Hiroshima was included on the tour. We were to stay in Tokyo, Hakane (a beautiful lakeside hotel where we’d see Mount Fuji in the background, if the “shy lady” was showing her face), and then, on 10th and 11th September, we would stay in Hiroshima and finish in Kyoto.
I was apprehensive about Hiroshima. In New York, I avoided Ground Zero, and I didn’t do the tour of Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, although I did once pay my respects to Allied POWs at the river Kwai war cemetery in Thailand. I don’t watch videos of Aleppo, but I do donate to those who try to alleviate the misery there. I know what I think about war and nuclear weapons, I’ll sign any petition going and attend demonstrations – but face the evidence? Since having children (and that was a long time ago), I prefer not to.
But the British (Scottish) guide said: “You’ll love Hiroshima! The people have the best sense of humour! It’s always so lively! And the night we’re there, the Carps are playing!”
The local Hiroshimaniac (really) guide met us at the station, fresh from the zooming bullet train. Mitsu was tiny, with a hat like Chico Marx, and carried a red flag with a picture of a carp so that we could see her. Mitsu knew what we had come to see. But what mattered to her that day was the Hiroshima Carps game. They were to play the Tokyo Giants in the baseball league, and if they won it would be the first time they’d topped the league for 25 years.
As we went down an escalator, a small child coming up the other side with his parents shouted excitedly “Gaijin! Gaijin!” (a slightly pejorative word for “foreigners”). He was quickly shushed and we bowed and waved, no doubt grotesquely. Nobody had given us a second glance in Tokyo.
All four syllables of the name “Hiroshima” are stressed equally, which makes you say it very thoughtfully. And it has two World Heritage sights. We visited the older one first, about 35km away.
Do you have a mental image of old Japan? It may be the kimono’d geisha of Kyoto (where they are not called geisha). Or it may be the O-Torii gate on Miyajima. This beautiful island is home to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples built in the water and the forest. Despite the scaffolding (they’ve been maintaining these buildings since 1186) and the tourists (who included ourselves, after all – why do tourists always despise each other?) Miyajima was serene, a place for meditation. A minute away from the main sights were quiet woodland footpaths. The sun shimmered on the Seto Inland Sea.
In the evening our plan was to eat okonomoiyaki, another of Mitsu’s local passions, and view the hypocentre site by night. We walked past coolly fashionable shops with few customers, but the bars were all full of red shirted baseball enthusiasts. In a slightly emptier one, we watched the chefs selecting fresh vegetables from a beautifully displayed pile, slicing and grilling them to perfection, creating small artworks served with an endearing mixture of diffidence and panache. A hapless colleague who spoke some English was called in from the street outside to deal with us. Thinking the Carps had won, we kept the poor man chatting while we finished our meal, but we’d misunderstood. On leaving the restaurant the atmosphere hit us! A large crowd, including our poor waiter as soon as he decently could, was glued to a large screen mounted above the door of the bar opposite. The match wasn’t over and it was very close! My partner could just about work out the rules of baseball, and as he explained what was happening even I – not a sport watcher – was infected with enthusiasm. We craned our heads: more people arrived behind us. Immediate, die hard Carps fans, we joined in the rising whoops of joy and the slow gasps of disappointment. A taxi tried to get through, the crowd parted courteously, the taxi crawled away. Some people at the front of the increasing mass turned round, gestured like conductors to an orchestra, and the entire crowd flowed silently into a sitting position on the immaculate pavements. Baseball bewilders me, but I knew when something bad happened (well, it was good for Tokyo) and we sighed as one. Then something good! Hooray! – and something else – and we’d won! The Carps had won the league for the first time in 25 years. How we cheered!
I was in Rome in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup and the atmosphere was similar: joyful innocence with no aggression at all. In Hiroshima fans celebrated by throwing beer over each other rather than drinking it, but as we walked past, the beer throwers stopped to allow us through, as long as we returned their ferociously muscular high fives. It was the most controlled delirium I have ever seen (and next morning not a trace of spilled alcohol remained).
Then the Peace Park, quiet and dark. The looming hulk of the A-Bomb dome, once the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building at the hypocentre to survive, is now maintained exactly as it was on 6th August 1945. A few people walking about, stopping in appalled silence to read the information signs, gazing at the empty window sockets and the ruined dome, or simply on their way home from a late night at work. A homeless (perhaps) man, rooting in the hedge behind his bench. The moon on the river and and faint sounds of continued cheering a few blocks away. That was then; this is now.
