Aug. 8, 2005 issue
I didn’t know quite what to expect when I stepped off the train at Hiroshima. Certainly not the spacious shopping arcade at the station, with its advertisments for cappuccinos and beer. Nor the sight, soon after my taxi turned a corner, of the Groovin’ Disc Shop, selling new and used CDs. Maybe the profusion of blond heads towering above the Japanese throngs on the platform should have alerted me. History ensures that Hiroshima belongs not just to Japan but to the world.
Visiting the city this spring for the first time, 60 years after its atomic armageddon, I’d subliminally expected the solemnity one associates with memorials to death. But no. It was a brilliantly clear day, and I walked from the center of town, bustling with shops and hotels, through the Peace Memorial Park. It sits directly at ground zero, immaculately groomed as only Japanese gardeners seem to know how, with monuments scattered here and there to the 230,000 victims of the A-bomb. One ruined building—the Atomic Bomb Dome—stands as it did on Aug. 6, 1945, a stark reminder of that summer’s day when clocks stopped at 8:15 a.m. and most of the city was obliterated. Otherwise, grass gleams and flowers bloom where scientists predicted nothing would grow for decades.
So life, once again, triumphs over death. The Hiroshima museum testifies to the magnitude of that victory. A huge photograph entirely covering one long wall shows the city minutes after the detonation. It is a tableau of leveled, smoldering ruin, save for a handful of steel-and-concrete skeletons. Large dioramas show the city before and after—homes, offices, the railway station, as they were, contrasted with their remains. A red ball hangs in the air at the epicenter of the explosion, directly over the city’s heart.
The technology of death—Little Boy and its delivering angel, the Enola Gay—is dryly explained. I learned that, if the skies over Kokura had been clear, that city might have been immortalized instead. Extracts from U.S. military cables reveal that the absence of any Allied prisoner-of-war camps in Hiroshima sealed its fate.
Then there are the exhibits themselves. A photo of a schoolgirl with 80 percent of her body covered with burns. The preserved skin and nails of a schoolboy who died in agony, his flesh literally melting off his body. The charred lunchbox of another, its blackened remains still inside. The burned-out favorite tricycle of a 3-year-old killed while riding it. There are pictures of a woman’s back, the pattern of the kimono she was wearing imprinted onto her skin by the bomb’s radiation, as well as the shadow of a human being blasted onto the wall of a building.
All tragedy is ultimately personal. I asked the museum’s director, Minoru Hataguchi, whether his own family had suffered. "My father was a railway employee, working at the station that morning," he said simply. "He died instantly." His mother? "She was pregnant with me the day the bomb hit."
I expressed relief that he looked so well, when so many babies were born with grotesque deformities and cancers. "I am well—so far," he said, grimly. But his face lightened when I gingerly asked about his mother. "She is 85," he told me. "And she hasn’t been ill for a day since the bombing. But now, alas, her memory is going."
A metaphor, perhaps, for what I had seen in Hiroshima: survivors who have transcended the horror, and whose memories, at last, are going.