Tears in Hiroshima


14 August 1999

I was apprehensively cheerful when I woke. My next sleep would be in my own bed and I was looking forward to my own pillows and blankets--the first sign that I was ready to go home. But before I got to go home, I knew I was in for a difficult, emotional day.

Tod & I had discussed visiting Hiroshima many times. It’s an important place to visit. But we knew that it would depress us. I dreaded it. The horror of what happened during the war--and not just that war, that bomb, but all bombs, all wars--would affect me. Human stupidity at it’s very worst.

But the trip had to be made and when I planned the visit to Shikoku, it seemed logical to conclude it by meeting Tod in Hiroshima on the weekend. Get this out of the way, like a dentist’s appointment or a family reunion picnic.

Breakfast was a treat. We dined sitting on the floor of a beautiful lacquered and gilt dining room and the salted fish, rice, miso soup and pickles were so good that I momentarily regretted missing dinner the night before.

As we checked out, the woman behind the desk handed up each a little gift wrapped in a cone of tissue paper. They were tiny little mobiles made of peanuts painted to look like babies in swaddling. Odd but endearing. If we return to Hiroshima, I’m sure the New Kikusui will get our business again. And this time we’ll be sure to take all our meals.

We decided to stash our stuff in the coin lockers in the station which meant a detour but it wasn’t long before we alighted the street car at Genbaku Domu, the A-Bomb Dome.

Before the bomb, the building had been the Industrial Promotion Hall. After the bomb it was one of few structures left standing. You’ve seen pictures of it, I’m sure. Its domed top is a framework of curved iron; brick and stone walls are partially erect; empty windows give clear views through the ruin to the park on the other side. Huge chunks of carved stone look as if they were artfully arranged on the ground where they fell. It’s a powerful symbol. An icon.

And as an icon, I thought it would be dismissable. But it wasn’t. It was big and solid and not a photograph. It was real. Tod & I walked slowly around it and talked about it--what it looked like now. What had happened to it. I took some photographs but neither of us wanted to be photographed next to it. This was not the sort of place where we wanted to capture our visit.

The Peace Memorial Museum was on the other side of the park so we left the dome behind us. We hadn’t walked very far before I was attracted by a small crowd of people near a monument and the sound of a recorded announcement. We went over to have a closer look.

This was the Memorial Tower to Mobilized Students, we learned, as we stood back and listened to the English announcement. During the war, Japanese children over the age of 12 we drafted to work for the war effort. They held factory jobs, or farmed or ripped down buildings to create firebreaks. And when the bomb dropped, many thousands of them in Hiroshima died. Difficult to imagine, isn’t it? But thinking about it made my eyes fill with tears. So unjust.

The Peace Park is filled with monuments, both major and minor, to memorialize war victims in groups or individually, to recognize the suffering of the bomb’s survivors, to promote peace, to serve as reminders of what happened. By the time we reached the museum at the other end of the park, we’d passed by dozens. There were too many to look at but we paused in front of the main ones: the flame of peace which will burn until all nuclear weapons are disarmed; the arched cenotaph through which you can see the flame and the dome; and the children’s peace memorial with its legion of origami cranes arranged in neat rows and huge piles at its base.

A legend that says if you fold a thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true. Ten years after the war, a girl named Sadako had contracted radiation-induced leukemia. She folded paper cranes in the hope that if she got to 1000 she would be cured but she did died before reaching her goal. Today the cranes symbolize peace and are seen all over Hiroshima. People fold them and send them from around the world to be placed near the monuments. They are brightly colored and add a strange air of festivity to the somber reminders of the past--like party decorations at a funeral.

Guidebooks recommended a half hour to an hour at the Peace Memorial Museum. Tod & I were there for four hours and could easily have been there for longer. After paying our 50 yen admission (about 40 cents), we were pointed toward the special exhibits in the basement.

A week previously, at Aono-san’s parents’ house I had watched the annual Hiroshima memorial ceremonies on TV as we ate breakfast. The mayor of Hiroshima gave a speech and two middle school children, dressed in their school uniforms mounted the steps of the podium in lockstep and delivered a speech in unison. The speeches, which I understood little of when broadcast on TV, were on display in the exhibit room. I read the translations and they were powerful cries for Peace on Earth.

The mayor had solicited letters from foreign ambassadors in Japan and they, too were on display. It was fascinating to read them and discover the range of views on atomic weaponry and world peace. Of particular interest were those from India and Pakistan, displayed at opposite ends of the room as if they would somehow cause damage if near one another. In these letters, each ambassador blamed his neighbor for starting the arms race that the countries are now in. I noted that the American ambassador had not replied to the mayor.

We were fortunate to be in town at the same time as a collection of printed materials on loan from the University of Maryland. It was a fascinating and disturbing illustration of censorship in Occupied Japan. I learned much about the power of media control and invisible censoring that morning. There were so many things the Japanese were not allowed to write about--the bomb, it’s aftereffects, food shortages, the Emperor, disparaging or even questionable comments about the occupying forces, the command structure of the occupational government and of course, censorship was not allowed to be mentioned whatsoever.

