I’m sitting on a bench that faces the dome across the river. The clouds have parted and it’s warm enough to take off my coat. Cyclists and children embroiled in oni-goko (Japanese tag) run by me. In the distance the peace bell is constantly chiming, its intones and hollow clamor sounding like the call to temple service. Green streetcars roll over the bridge with the clang of the iron wheels and dinging bell. Maybe it’s the first day of spring.
It’s spring in the city that stopped existing seventy years ago. In the place where it was said nothing would ever grow again, trees line the expanse of the river. And people from all around the world come to see something that’s barely there anymore.
The politics of memory is a complicated thing. The 20th Century is defined by its tragedies of unprecedented scale, and so making a public effort to recognize the victims (to prevent them from just being a Stalin-statistic) and educating people to make sure it doesn’t happen again is very important. But then there comes the question of what to remember, and how to remember it: how does a nation identify with its tragedies, or even create its identity surrounding it? Whether that’s Nanjing, Phnom Penh, or Israel.
I’ve often been uncomfortable with the way Hiroshima has been portrayed in Japan, both by my schools and in public places: everywhere I go, Hiroshima takes center-stage, the rest of the war, the backdrop. To me it veers dangerously on that edge of mythologizing the horror done against the Japanese in order to minimize the horror they inflicted on their surrounding countries. There has never been, after all, a war tribunal for the scientists of Unit 731. This isn’t historical nitpicking; it’s framings of accountability which have crucial implications for present East-Asian relations. So I went to Peace Park with mixed feelings, concerned that nationalism and Japanese exceptionalism (for even in tragedy, they’re unique) would overshadow the rest.
But the moment I saw the dome, those preconceptions fell away. Seeing the scratched walls, the stripped brick, the T-bridge where it fell (miraculously surviving the worst of the blast as well), reduced all of us to silence. It’s smaller than you imagine it to be: in your mind it seems to grow beyond all proportions, standing for something so much bigger than itself. It’s only two stories, topped by its tiny, sagging dome skeleton. I’m reminded that it was just a civic office, just one of the many buildings which lined Hiroshima’s main avenue built in the European style. And how it didn’t become important until it was the only thing left.
It’s one of those times when your textbook under standing of a place cannot measure up to what’s really in front of you. It took me the whole weekend to grasp just what was so surprising about the scene:
It’s the only thing left from the war. Few countries have as much pride for their ancient history and culture as Japan does: there’s plaques and preservations everywhere, and just about anyone you meet will be eager to tell you about the significant poet or warlord who hailed from/laid siege in their village. The war? Nothing. No statues, no memorials, no mention. I’ve yet to have had a conversation about it to a Japanese person, and frankly I’m not sure if I’d want to. The post-Meiji era in general, with its aggressive reforms and colonization of Korea and Taiwan, is only ever spoken about in hushed tones, quieting down as the era goes on to the complete black hole that’s 1932-1945. It never happened: Japan just rebooted itself and did less stuff with the military, more stuff with car companies and manga. End of story.
In Hiroshima, the ghosts are put on display.
It’s really amazing that the dome’s still here. Not only did it survive the worst of the blast—essentially the creation of a sun, sixty secs or less—it also survived Japan’s aggressive modernization and the calls against the dome being too painful of a reminder for the survivors. And now it’s all that’s really left of that time, and in many ways manages to speak for the unimaginable horrors on both sides; there’s barely any plaques or information attached to it, little in the way of explaining or interpreting. The dome is left to speak for itself.
The Peace Museum was as brutal as I’d anticipated it to be, starting with a presentation by a woman whose mother had slowly succumbed to the deteriorating effects of the radiation, then moving on to the personal accounts of different victims, and finally ending in a visually recreation of the day. It was a nightmare, too brutal to actually imagine: the heat, the melting faces, the children who were so burned out they couldn’t be recognized by their parents.
Everyone who goes through it cries at some point; everyone has their breaking point. Mine was reading the step-by-step account of Sadako, the girl who eventually succumbed to leukaemia after folding her thousand paper cranes, probably in part because it illustrated just how awful nuclear weaponry is, how a girl can be born after the war and still die.
Going through it you realize that, in all this talk of the political ramifications of war memorials and talking about its historical place, there’s a danger of overlooking the people who actually went through it. You’re in the center of the nightmare. You look, you read, you listen, force yourself to imagine the unimaginable. Because it’s the only thing you feel you can do.
And peace comes to mean so much more than before. Here the final chapter of war was born: the endgame. You see peace isn’t just a word you can throw out, a phrase for another Live Aid or 12th Grade Entrance Essay—it’s the most vital, most basic element of life. The irony here is that by putting these thoughts into writing, especially writing statements on a blog, I subject it to the same sloganeering. But standing in the middle of the peace park, between the museum and the rainbow doves surrounding the children’s memorial, I felt like I finally understood the word I’d been saying my entire life, realized I’d been using it wrong.
I spent the rest of the day wandering up and down the riverside, the peace bell chiming in the distance. The park seems to ask that of you (once again, it feels, strangely, like the least you can do). A parkway runs along its entirety, dotted by sculptures and exhibits fashioned against war. It’s both impossible and yet easy to believe what this place was seventy years ago.
There’s another side to Hiroshima, almost dazzling in its contract to the depicted brutality of the peace museum. On the outskirts of the city, there’s a little island with a tori gate. Called Itsukushima, it’s more commonly known as Miyajima, the temple on the water.
There’s a silence to Miyajima, a ceaseless flow to the rhythm. Peering through the Torii gate, watching the tides grow and recede across the shores. It’s most arresting shinto symbol: the red gate breaking from the waves, simultaneously separating itself from the world, and being bound to it, in perfect balance with the water and mountains around it. It’s Japanese culture at its most tremendous, but also at its most humble, emphasizing not the grandness of the arches, but rather the beauty of the nature it encompasses. And it’s a statement that everything fades and will be born again (even Miyajima was reconstructed only two hundred years ago). It’s a very important thing to remember in the face of something like the Peace Museum; it’s the final thing I had to walk away thinking as my bus pulled out from the central city.
Hiroshima the city is a very average Japanese city, designed in the same fashion and filled with the same shops and companies as all 500k-2 million Japanese cities. And yet its two anchoring sites, the Peace Park and Miyajima, stand for more than just the space they occupy. On the one hand, you have the only remaining piece of Japan’s darkest (but probably also most important) era, its greatest moment of tragedy, and on the other side, you have one of the surest representations of its expansive beauty. Death and life, the end and the beginning. It’s the combination of the two, or rather the cycle, which is what makes Hiroshima so powerful. It speaks for Japan, and maybe the world too.
And so it’s the first day of spring in Hiroshima.