August 15 is marked by some Japanese as a day of memory for Sadako Sasaki, the girl who planned to fold one thousand paper cranes so that she could be cured of her "atom bomb disease", leukaemia. Westerners might know the day better as the anniversary of the official surrender by Japan to Allied forces, preceded – but not necessarily precipitated – by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I visited Hiroshima in 2004, at the end of three years in Japan. By modern Japanese standards (which unfortunately tend to involve hasty prefabricated buildings), the city is quite picturesque – mostly low-rise, it sits on a delta, and the views of the many small rivers from its bridges lend it a tranquillity not seen in many Japanese cities.
This feeling extends to the famous Peace Park – whose fame was the main reason we visited – with its starkly beautiful and much photographed A-Bomb Dome. The commemorative mound, vibrant green in the springtime of our visit, invites a metaphor of regrowth. But the museum is powerful in a different way, and sits in my mind next to my visit to Auschwitz.
We stayed at a minshuku run by an anti-nuclear non-profit organisation, and on checking in I was asked into the lounge by one of the American volunteers running it, for an unexpected interview. Asked for my thoughts on the bombing, I replied that in my view, it was unnecessary – Japan was defeated, and the point the bombing proved could have been made another way. The volunteer responded that he had thought the same until asking some Japanese friends about it and hearing some say that, before the bombing, they would not have believed a surrender announcement from the Emperor; thinking it a fake, they would have fought any invaders with bamboo spears. The morality of the bombing, in his mind, was therefore less simplistic than the anti-war crowd might think.
Of course, I cannot help but think that this was a salve to the volunteer’s conscience; I was unaware at the time that Japan had made overtures of surrender before the bombing (as early as 1943, in fact), but this information is not difficult to find for one immersed in the issue, as he must have been. And might some Japanese have fought with spears? Perhaps. But as the most memorable part of my stay was later to show, perhaps not.
This highlight was the talk we attended by a survivor of the bombing: a retired school principal who was a high school student at the time. He saw the Enola Gay moments before the blast, and described vividly how, with his boyish love of aircraft (including the enemy’s planes), he had noticed the "beautiful" glint of the silver B-29 high up in the clear summer sky, and how it was trailed by what he assumed (correctly) were reconnaissance planes. But what was one bomber to someone who had seen entire squadrons? Clearly, he thought, the flight was for reconnaissance only.
Moments later there was a bright, searing light and heat, followed by rushing winds. Windows shattered and desks were overturned. Then the light faded to darkness and the winds died, and the schoolboy had wits enough to wonder how this was possible when he had seen only one bomber.
He told of carrying his friend from his school on the edge of the blast zone into the central city, only to find devastated hospitals and dead or dying doctors and nurses. People croaked for water, or had drowned in the rivers in an attempt to find relief from the scalding blast. These impressions are the subject of the artwork in the museum, which try to show the memories that are imprinted on the minds of survivors: a tram driver, charcoal black, still standing stiffly at the controls; a woman blown into the air and hanging from power lines by her hair; hundreds of bodies in the river.
The schoolboy saw firsthand the occupation, and the medical testing carried out on survivors by US medical teams. He would have disagreed with the idea of spear-wielding guerrillas; it was not in the Japanese nature, he said, to resist a conqueror and guest.
And so Hiroshima took its unwanted place in history and memory, and has dedicated its efforts to ensuring that no other city will suffer the same fate. Its mayor makes yearly peace declarations and sends letters outlining its case to countries engaged in nuclear testing, and the Peace Park is unwavering in its "never again" message.
But like every country, Japan is a place of contradictions. Its leaders have always taken an anti-nuclear stance officially, yet are content to sit under the US nuclear umbrella. On the other hand, its people are no longer vanquished foes, and most would be happy to see the end of the US presence.
For its part, the US media issues yearly defences of the bombing, claiming it saved more lives than it took, which is a conveniently narrow interpretation. The US bombing of Tokyo, by contrast, is rarely spoken of, but claimed more lives in one night than the Hiroshima bombing – incendiary bombing will do that to a wooden city.
But any military defence of the bombing focuses only on proximate causes: did the Japanese hold back thousands of kamikaze aircraft ready to attack American landing craft? Would its people have fought with any weapon to hand? Would an invasion have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, or more? The ultimate cause, the one in need of the focus, was the war itself, a war that was fought between one country that had become a global power and another that wanted to be recognised as the leading country in its region. Shifts in the centres of power have almost always been accompanied by war; what Hiroshima gave us was a vision of what this can now mean.
For all the bluster about violation of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, mostly directed at emerging nuclear powers, the forgotten condition of the NPT is that existing nuclear powers should make efforts to reduce and eliminate their nuclear weapon stockpiles, and not develop new forms; therefore, all are in violation. Nuclear weapons are not needed as a deterrent between major powers, and stated first-strike policies, even against non-nuclear nations, act only as an incentive to arm the world to the teeth.
History has shown that the best deterrent is not the threat of destruction; it is good political and economic relations. The hibakusha, those people directly affected by the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are ageing and will one day be gone; if the world owes anything to their lives and memories, it is dedication to this cause.
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