The Peace Park by daylight, very calm. The children’s monument is just one of many. It was erected in memory of Sadako who survived the blast aged two, but nine years later developed leukaemia. In hospital she tried to fold 1000 paper cranes, in the traditional hope of one wish being granted. Now the monument is surrounded by a semicircle of murals made from thousands of tiny folded cranes sent from around Japan and the wider world. President Obama visited in May, the first serving US president to do so. He couldn’t come as close to the monuments as we did, for security reasons, but one of the paper crane murals shows him with a rainbow background. These now hackneyed hippy images still carry all their original weight, in Hiroshima. Mitsu reiterated that, whatever the US is doing elsewhere in the world, this was a hugely meaningful visit for the people of her city. You are invited to participate in the Paper Crane project here.
Lots of the victims were teenagers, who had been drafted into school based work gangs. Their job, ironically, was to help demolish old buildings to prevent the spread of fire after bombardments. Many are remembered in the Peace Museum. Display cases hold their burnt uniforms – one with a note to say she had sewn it herself, their satchels, books and sandals. The poignancy of those displays was heartrending that day and I find recalling it for the purposes of this piece quite overwhelming, cutting through my normal stylistic showing off and careful punctuation which feels just trivial. Though you could argue it’s a cause that deserves well crafted persuasive prose more than most.
Shinichi – just a toddler really, three years old – died playing on his tricycle in the yard. He was buried there, with Kimi, the little girl from next door, as their parents couldn’t bear the smell of bodies being burnt.Years later when they moved house and wanted to rebury the children, the iron tricycle was found intact with their bones. They donated it to the Peace Museum and the story can be shared with children you know, in Shin’s Tricycle. Shin would be 74 now, and no doubt an avid Carps fan, if he had survived.
Our guide Mitsu’s parents and grandparents survived. The Japanese government pays survivors a life pension at various levels depending on the severity with which they were affected, and according to Mitsu has looked after them well. (In contrast my father in law, a POW in Singapore, had to wait four decades for recognition from the MoD that his health had been affected.) Her aunt was badly burnt and disabled for life, although the friend she was walking next to was unharmed. Her grandmother had just time to grab a small Buddha from the shrine, and run outside. Her parents, fortunately, were both working outside the city, and immediately joined rescue parties, but the family did not know who had survived for many days or weeks. However in 2016 she and her parents were able to watch the Carps match together on TV. I may be labouring the contrast between past and present, triumph and tragedy, but on (as it happened) September 11th in Hiroshima it was very marked.
Rescue efforts and rebuilding began immediately, despite no power and extreme danger. (I wondered whether the Japanese, a nation of earthquake survivors, were more resilient and practical than other nations would have been. Fortunately there has so far been no way of knowing, but since 1945 scientists have developed nuclear bombs with more than 3,000 times the power of that unleashed on Hiroshima.)
And the camphor trees? After the bomb, people thought there would be no life again. Then, in the spring, the camphor trees came into leaf. This one’s a few metres west of the A-Bomb dome. They became a symbol of new life in Hiroshima. Many new trees were donated, but there are still around 170 that were A-bombed. They’re called Hibaku Jumoku, “survivor tree”, and identified by name plates.
Some members of the group we were with commented that the Japanese had also acted appallingly. In fact there’s a notice at the Peace Museum declaring they were wrong to attack Pearl Harbour. But that isn’t what the Peace Park and Museum are about. They’re about promoting peace, now, and remembering the horror of nuclear attack so that it will never happen again. If ever I have the chance to visit Nagasaki, I shall go.
The A-Bomb dome is the second World Heritage site in Hiroshima, and Mitsu said they were proud to have it. What can it be like to walk along the beautiful, tragic river every day to work or explain the monuments to your children? How can it be, now, to have the Peace Monuments as your main tourist attraction and a major source of revenue for a successful modern city? The Japanese don’t on the whole do therapy; they keep their troubles to themselves, work hard, and face forwards, so Hiroshima now gives the impression of a thriving, cheerful place I’d happily return to – partly to ride the fleet of trams from around the world, that brighten up the streets enough to convert anyone to tram spotting!
Although Mitsu said of course there had been long term mental health implications (and even had she not said that we would have known), Japan may have dealt with this disaster as well as any group of humans could. Let us hope no one need deal with it again.
© Jessica Norrie 2016