I’ve been meaning for weeks to get round to writing about the 36 hours I spent in Hiroshima on the way from meeting Ryoko-sensei in Kyoto to meeting Tomoko in Kyushu. First I was busy, then I was in China, but I have been meaning to write something and then retrospectively slot it back into ‘June’ (one of the nice things about electronic diaries is that you don’t have to be such a slave to chronological order as paper ones tend to demand). Today, though – August 6th – is as appropriate a date as any to write about Hiroshima. Today is the 59th anniversary of the atomic bombing.
As a consequence of that event, Hiroshima is a city with a name that somehow seems too cold and weighty to be attached to a real place, let alone the buzzing, lively city that it is today. In fact, after Tokyo, Hiroshima is probably the most exciting city I’ve visited in Japan, and it’s certainly the prettiest – full of bridges and riverside parks, because it sits on a river delta (which also, for numerous reasons, is a large part of what made it an atomic bomb target 59 years ago). Standing on one of the bridges, you can look around, see the city reflected prettily in the river, and say to yourself ‘Hiroshima’, but the name just somehow doesn’t seem to attach to the thing it names in the way that names usually do. It sits in the mouth like a cold, flat stone. From time to time, walking round Hiroshima, you can’t help suddenly picturing the flash, and every time you immediately feel ghoulish for doing so, even though your brain is just trying to comprehend something incomprehensible.
Since about the time I read Slaughterhouse Five, I’ve been shocked by the ambivalent, “unfortunate-but-necessary” attitude that a lot of people in the UK still have towards certain of the Allies’ actions – Hiroshima, Dresden, Nagasaki – in the closing stages of the Second World War. Frightening what people are willing to accept if it’s done in the name of ‘fighting evil’. But though I can’t say that Hiroshima’s Peace Museum made me change my attitude towards the bombing – since I already firmly believed that there can never, under any circumstances whatsoever, be any moral justification for such an act – it did shake me by making it real. There’s something so incomprehensible about the event, that before I visited the Peace Museum – though I didn’t realise it – whenever I thought of ‘The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima’, I was always thinking mostly in abstractions: history, causes, effects, number of dead, and so on. The museum, though, forces you to see it as a real event, in all its surreal horror.
But while certain of the museum’s exhibits are, necessarily, horrific, the installation that had the biggest impact on me was simply a scale model of the city, as it stood before the blast. Suspended over this model is a smooth, red ball, about 30cm across, and when you see this, you realise that the model is not – like other plans of cities – a timeless ‘Before’ but rather a snapshot of a single frozen grain of time – the 10,000th of a second after the bomb detonated. Looking at all the intact buildings, at the end of their final second, The Bomb suddenly loses all its abstract and historical associations, and becomes something with size, position, altitude, velocity, temperature, and so on. This – this crazy thing – is a decision that sane people made, and now here come the consequences.
Elsewhere the subsequent instant is also frozen: in a glass case, a watch, stopped at 8:15am by the blast.
As I said, I already believed that the bombing of Hiroshima was a criminal act, but the many historical details provided by the museum combined to leave the strong impression that many factors other than ‘ending the Second World War’ were behind the bombing: the bombing as ‘necessary’ to justify the astronomic cost of developing the bomb to the American public. The bombing as a horrendous scientific experiment: the Enola Gay – which dropped the bomb – was accompanied by a number of other planes whose function was to measure, photograph, and observe the explosion; Hiroshima was chosen in part because its geographical location, on a flat river delta surrounded by hills, would maximise the immediate effects of the blast, and no warning was given prior to the bombing. The bombing was also as much the start of the Cold War as the end of the World War: the Soviet Union had yet to declare war on Japan (it declared war on August 8th, two days after Hiroshima), and the US—terrified that post-war Japan could become communist—was desperate to end the war before Russia could become involved.
Another thing that impressed me about Hiroshima is the way it has turned its history into a positive force. It has been designated a ‘City of Peace’, and the local government is committed to ensuring that Hiroshima should forever be a warning and a reminder of the unacceptable cost of war: one wall of the museum is covered with letters written by the Mayor of Hiroshima to various ambassadors – of the US, UK, USSR, France, and so on – on the occasion of every nuclear test; each letter individually written, and protesting in the strongest terms that the majority of the world’s people do not wish the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Outside the museum, in the Peace Park, a flame burns, which will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is scrapped. As with the red ball, as with the stopped clocks, it makes its impression by the awareness of time it quietly forces on you. You look at it, and you can’t help but wonder… decades? Centuries? When?