“A dragonfly flitted in front of me and stopped on a fence. I stood up, took my cap in my hands and was about to catch the dragonfly when…” – A quote seen on a wall inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park printed on an image of a clock frozen at 8:15.
I recently visited Japan for a two week whirl wind trip around seeing the country and taking in the sights. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a very, very long time and I’ve got heaps of images to share as and when I get around to editing them up, however, as bleak as it may be, I wanted to make sure the first images that went up online anywhere were from Hiroshima. Among the many sights I wanted to see were the memorials to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, frankly, because I feel it’s important to be frightened and upset by how nasty humans can be. Because it’s important to pay your respects for those that lost lives, and because of all of those things, if we as modern day citizens of the world don’t remember, then we don’t learn enough to stop this kind of thing happening again.
I’m not exactly someone you’d call political or someone who exhibits national pride. I can’t begin to imagine a world where things seemed so bleak, with so little other choices for survival that people thought world wars were a good thing. I can’t begin to understand how anyone thought dropping a bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that caused such damage made sense. I can’t figure out how and why concentration camps existed. I don’t get why planes get flown into buildings or wars are waged over oil. And it’s always struck me that whenever anyone tries to explain these things it takes on heavily slanted, often blinkered beliefs. I don’t get that, and I hate being forced to understand why via adopting one set of ideals. Which is why, as much as I grew up in Northern England where it really wasn’t difficult to find people who remembered Sheffield flattened during World War II, and because of that, simmering below the surface as a deeply ingrained part of those people’s lives was a closet hatred of the countries England fought with. My own Grandfather was an air raid warden in Sheffield and saw a lot of things he never wanted to speak of, and because of that I can understand why as a human he took with him to the grave a sense of anger, as well as a sense of wondering why.
However, I want to know the world on equal terms. I want to know, and show respect to those who hurt on the ‘other side’ and to see what ‘we’ did to them. Except there’s the fact that I don’t think there is an ‘us and them’ and that any sane human would consider anyone from any part of the world an equal. Close friends of mine warned me ahead of going to Hiroshima to expect that as a Brit I would be made to feel ashamed of my heritage and to wear my British passport with shame. As much as that really messed me up and frankly I was scared shitless, I was OK with it, because I really feel it’s right to hurt when seeing the memory of such horrid times. I have to say, getting off the city bus at the Atomic Dome as seen above, being stopped by a group of Japanese school children who wanted to ask foreign tourists questions for their English class at school really was the most welcome surprise. The kids were fantastic, lovely, welcoming people and they offered gifts of paper cranes as a parting present – mine is something I think I’ll treasure for a very long time.
But that experience did nothing (and rightly so) to diminish the effects of visiting Hiroshima. It’s a sombre experience, but you go there with an open mind and wanting to learn I think. I learned about the effects of the bomb, the fact there’s no measurable radiation there now, the fact it detonated about 600m above ground and what that meant. In my mind having seen the videos online so many times I expected the effects to be greater than they were, yet it’s obvious the damage it did was more than enough. I rang the peace bell, looked at the paper cranes at the children’s memorial, and stood at the cenotaph. However, two things really, really hit me hard, and I guess in hindsight they are the ones that really made the human connection real. In the museum they refer to the damage done to people by the heat; there’s a very brief bit of video footage and some mannequin recreations showing how the heat made the burned flesh drip and fall from people’s bodies like slime. The fact people walked around, at times for days, injured like that before dying just makes me sick with disbelief, and frankly seeing it is for those with strong hearts and stomachs. I also saw a small exhibit of a tricycle and metal helmet which belonged to a three year old boy who died a few days after the blast – his father, not wanting him to be buried with strangers miles away, buried him and his tricycle and helmet in their back garden until many years later he could be dug up and buried with the rest of his family as they passed, at that stage gifting the tricycle and helmet to the museum. I’m in no way ashamed to say I lost my composure over that…
Yes, the museum has an overly political slant, and under most circumstances it would have annoyed me having an angle pushed on me so much, yet given what they have been through, and with what must still be an everyday part of life for so many people and families, you just let it go. You let it go with the understanding that your own beliefs can’t stack up against what they went through, in the same way I always let the thoughts and comments of the older generations in the UK who lived through the war slide. I think for anyone, going through that, no matter who they are or what their agenda, their thoughts can be their own, and they can say what they feel. You don’t have to agree or understand, you just have to know you will hopefully never suffer enough you can comprehend like they do. And that was my lasting thought, of complete inability to understand how it was ever OK to hurt like that – makes me proud to live in a country where war is something we could never do, NZ doesn’t have the power or forces to fight its way out of a paper bag, and I like that. It’s a nice difference to the UK who still feel the need to be at the front of the fight, whatever the reason.
Did I feel like my passport was a weight I had to carry in shame? I never got to find out how true that was, or how forgiving the locals there actually are. I said I was visiting from New Zealand, and the fact NZ is nuclear free helped. So did the fact that in my day job I too look after UNESCO recognised stuff and commit myself to preserving memories of the world for future generations so they can understand and hold us accountable – when you’re stood on a UNESCO world heritage site, that seems to carry some weight.
So an exceptionally moving and sombre day. Should you go if you get the chance? Yes on every level. Will it be easy? Not if you’ve got any compassion, and it shouldn’t be.
Below are some photos from the area with some brief notes – thanks for listening.
A small statue situated almost directly below the blast – the dark areas around the base aren’t dirt, it’s the shadow caused as the rays burned from above cast by the statue itself. They essentially pinpointed exactly where the bomb detonated by measuring using the shadows burned onto surviving buildings and objects.
The Children’s Peace Monument – linked to the story of Sadako immortalised on top of the statue. According to Japanese tradition if you can fold 1000 paper cranes you get one wish, something she tried to do before she died. The monument is now surrounded by paper cranes from all over the world and shows the relevance of the gift from the Japanese school kids earlier in the day.
In the middle of Peace Memorial Park lies the cenotaph, looking directly over a flame which will stay alight as long as nuclear weapons exist to the Atomic Dome, it features a book onto which the names of those survivors who die each year are inscribed at every anniversary, all housed in the cenotaph itself.
A survivor’s watch stopped at 8:15, the exact time (8:15am) on August 6th, 1945 the bomb detonated.
The aftermath – an historic photo taken shortly after the blast, the Atomic Dome (as it’s now known) front and centre.
The blast at one second after detonation, very small almost directly below it on the model is the Atomic Dome.
And the Atomic Dome again – it’s become the symbol for the memorial simply because it is the building closest to the hypocentre of the blast which is still standing. The building is preserved in perpetuity exactly as it was directly after the blast.