In Hiroshima, a Shrine to World Peace
A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum may not be a cheerful one, but it leaves one with a long-lasting impression.
Embodying the city’s residents’ wish for peace, the park is a stark reminder of its tragic history.
Even 65 years after the catastrophic event, the city of Hiroshima, located near the western end of Japan’s Honshu Island, will always be remembered as the first city in history to fall victim to the atomic bomb.
Near the end of World War II — on Aug. 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m. to be precise — the United States dropped its untested weapon on the port city.
With a blinding flash, the bomb detonated 600 meters above the city center.
The blast destroyed nearly every building within two kilometers, killing about 80,000 people.
By the end of the year, the number of casualties had increased to an estimated 140,000 due to injuries and the ravages of radiation.
Today, Hiroshima is once again a bustling port city with almost 1.2 million inhabitants, a diverse culture and an emerging business sector lifted by lower living costs compared to other big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.
But Hiroshima still can’t, won’t and shouldn’t shake off its image as being the “atomic bomb city.”The damage caused by the massive blast was so catastrophic that it has become deeply ingrained in the psyche of the city’s residents, strengthening their resolve for a complete ban on nuclear weapons.
What was once one of the city’s busiest commercial and residential districts was left an empty field after the explosion.
It was here that the Peace Memorial Park, built on 122,100 square meters of land, was officially opened in 1954.
And every year on Aug. 6, a memorial service is held here to commemorate the victims of the bomb.
The most visible reminder of the tragedy of 1945 is the A-Bomb Dome, the preserved ruins of the former Industrial Promotion Hall.
During the 1960s, after showing some signs of deterioration, some people called for the structure to be demolished because it evoked too many painful memories.
But instead, the city decided to keep the dome and it was eventually declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996.
It now silently welcomes visitors who enter the park from the north and has become synonymous with the city itself.
A cenotaph serves as a symbolic tomb for the victims of 1945.
The Japanese characters engraved on the monument read: “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.”
The arch is said to represent a shelter for the souls of the victims.
A few steps away is the Peace Flame, which was lit in 1964 and will not be put out until there nuclear weapons have been eradicated from the earth.
Close by is the Children’s Peace Monument, another symbol of Hiroshima recognized around the world.
The story behind it is of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who suffered radiation poisoning from the fallout from the bomb.
Believing in an old legend that folding 1,000 paper cranes can cure any illness, she diligently dedicated herself to the task but passed away before she could finish.
Until this day, children from all around the world fold paper cranes as a symbol of peace and send them to Hiroshima, where they are placed next to the monument.
Other memorable sights in the park include the Memorial Hall, the Peace Clock Tower, the Peace Bells and the Rest House.
And then there is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which opened its doors in August 1955.
Attracting a high number of local and international visitors, the museum tells the story of Hiroshima from the days before the atomic bomb, the chaotic days immediately after the bomb was dropped and the consequences of the catastrophe today.
Even though the museum is often full of visitors, they hardly make a sound.
There is no laughter, hardly even chatter, just heavy-hearted silence as people walk between displays, taking in the haunting pictures of the burn victims and shattered buildings.
Some of the earliest photographs of the victims and the damage after the blast were taken by Yoshito Matsushige, who was a 32-year-old cameraman for the Chugoku Newspaper at the time.
The photos can be seen at the museum along with his poignant testimony: “I fought with myself for 30 minutes before I could take the first picture.
"After taking the first, I grew strangely calm and wanted to get closer.
I took about 10 steps forward and tried to snap another; but the scenes I saw were so gruesome my viewfinder clouded with tears.”
But it is the fate of the individual victims that are most touching and linger on, especially those of innocent children.
A display case at the museum houses the diaries of first-year students of a girls’ high school.
On the morning of that fateful day in 1945, around 220 schoolgirls were doing volunteer work only 800 meters away from what was to become ground zero.
The diaries were part of a school assignment for which the girls had to write about their daily activities, and were to be submitted to their teachers the next day.
None of the students survived.
Some of the diaries are opened to the last entry. “In the afternoon, I went swimming with Ms. Konishi. I felt miserable thinking that everyone could float in the water really well, while I couldn’t swim at all. But today was a good day. I will keep doing my good deed for the day,” wrote Matsuhoko Ishikazi, who was just 12 years old.
It is painfully sad to read the entries.
Even though the girls — most of them either 11 or 12 — lived during a time of war, there was innocence and hope in their words.
Another section of the museum explains the effects of radiation — of which some people in the city are still suffering from to this day.
Some visitors had tears in their eyes as they passed by the photos.
Near the exit, guest books are available for people to share their feelings and thoughts about their visit.
“This has been my second visit to the museum, and I am just as touched and overwhelmed as I was when I came 10 years ago,” a 25-year-old woman wrote on the day I was there.
After wandering through the museum, another walk through the park seemed like a good idea.
Here, outside, the wounds of the past don’t seem to be so painful anymore.
Aside from the many tourists and high school students on field trips, families are also taking in the afternoon sun, couples sit on benches and businessmen work on their laptops.
They all seem at ease — and at peace.
This article was first published on November 2, 2010 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.