Thursday, October 1, 2009

Black rain

Before heading to Kyoto, I stopped overnight in Hiroshima; the city where the USA dropped an atomic bomb on 6th August 1945, at the culmination of World War II (in case anyone dozed off during those history lessons).

To commemorate (... that can't be the right word) this event, Hiroshima has a "Peace Park" with a memorial museum set in its grounds. I confess I approached both of these with a level of trepidation since they came under the category of "necessary" rather than "enjoyable" viewing. I often find myself in two minds about such memorials: On the one hand, events such as the detonation of "Little Boy" should not be forgotten. A huge number of innocent lives were lost and the least we can do is strive not to make the same mistakes again. On the other hand, I wonder whether emotionally draining exhibits act as a beacon to crimes committed by other nations which has the potential to hinder international relations. Surely, the only way to really prevent such travesties is for us to work together and not look at other countries through a "them" and "us" perspective. It is a difficult balance.

That said, I do not necessary believe that Hiroshima gets this balance wrong. For a start, both the Peace Park and the museum are scientifically interesting (as opposed to just emotionally upsetting). At the head of the park stands the remains of the building known as the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was one of the few structures to survive the explosion of Little Boy within a radius of about 1 mile. After much debate, it was preserved in its current statue as a monument and it is incredible to see inside the structure and feel some of the force the bomb must have produced. Inside the museum are examples of melted glass and brick work rescued from the wreckage that are evidence to the intense heat produced after the explosion.

The main focus of the museum is a push for peace and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Tactfully, Little Boy is usually referred to as "the atomic bomb" not "the American attack" or anything too finger-pointing. A cynical person might note that the small section on why the Americans decided on a nuclear attack rather glosses over (or indeed completely fails to mention) the role Japan played in the war that one could argue was a little provoking. Although, as my guide book says, perhaps they have good reason to be biased.

As an interesting comparison point, I have also been to the museum in Los Alamos, home to the origin of the aforementioned bomb. This is a smaller exhibit dedicated largely to the science of nuclear weapons, not to their ethical consequences. It actually does mention that the nuclear attack on Japan was controversial in that it was almost certainly not necessary to win the war at that point. However, I felt overall a conscientious effort had been made in Hiroshima to present the disaster as an event the whole world wants to prevent happening again.

Naturally, scientific interest could only be so much of the museum and the rest was very moving. There were first hand accounts of relatives who had tried to nurse children and adults who had been hit by the bomb's fiery blast. Many said the extreme burns made their loved ones unrecognisable and a crypt exists in the Peace Park for the remains of unidentified victims and those whose entire family was wiped out. Charred clothes, many pieces belonging to small children, were in glass cases along with items such as the remains of a partially cremated school lunch box.

There are also stories of the people affected by the radiation in the aftermath. Possibly the most famous is that of Sadako Sasaki, a twelve year old girl who died of leukemia after the bomb exploded a mile from her home when she was just 2 years old. Sadako believed the adage that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, you can make a wish. She succeed in folding over 1,500 and now people fold them in her honour, placing them in show cases around a monument dedicated to her.

So not exactly one of my favourite tourist spots, but since I've decided to scrap the plans for building my own atomic bomb in the bathroom (hey, the toilets here probably have all the parts), I guess it did its job.

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