When I arrive early in the morning at the Peace Park in Hiroshima, there are few visitors. A fine drizzle drifts like a veil over the city, and a feeling of absence hangs over the park. Blurring the scene, the moisture-laden morning air also mutes the sounds of the city. Although I have been awaiting this moment with some concern for several days, I feel strangely detached and separate. Crossing the street, however, I begin to feel propelled by a subtle pressure.
Under a large spreading tree of indeterminate species, a small group of green-uniformed city workers are methodically sweeping the night’s minor debris into compact containers. Refocusing my sight lines, I look past these silent workers and see the skeleton of a medium-sized domed building. Known simply as the A-Bomb Dome, this charred and denuded structure — now a world heritage site — was once the city’s Industrial Promotion Hall, a three-storeyed brick structure. Today it is perhaps the simplest and most evocative monument to a moment in time that changed the course of human history and our awareness of our species’ potential to destroy and obliterate.
At 8:15 in the morning on August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb ever used against humans — military and civilian alike — unleashed its force several hundred metres from this spot. The entire city, with the exception of this solitary structure, was levelled. The fission of uranium and plutonium generated an explosive power unlike anything experienced in wartime before. Three metres long and weighing almost 3629 kilograms, “Little Boy” was the equivalent of 13,610 tonnes of high-performance explosive. The initial shock wave of the blast provided 50 per cent of its deadly force. Detonated approximately 580 metres above the city, it crushed nearly all buildings within two kilometres of the hypocentre and generated a diabolical wind that — when it reached the surrounding mountains — was reflected, turning its fury on the city a second time. Flames whipped up by the wind rushed through the city. Later, a black rain would fall on those running about searching for an escape route from the destruction. The intense heat rays that seared Hiroshima made up another 35 per cent of the explosion; the temperature at the centre exceeded a million degrees Celsius. In addition an initial release of lethal radiation made up five per cent of the event while residual radiation of 10 per cent would cause widespread cancers, deformities, and death for years to come. On that day 78,150 people died in Hiroshima. By the following December 140 000 people were dead as a direct result of the bomb. The cumulative deaths accounted for by the bomb is estimated to be 200,000. For all intents and purposes, in a few seconds Hiroshima ceased to exist. And the nuclear age had begun.
The Dome is perhaps the essence of incongruity in this extensive, formal park that today embodies a terrible beauty and haunting images. Crossing the river on the Aioibashi bridge, I turn to look at it one more time. Despite its gutting by the blast there is a solidity to it that suggests endurance and, at the same time, an ephemeral quality. With modern Hiroshima rising behind it and the calm Motoyasugawa river flowing by, the Dome appears timeless. This will be the first time I will experience a sense of timelessness and of being out of time as I walk through the park.
I pause on the bridge to get my bearings before proceeding. From my guidebook I am surprised and disconcerted to learn that the bridge on which I am standing once had a distinctive T-shape, a perfect target for a bomber. And the original bridge was indeed what the pilots of the U.S. plane carrying the A-Bomb used to direct their payload. When the bomb exploded, the bridge, built in 1932, was subjected to a blast pressure of over six tonnes per square metre. It thrashed about like a leaf in a violent wind and its slab floor rose and fell violently. But it did not collapse and lasted for another 35 years when it was replaced by a new one.
From this bridge one enters the northern tip of the Peace Park, a triangular piece of land created by the junction of two rivers leading to the port of Hiroshima. Although the park has been meticulously planned and arranged and one can proceed through it in a systematic fashion, I find myself walking aimlessly, unable to decide which monument, which site, which viewpoint should take precedence. Later I will realize that this is the principal challenge in visiting Hiroshima; the event that occurred here makes a rational, cognitive appraisal almost impossible, even pointless. Although the historical facts are carefully documented throughout the park, it is feeling that is evoked primarily. And it occurs to me that this is why historical sites, such as holocaust museums or battlefields, must convey extremes of human emotion.
I pass the Peace Clock Tower, an oddly-shaped structure. At 8:15 every morning — at the “mortal moment” — it chimes “its prayer for perpetual peace,” a ritual that appeals daily to the people of the world to grant its wish. Nearby is an enormous bronze bell. This Bell of Peace also is an instrument for sounding a wish that “all nuclear arms and wars be gone.” Like so many before me, I am invited to “step forward and toll this bell for peace.” Somewhat hesitant, I mount the steps. With both hands I pull the log-like clapper back and release it. Its considerable weight propels it against the solid bell from which a low-pitched resonance emerges in waves that continue for almost a minute. The sound seems to come from all around me. I feel as if I am at the centre of all sound. The waves are almost tactile; I feel them spreading outward like ripples on a still pond into which a heavy stone has been dropped. At the base of the bell is a small water garden in which float lily pads with pink blossoms. The drizzle has turned to rain and the blossoms seem to extend their petals to catch the droplets.
