The shinkansen bullet train is as fast, smooth, and comfortable as its reputed to be. People also pass through frequently with food and coffee -- or so I'm told. I napped most of the trip, but remember a lot of long, dark tunnels and rushing past rural vistas and peaceful-looking small-towns with grey slate roofs. Some day I want to wander around this country on a motorcycle.
If you found yourself in this city, without having heard of its history, you would not immediately think "atomic disaster." It's a crowded, bustling place Not so vast as Osaka, let alone Tokyo, but a modern city.
But once you step off the trolley at the Peace Park, you enter a different world.
You have always known that something horrible happened here. Maybe, as I had, you've also seen a few films or read a Japanese novel describing the horror Hiroshima was. But it happened before you were born, a long way off.
My father flew in that war. He was a much-decorated bomber pilor. A Marine. In the Pacific. And although he was back in Washington, D.C. by 1945, he believed that the A-bomb had saved a million lives and shortened the war tremendously. One of his best friends had worked on the Manhattan Project -- and discovered, after the war, that his father had also been working on it, at a much higher level. Father and son had both maintained strict secrecy.
Although my youth had taught me that the U.S. could do some vile and stupid things in foreign policy -- not only Viet Nam but Guatemala, Iran, and a shameful list of other places around the world -- I had more or less taken for granted that the dropping of the A-bomb was justified -- although the probability that it had been aimed more at deterring the Soviet Union than at ending the war with Japan had concerned me.
Visible from the trolley stop is the dome of a building -- or at least, the dome's skeleton. As you approach the building, surrounded by sinuous camphor trees, you realize that it is just the shell of a a building, mostly rubble inside. In a somewhat controversial decision, it was left as it was, a reminder.
It had been the Hiroshima Commercial Exposition Hall. It had opened in 1915, designed by a noted Czech arthitect. It must have been a nice place to work, too, as it commanded a view of the river at a spot where the river split aroound a long, slender island.
The epicenter of the atomic explosion was less than two football fields away, less than five football fields up in the air. Of course everyone inside the building was killed. Instantly. It is doubtful that anyone could even have had time to wonder what was going on. One hopes so, certainly.
We walk slowly around the building. It induces a certain numbness. There is a horror here the mind does not wish to grasp fully and honestly. After the disaster, it was one of the few structures standing in the area -- an the closest to the epicenter. Years later they decided to leave it just as it was, a remindeer -- and it bears eloquent witness to what happened.
It is hard not to reflect on our very different lives.
Understandably, the circumstances of his birth have dominated his life. He passionately opposes both nuclear weapons and nuclear power -- which, naturally, remains a frequent conversational topic (and hot politicial issue) in Japan during our visit, less than a year after the tidal wave.
He speaks quietly and reasonably.
We cross the bridge to the island, where the museum is.
Across the bridge we walk among gardens and sakura. We sit for a while on a bench, watching people bicycle past, watching several groups of uniformed schoolchildren on tours listen to their teachers, with that dome in the background across the river. We ring the peace bell. Standing near it, among tulips, we here an odd sound that turns out to be this frog, as ignorant as the heron concerning the nature of his surroundings.
We consider walking over to the nearby museum. But the fact is, we are already tired.
|The dome in context -- with heron at bottom|
|Ghostly remains of the dome, reflected|
Flocks of uniformed schoolchildren pass and pause while their teachers tell them about the dome.
Occasional photographers crouch in front of us facing the river and the dome.
Now and then someone rings the Peace Bell.
Eventually we decide we're too tired to face the Peace Museum today. We get back on the trolley and ride to the end of the line and board a ferry for the short ride out to to Miyajima Island.
Nearby Miyajima Island is a welcome escape.
From the Atomic Dome, we take the trolley to the end of the line, then take a short ferry ride.
Across the street from the ferry landing they beg food from tourists, accept treats and petting from local human friends, and pose compliantly for pictures by the tourists, the vast majority of them Japanese.
