Hiroshima (広島) is an industrial city of wide boulevards and criss-crossing rivers, located along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. Although many only know it for the horrific split second on August 6, 1945, when it became the site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack, it is now a modern, cosmopolitan city.
During World War II, Hiroshima was one of the larger cities in Japan, and a natural communications and supply center for the military. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15AM, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb dubbed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. It is estimated that at least 70,000 people were killed in the explosion and its immediate aftermath. Most of the city was built of wood, and fires raged out of control across nearly five square miles, leaving behind a charred plain with a few scattered concrete structures. Corpses lay piled in rivers; medical treatment was virtually non-existent, as most of the city’s medical facilities had been located near the hypocenter, and the few doctors left standing had no idea what hit them. That evening, radioactive materials in the atmosphere caused a poisonous “black rain” to fall.
In the days ahead, many survivors began to come down with strange illnesses, such as skin lesions, hair loss, and fatigue. Between 70,000 and 140,000 people would eventually die from radiation-related diseases. Known as hibakusha, the survivors were also subject to severe discrimination from other Japanese, but have since been at the forefront of Japan’s post-war pacifism and its campaign against the use of nuclear weapons.
Recovery was slow, given the scale of the devastation, and black markets thrived in the first few years after the war. However, the reconstruction of Hiroshima became a symbol of Japan’s post-war pacifism. While most of the city is thoroughly modernized, there are areas — such as the ramshackle buildings east of the train station (slated for demolition over the next few years) — that still reflect that 1950s rush to rebuild.
Today, Hiroshima has a population of more than 1.1 million. Automobiles are a major local industry, with Mazda’s corporate headquarters nearby. There are three excellent art museums in the city center, some of Japan’s most fanatical sports fans, and a wide range of culinary delights — most notably the city’s towering contribution to bar cuisine, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
Although many visitors, especially Americans, may feel apprehensive about visiting Hiroshima, it is a friendly, welcoming city, with as much interest in Western culture as anywhere else in Japan. Tourists are welcomed, and exhibits related to the atomic bomb are not concerned with blame or accusations. Bear in mind, though, that many hibakusha still live in the city, and even most of the young people in Hiroshima have family members who lived through the blast. As such, the average Hiroshima resident isn’t likely to relish talking about it, although you needn’t shy away from the topic if one of the chatty fellows around the Peace Park brings it up.
Peace Memorial Park
Most of the memorials related to the atomic bomb are in and around the Peace Memorial Park. This area was destroyed almost in its entirety by the bomb. Today, there are more than fifty memorials, statues, and other structures in the Park. Some will be obscure in their meaning; others are immediate and devastating. There is no entry fee, save for the Peace Memorial Museum, and access to the grounds is not restricted at night.
* The skeletal remains of the A-Bomb Dome are the most recognizable symbol of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. In another lifetime, the building was one of the city’s best-known sights for an entirely different reason; designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel in 1915, the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall (and its fanciful green dome) had a bold European style in a grimy, crowded city with few modern flourishes. Because the explosion took place almost directly above the building, the walls remained largely intact, even as the dome shattered and the people inside were killed by the heat of the blast. Initially, as the city rebuilt, it was left alone simply because it was more difficult to demolish than other remains in the area; gradually, the A-Bomb Dome became the symbol it is today. The “Hiroshima Peace Memorial” was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 amid some controversy — the United States and China both voted against the nomination for reasons related to the war. Today, the benches around the Dome are a favorite spot for Hiroshima natives to read, eat lunch, or simply relax.
* One block east of the A-Bomb Dome (outside Shima Clinic) is a plaque which marks the Hypocenter, the exact point above which the bomb exploded.
* The Children’s Peace Monument is perennially draped in thousands of origami paper cranes folded by schoolchildren across Japan in the memory of the young bomb victim Sadako Sasaki.
* The Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students commemorates the 6,300 students who were conscripted to work in munitions factories and killed in the atomic bomb. There are statues of doves scattered throughout its five levels; at the base is a beautiful Kannon statue, always draped with origami cranes.
* Tens of thousands of forced laborers from Korea were working in Hiroshima at the time of the attack. But the Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims of the A-Bomb was erected outside the Peace Park in 1970, and only moved within its boundaries in 1999. Today, the turtle at the base of the monument — symbolically carrying the dead to the afterlife — tends to be draped in his fair share of colorful origami cranes and flowers.
* The Peace Bell is engraved with a world map, drawn without borders to symbolize unity. The public are welcomed to ring the bell — not subtly, the log is aimed to strike an atomic symbol.
* The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound holds the ashes of 70,000 bomb victims who were unidentified or had no living relatives to claim them. Services are held in their memory on the 6th of every month.
* The Rest House was known as the Taishoya Kimono Shop at the time of the explosion. Only one employee, who was in the basement at the time, survived. However, the reinforced concrete building stayed mostly intact. (The interior has been entirely refurbished, but the preserved basement is possible to visit with advance request.) Today, it holds a gift shop, some vending machines, a helpful tourist information office, and — as the name would suggest — a place to rest.
* Inside the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims is a stone chest with a registry that is intended to contain the names of every known person who died from the bombing, regardless of nationality. (Names are added as hibakusha pass away from diseases thought related to the radiation of the bomb.) The Japanese inscription reads, “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.” Note how the arch frames the A-Bomb Dome in the distance.
* At the other end of the pond from the Cenotaph is the Flame of Peace. It is said that the fire will burn until the last nuclear weapon is gone from the earth.
* The Peace Memorial Hall is dedicated to collecting names and photographs of people who died in the blast. The entrance of the museum leads downward to a quiet hall for contemplation, and then back up again to a set of kiosks with compelling stories and recollections from survivors (in English and Japanese). Like the Cenotaph and the Peace Memorial Museum, it was designed by architect Kenzo Tange.
* Peace Memorial Museum. This museum documents the atomic bomb and its aftermath, from scale models of the city “before” and “after” to melted tricycles and other displays and artifacts related to the blast. Some are extremely graphic, evocative, and quite disturbing. The rest of the museum describes the post-war struggles of the hibakusha and an appeal for the abolition of nuclear weapons in the world today.
* The Statue of Mother and Child in the Storm, completed in 1960 by artist Shin Hongo, is among the most powerful works of art created in response to the atomic bomb. It depicts a woman shielding her child from the black rain. It’s in front of the Fountain of Prayer just south of the Peace Memorial Museum.