As I approach the Children’s Peace Monument, I see the first group of the morning. An elementary school class has gathered in front of the memorial to Sasaki Sadako-san. Their brightly-coloured umbrellas, white shoes and socks, and navy-blue uniforms are visual relief in the increasing grayness of the day. Their teacher is telling them once again a story that millions of children in Japan and around the world know. Sadako-san was only two years old when she was exposed to radiation from the bomb. By age 12, she had developed acute leukemia. Following the Japanese custom of folding paper cranes — senbazuru, symbols of good fortune and longevity — Sadako-san persisted daily in folding cranes, hoping to reach 1000 when a person’s dream is believed to come true. But she died after nine months of struggle. Her friends, however, established the Hiroshima Children’s Association For Peace which has raised funds world-wide and made the paper crane a symbol of the anti-nuclear campaign. Paper cranes in the thousands are sent to Hiroshima every year, especially on May 5th, Children’s Day. Standing quietly on the glistening paving stones before the monument, these children embody the wish fulfilment of a young victim of the bomb.
At the centre of the park, the Cenotaph for the Atomic Bomb Victims is a visual and symbolic focal point. The memorial, designed by architect Kenzo Tange, is built in the style of the A-frame thatch-roofed Japanese house that protected Japan’s earliest inhabitants from the elements. In the stone coffin beneath are books in which are inscribed the names of all those who perished as a result of the bomb. They are now sheltered from the rain in perpetuity. Looking through the arch-like cenotaph, I see the Flame of Peace that burns above a reflecting pond. The flame will be extinguished only when all atomic weapons are banished from the planet. The view is also like looking back in time. In the distance, perfectly aligned with the Cenotaph, is the Dome. As I contemplate this poetic alignment, a young man approaches the coffin, bows, claps his hands twice in Shinto fashion to summon the spirits, and then bows again. I turn and make my way to the last — and in many ways the most disturbing — stop on my visit to the park.
The Peace Memorial Building is a modern, two-storeyed concrete building with solid, clean lines. Sturdy columns raise it above ground level. Its north side is made of glass and looks out over the park, giving the visitor a slightly elevated and wider perspective of the memorials. It is a simple, elegant structure that is somewhat at odds with its contents. Inside the museum, I feel a stillness that is unlike the respectful silence usually encountered in other such archival storehouses The exhibits, the artifacts, the scale models, the film clips, the scientific information, and the historical timelines do indeed explain what occurred in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but it is the remnants of individual human lives that are entombed in glass cases, embodying the dreadful truth.
It is difficult to say which tangible detail is the most compelling: actual paper cranes folded by Sadako-san; Shin-ichi’s tricycle that was buried together with him and his friend Kimiko in the family garden after the explosion and only rediscovered 40 years later when the families moved them to a more formal grave; a simple, slightly battered watch stopped forever at 8:15; stone steps on which someone had been sitting less than a kilometre from the centre of the explosion and on which his or her shadow can still be seen because the intense heat changed the surface of the stones around them while the body absorbed the heat; a female student’s torn and burned summer school uniform.
I proceed from exhibit to exhibit. I don’t think about what I see; I experience it on some level that I still don’t quite understand. Around me elementary students on a school field trip move quickly among the exhibits, staring, whispering. The exhibits engage them. Looking through one glass case in which some artifact is preserved — perhaps it was the charred lunch box — I see the small round face of one of the students watching me.
As I exit the main exhibition hall, the floor-to-ceiling windows are on my left. On my right is a display of artwork by survivors of the bomb. Each of these simple drawings and watercolours tells the same story in muted tones of horror. I am drawn to one in particular. It is a drawing in which naked bodies have fallen in grotesque attitudes of death. In the background the orange-red conflagration continues. In confusion, blackened figures rush about in panic. Half-hidden in the flames is the Dome. In the lower right-hand corner one naked figure attempts to rise. On the left a standing figure attempts to cover his nakedness.
I turn and look out the window. It is raining heavily now; the water is streaming down the windows. A group of school children is approaching the museum. Looking down from above, I cannot see their faces; they are sheltered by their bright yellow or blue umbrellas, and are proceeding in an orderly fashion. Despite the overcast sky, their bodies cast shadows on the rain-soaked pavement.