I wondered if all this was the right thing? The censoring department helped promote stability, I suppose. It absolutely shaped Japan into what it is today. I doubt the average American of my generation really understands what an influence America was on Japan in the early 1950s. From politics to fashion; Japan was inundated and never had a chance to escape it.

My brain was reeling and we weren’t even out of the basement yet. A gallery of paintings and drawings done by A-bomb survivors and one that talked about the impact of the war on children--from the bomb to the years of occupation and beyond--filled the rest of the halls downstairs. We learned about the how orphaned children survived; how schools were back in session by October, how rationing during and immediately after the war stunted children’s growth.

The museum, on alternate Wednesdays (which our visit was not), mixed up a batch of the powdered milk which was the entirety of children’s school lunches in the time immediately following the bomb. “Come and try the nostalgic taste of powdered milk so many children drank at school” a sign read.

Two hours in the basement and it was time for a break. In the tiny cafeteria on the first floor, I had a bar of red bean ice cream and Tod had a cheeseburger from a vending machine that conveyed the refrigerated burger through a microwave and dispensed it steaming hot for your eating pleasure. Tod said it wasn’t bad. I mused over the irony that the technology which made Tod’s hot snack possible in the peace museum had probably originally been developed for the military.

Finally we were ready to tour the permanent exhibits. It was crowded and dimly illuminated on the first floor. Two large dioramas took center stage. One showed Hiroshima before and one after the bomb. An old man talked over his wartime experiences with a green-jacketed docent and some teenage visitors. He pointed to places in the diorama and talked in a croaky voice while people gathered around him and nodded solemnly.

The museum had a message to convey--No more Hiroshimas--and it did its job well though was sometimes a bit heavy handed with descriptives.

They told the story of Hiroshima before the war, during the instant of the bomb and for the years after the war with photographs, maps, simple explanations of the technology of nuclear weaponry, political aspects to nuclear disarmament. Why Hiroshima was the target and why drop a bomb at all were briefly explained.

What I found most disturbing were the “material witnesses.” Scraps of clothing, watches stopped at 8:15, charred lunch boxes, half melted belt buckles and other personal belongings were accompanied by short biographies of their owners and the date and time of their death along with, in some cases, how far from the hypocenter the item was found. Some of the stories were tragic.

In too many cases, people survived the initial blast but were grievously wounded and died within a day or two after making heroic treks home from the city. One teenage boy who had been working in the city was burned over a huge portion of his body but managed to walk kilometers to reach home. His skin was peeling in strips from this wounds and his fingernails fell off. When he died later that day, his mother kept the nails and bits of flesh to show his father who was in the army and not at home. Now we all get to see the gruesome reminders.

It was difficult to read all these, but at one point, after seeing the twentieth or thirtieth uniform blouse of a teenage girl or charred work pants of an old man, I thought I was getting numbed to it. The individual stories were blurring together and I was relieved to see that I was nearing the end of the exhibit. Then I came to the tricycle.

The battered red tricycle was owned by a three year old boy who rode it every day and loved it the way little kids love their favorite toys. When the bomb went off, he was riding outside. He was killed instantly and the tricycle was mangled. His father buried them together in the back yard so that his son would have his best friend nearby and would not be lonely. That got me. Tears slipped down my cheeks and I hurried away to find Tod who had gotten ahead of me.

Fortunately there wasn’t much more of the museum to cover and we dispatched the melted bottles and roof tiles quickly and with a minimum of emotion. The shadow of someone sitting on the granite stairs of a bank wasn’t nearly as powerful as I thought it would be. It looked like a blotch of dirt and not a human shadow.

Regardless, it was a draining experience and we both felt limp and exhausted when we left. It was 2:30 and we were hungry. We had three hours before the train was scheduled to leave so we wandered around the town. We could have visited the castle or one of the art museums or any number of non-atomic sights but lunch and a fruitless search for English books occupied us instead.

I’d like to return to Hiroshima. Despite the parts I’ve described, it’s not a solemn place overall. It’s a typical Japanese city with big, ugly ferro-concrete buildings, museums bursting with artworks, a baseball team called the Carp, a zoo, many gardens and even a manga library. Now that I’ve toured the grim but important part of Hiroshima, I would like to experience the rest of it.

Maybe someday. But for now I need a rest.


I've always wondered: how long after the blast was it safe to return? How long until the radiation levels were low enough? How low are the background radiation levels today compared to normal levels?

I, too, have been to Hiroshima and felt sadness, awe, and emotional exhaustion. It's a sobering experience. I leave in the morning for two more weeks in japan; north of tokyo for most of the time

Leave a comment

Recent Comments

  • Michele: I, too, have been to Hiroshima and felt sadness, awe, read more
  • Pete: I've always wondered: how long after the blast was it read more