As the site of the world’s first atomic-bombing, and a consequence of suffering its horrors, Hiroshima calls itself “City of Peace” and promotes nonviolence and nuclear disarmament.
But it is also a normal, mid-century-ugly city, with 1.2 million inhabitants, a diverse modern economy, a symphony, museums, parks, a pro baseball team, and irritable cabbies who insist the Hotel Intelligent is the Hotel Intergate. The Intergate offers a honey buffet every afternoon, followed by complimentary wine.
The unintended message of Hiroshima, then, evident in its jostling rush hours; big, cheery department stores; electric trolley network; and lush, green riverways and mountains, is this: Nuclear war is survivable. We can even thrive and prosper afterward. The city website makes it a point to say that one week after “Little Boy” detonated, radiation was one-millionth what it had been, and now is perfectly normal. Given that nine countries have 14,000 nuclear bombs now—most of them many times more powerful than “Little Boy”—this is a fraught message.
I have always felt a twinge of discomfort visiting places whose people were once my people’s enemies—Hanoi, Moscow, London, and Louisiana, for example. I expected to feel it strongly in Hiroshima, since the United States has, for almost 75 years, been the only nation to atom-bomb this or any other human center—a sacrosanct violence, no matter your view on the use of the weapon to end that war. Yet if you had read Hersey’s book about the aftermath of the bombing and went looking for places mentioned in it, the search would be mostly fruitless. Hiroshima was so completely destroyed by the United States that the city is new.
(In fact, only recently did someone think to ask where the mass of the old city went in the explosion. The answer is that bits of buildings, roads, and bridges dropped as peculiar beach sand on the Motoujina Peninsula, and no doubt around the rest of the delta. Human beings, of course, vaporized or were burned to ash, lay decomposing in the rubble, and clogged the rivers. Seventy-thousand people died instantly; another 80,000-plus died in agony over time. Bodies were buried all over town or incinerated.)
So how does an American carry themself at monuments and in the museum devoted to these facts, surrounded by Japanese schoolchildren on field trips? For those who even think of such things, there are accommodations. I heard or read a couple, and thought of others, including the city’s recovery and prosperity; “facing it”; “before my time”; “they started it”; and “they would have used it on us if they had it first.” There is also the nature of institutionalized memory itself. Museums make safe. Two million tourists went to Hiroshima in 2016.
The most famous memorial is the former Hiroshima Prefecture Commercial Exhibition Hall, built in 1915, now the Genbaku or A-Bomb Dome. Its twisted, skeletal dome and partial walls withstood the blast pressure and almost 11,000-degree temperature at the hypocenter, as well as the subsequent firestorm. A sign at the site says, “For many years, public opinion about the dome remained divided. Some felt it should be preserved … while others thought it should be destroyed as a dangerously dilapidated structure evoking painful memories.” The Dome is on a branch of the river, which is placid and lovely under the skyline. There are walkways with trees overhanging quay walls, and tourist boats plying their trade. Directly across the river is a park with interred remains, sculptures, and the Peace Memorial Museum.
The Museum has several parts, viewed in order. The first room shows normal life before the bomb. A second has an animation of the explosion and its effects, seen from the Enola Gay’s point of view, all surrounded by panoramic photos of the city. A dark passage with fallout-gray windows leads to a hall with victims’ accounts, photos, and effects, such as children’s clothing ripped to shreds and a tricycle from a little boy. Near the end is a much larger hall with interactive and other displays for scientific and historical context.
The final displays, near the gift shop, include a small gallery with a few of the 5,000 drawings made by 1,200 survivors of the bombing. Their works have titles such as, “Mother screaming her child’s name from a bridge,” “In the sea of fire,” “People fleeing in silence,” “He was walking with his intestines dangling from his belly,” “Fire cistern full of long, black hair,” and, “Running around shouting.” That last drawing especially has a terrible facility, like a Rembrandt etching, and should be in every government office in the world.
The Japanese, I can report, are no different from Americans in selling geedunk at their solemn, even sacred, places. The snack shop near the exit sells cookies that say Love and Peace, or Hiroshima in a heart; bottles of hot sauce; t-shirts with Hello Kitties riding origami peace cranes; and roasted-caramel ice cream in daisy sugar-cones.
A loud Franco-Asian family sat behind me, having soft drinks before heading out into the heat. Grandma was talking trash about how hilarious it was to see Indians speaking French in the movie of Last of the Mohicans. North Korea had launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan the day before, and would launch “several” a week later, and two more two days after that—the same day the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and Russia officially died. The Museum is done well, but you have to think, What’s the point, we can accommodate anything.