Our ryokan is quiet and welcoming, and after a late aftenoon stroll we return to it at dusk for a delightful supper. I'm not one who writes much about food, but the multi-course meals, portions small but delicious and beautifully presented, are a wonderful treat after a long day.
The island is mostly hilly and unpopulated, and the populated portion is dominated by temples from various periods. The name means "shrine island" -- which fits it. It is most famous for the bright orange torii gate to Itsukushima Shrine.
|This closed shrine stood on a hill just above a little shop where they brewed and sold wonderfully fresh coffee, which one could carry up the steep steps to here and contemplate the bay -- or just contemplate.|
Deer are up here too.
So, amazingly, are Japanese girls in dangerously high heels.
At the summit there's a small tower. It was windy and cold. The only other person up there was a Japanese sports reporter on holiday. She had with her a comic figure -- which I gathered would be as recognizable to anyone in Japan as Charlie Brown or Wily Coyote would be here -- and, as she does everywhere, photographed him enjoying the majestic view.
Miyajima is so peaceful and pleasant that after wandering around for a day we decide to stay a second night.
The Peace Museum in Hiroshima
When we return to Hiroshima the next day, we go to the museum itself.
|The Exposition Hall|
The message here is not "Japan good, U.S. bad." The story does not fail to include Japan's militarism and its initiation of war. There is no question, in history or in the materials in the museum, that Japan's militaristic government started the war and was both wrong and somewhat stupid to do so. (I have read, long ago, John Toland's "The Rising Sun" and an excellent biography of Admiral
|The Exposition Hall|
However, it is difficult to walk through that museum. The documents leave little doubt that the bomb was not necessary to end the war and avoid having to invade the Japanese mainland, and not much doubt that the folks in charge, in the U.S., ought to have known that. The documents establish that major reasons for the use of the bomb were to intimidate the Soviet Union, to quiet Congressional critics carping about the vast expense on a secret project of which Congressmen knew no details, and to learn just how the bomb would actually affect a populated area.
I cannot judge Harry Truman. (I try not to judge anyway.) For one thing, Truman learned of the Manhattan Project only after FDR's death, and had only a few months -- as a new president knowing FDR and the military folks had been working on these problems for years -- as President before August 6th. I also well understand, as a lawyer and reporter, the distinction between the legal evidence in documents and the unknown territory in someone's mind or heart.
Still, the documents appall a neutral witness.
Then, after the documents, are the artifacts. The maps show the overall destruction, but the bits and pieces of people's lives -- stories and clothing and burnt tiles and what-not -- place the harm on a more human level.
Shinichi Tetsutani (then 3 years and 11 months) loved to ride this tricycle. That morning, he was riding in front of his house when, in a sudden flash, he and his tricycle were badly burned. He died that night. His father felt he was too young to be buried in a lonely grave away from home, and thinking he could still play with the tricycle, he buried Shinichi with the tricycle in the backyard.
In the summer of 1985, forty years later, his father dug up Shinichi's remains and transferred them to the family grave.
This tricycle and helmet, after sleeping for 40 years in the backyard with Shinichi, were donated to the Peace Memorial Museum.
There are many more.
Leaving, we feel exhausted -- yet very aware of how lucky we are never to have lived through any such thing.
Although most of my newspaper columns are local in nature, walking through the museum and riding back toward the reailway station on the trolley I find it unimaginable that one could visit this place and not write about it. I resolve to do so, Sunday, August 5th.
Note: We visited Japan 10-24 April 2012. This is the sixth in a series of posts concerning that visit. The series begins with Japan I - The Cherry Blossoms
and this one follows Japan V - Another Outing to Kyoto
The others, published in May, include:
Japan II - Two Weeks in Osaka
Japan III - A Day in Kyoto
Japan IV - Miniature Worlds and Ancient Gardens
In addition, the page Ten Tanka contains a somewhat less journalistic view of the same visit.