expressed "profound grief" but avoided outright apology over atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. Abe, too, has been pushing for the Japanese Diet's passing of security bills to alter the pacifist Constitution, resulting in strong protests by the Japanese people fearing their country's being dragged by the U.S. into fighting wars abroad that do not directly involve them in the future.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima. This was the city over which burst the first atom bomb on August 6, 1945. Here was raised the curtain of the tragedy of mankind’s entry into the nuclear age.
Like other Japanese cities, Hiroshima – meaning “wide island” – is full of modern buildings. Its hardworking inhabitants have succeeded in rebuilding it from the ashes of the last world war.
To enter Hiroshima is to discover that the road leads directly to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The bombed-out dome draws visitors to it with full magnetic force.
The lush foliage of the trees in the famous park strangely says little of the city’s traumatic history. But the haunting sadness in the air is almost palpable.
Some 13,000 square kilometers of Hiroshima was destroyed 69 years ago. Some 200,000 people who made up half of Hiroshima’s population died as a result of the bombing of this seat of Japanese military forces.
At the time of my visit, there were still card-bearing survivors of the grim experience. Akihiro Takahashi, the director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, was one of them.
To meet Takahashi was to be challenged to probe an inscrutable Japanese face. He was only 17 years old when the city he called home had its rendezvous with Fate. The quiet fellow who never married had a deformed left ear. When he rolled up one sleeve of his shirt, there were tell-tale scars of his horrifying experience. He had undergone surgeries to remove shrapnels and fragments imbedded in his skin. The keloids which bothered bomb survivors were his problem, too. His nails were likewise affected permanently.
Takahashi personally guided visitors around the eerie museum which reverberated with the anguish of the atomic bomb victims. Photographic blow-ups of the mushroom cloud which formed immediately after the atomic explosion were particularly horrifying to see in the gallery with graphic glimpses of a city in shambles in the aftermath of the bombing.
Keiko Yamanouchi, a Japanese friend, recalled during the visit to Hiroshima how her family was spared this tragedy because her father was posted in China at that time. With him in China then were his wife and children. But the ghosts of the bombing incident included some of her relatives. They sealed their destiny by rushing to the beleaguered city to look for their loved ones as soon as news of the attack broke out. They became victims of atomic radiation.
Supported by photographs, life-size displays in the museum depicted in detail the tragedy that visited a people. With the detonation of the bomb, a fireball developed in the air. The thermal radiation of ultraviolet rays gave rise to a burning fire. This led to the victims’ loss of eyesight and heat burns on their bodies.
Thermal radiation heat burns on exposed human skin were observed in individuals who were as far as 3.5 kilometers from the hypocenter, the area where the bomb hit the ground. Within a one-kilometer radius from the hypocenter, most of those who sustained fatal heat burns died either on the day of exposure or just a few days afterward. Their intestines and other internal organs were seriously ruptured, too.
Men, women and children within a certain radius of the hypocenter were seen stripped of their clothes or found half-naked after the attack. Their flesh melted like wax because of the heat. The frantic search for loved ones took place everywhere. But very often, relatives passed by each other without any sign of recognition.
As told in one picture, the blast left the shadow of a valve clearly burned and imprinted on a gas tank behind it. A human shadow was likewise found on the steps at the entrance to the Sumitomo Bank. Before they were destroyed, the leaves of a plant cast a permanent shadow on an electric post near the Meiji Bridge. Dark patterns of a kimono were transferred to the skin of the wearer as a result of the intense heat.
The city was taken totally by surprise. The most unfortunate were those who were caught in the path of direct thermal radiation. Being in the shadow of a concrete post at the time of the bombing meant being protected to some extent.
According to reports, granite stones within one kilometer of the hypocenter melted in the heat. Roof tiles within 600 meters of the hypocenter developed glass bubbles. Old and huge trees stood with their inside burned.
The blast blew people off the ground for several meters. Even those inside houses were carried away by the impact of the bombing.
Many who got trapped in buildings burned to death. Others were injured by deeply penetrating broken glass shards and fragments.
Wooden houses within a radius of 2.3 kilometers were almost totally razed to the ground. Concrete buildings around the hypocenter were suddenly without any ceiling. Doors and windows were blown away. Fires raged even inside edifices outside a radius of one kilometer. It was believed that 60 per cent of the deaths were caused by thermal radiation burns. A tour guide described how people jumped into the river to seek relief from the burns only to drown.
Residual contamination affected those who resided within the radioactive range. “Black rain” fell on the western part of the city. Thus, even in areas quite remote from the hypocenter, strong residual radioactivity was detected. Considerable damage was sustained.
That autumn and winter, the survivors showed various symptoms of acute sickness such as nausea, diarrhea, weakness and bloody discharge.
Aside from causing destruction and bodily harm, the unprecedented bombing brought about the breakup and separation of families and relatives. With the disintegration of neighboring community and society, the start of the rehabilitation of survivors proved very difficult.
For months, the blighted landscape raised doubts on the future of Hiroshima. Would plants ever grow again on the destroyed land? Many thought that no life would ever thrive again on this stretch of wasteland. However with the coming of spring the following year, tiny shoots brought hope once more to the scorched earth and the people there.
Perhaps more people should visit Hiroshima to be moved to help give peace a chance in this troubled world. Japanese schoolchildren, in fact, are awakened to the price of war and aggression during educational trips to Hiroshima.
Daily stories of nations fighting and of war zones being created on different continents not just with the involvement of militiamen but also with the intervention of world leaders engaged dangerously in global politics have been increasing. Despite crippling sanctions by the West, power figures of smaller countries like Iran and North Korea have not been stopped from going ahead in developing nuclear weapons that will bring the world closer to a holocaust.
Hawks are dramatically taking over the reins of governments. The doves are too weak to be heard. All told, let Hiroshima be a city of reminders in a war-prone world. Or is it asking too much?