I’ve long wanted to travel to Japan, and I’m so excited that I’ve got a whole month here – although, of course, that’s not long at all to see much of what this country has to offer. We’re travelling around the main Honshu island, right at the start of the cherry blossom season. I’ll be sharing some of the rich cultural experiences in the coming weeks – the food, the temples, the onsen baths – but this first post will be somewhat darker: our first stop was in Hiroshima.
Having visited the USS Arizona Memorial last December along with the site of the Japanese surrender, the USS Missouri, at Pearl Harbor, I was interested in seeing the other side of the story. As you can imagine, it was an emotional experience.
There were three B29 bombers that carried the atomic bomb: one carried devices for scientific observations, another photographic equipment, and the third the bomb itself. At 8.15 am on Monday 6th August 1945, the bomb was detonated.
It was between 3,000 and 4,000 degrees centigrade inside the hypocentre and burns resulted up to 3.5km away; the people who happened to be within 1.2km faced severe injuries to their internal organs and most of them died within days. All wooden buildings within 2km were crushed and windows were smashed as far as 27km away. The intense heat rays of the explosion set fire to the wooden houses and telephone poles and the flames enveloped the city for three days. “Black rain” fell across much of Hiroshima as dust and soot became radioactive.
As you enter the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, there’s a horrific scene recreating the skin hanging off the bodies of people in the street following the explosion. There are pictures of bodies with bad burns, charred remains that are reminiscent of the bodies of Pompeii (and in fact the materials melted by the intense heat were said to resemble molten lava).
On the steps in front of a bank, a black shadow where someone had been sitting as they waited for it to open. People were trapped under the collapsed houses, and those outside could only say a quiet prayer as they ran away to save themselves from the fire that was engulfing the city.
Afterwards, when they were searching for their loved ones, many were unable to find the remains and often had to make do with a random item of the individual’s personal possessions – a hat or a bag, a notebook, a tricycle – as a keepsake or for the burial.
One of the museum exhibits tells of how Tsuneyo searched desperately for her husband Masatoro in all the relief stations around the city. Eventually she found the ruins of his office building, and where his desk had been she found bones in the position of someone sitting in chair, a lunch box and pipe lying at the end of his outstretched arm.
Many who died were school children, pupils in year seven and eight, who had been mobilised towards the end of the war to demolish buildings for firebreaks (gaps that would act as a barrier to the spread of fire): around 6,300 boys and girls died when the bomb fell.
The worst stories were of the parents who survived their children.
“I killed her,” says Aiko, a woman in one of the audio recordings, “I killed my daughter.” The little girl had said she had a headache that morning but her mother told her she had to go to school; the girl never came back. Another mother tells how she was caring for her daughter in the days following the bomb and the little girl asked for a tomato; while her mother went out to fulfil this request, the girl died.
There was a chronic shortage of medical supplies to deal with all the injuries of those who did not die right away. There were rotting bodies, often unclaimed, as whole families were dead. It was a huge task to manage to cremate them all, there were so many.
Of course, we now know that there were long-term effects from the radiation, not immediately obvious in the aftermath of the explosion. Acute effects of the explosion lasted five months and included “epilation, symptoms of damage to mucous membranes including diarrhoea, melena and bleeding from gums, and impeded blood-forming functions”. People would appear uninjured but days later would start vomiting blood. The fish died.
Around 350,000 people are estimated to have been in Hiroshima at the time of the bomb, including many thousand Chinese and Koreans along with foreign exchange students and American prisoners of war. By the end of the year, 140,000 people were dead.
Perhaps the worst part of the whole exhibit was the sign at the end, which explained how the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) did not end the use of this weapon but instead signalled the start of a Nuclear Age. The Cold War created an arms race that brought a hydrogen bomb with a destructive force more than 3,000 times that of the atomic bomb that had been used on Hiroshima.
You may have come across this visual representation that was shared on social media a few years ago, depicting all nuclear detonations as of 1945 on a world map; it’s quite evocative. It’s now estimated that there are still 16,000 nuclear warheads in the world, 90% of which are held by Russia and the United States.