Hiroshima, peace by peace

I just noticed that Hiroshima is marking the 67th anniversary of the world’s first atomic attack. I started thinking back to my one and only trip – so far – to the Japanese city a few years ago. It was an unforgettable experience that I tried to capture in this article, which was originally published in Kathimerini English Edition in November 2007. I hope you will excuse me for reminiscing.

A group of World War II veterans gathered in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on Sunday to mark the 65th anniversary of the start of the Manhattan Project, which led to the building of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Debate over the moral as well as strategic validity of this action continues to rage while the peril of having weapons of mass destruction is as relevant as ever. This week Pakistan, one of the world’s nuclear powers, warned that it has “the capacity to defend itself” if the US attempts to grab its weapons amid growing political unrest in the country.

Against the background of this angst and strife, Hiroshima appears to be one of the few places in the world that is at peace with itself. It might not be such an irony that the first city in the world over which an atomic bomb exploded has become one of the most peace–loving spots on Earth. But it is surprising that it is so peaceful as well.

Even though the souls of more than 200,000 people who eventually died as a result of “Little Boy” being dropped on the city might never rest in peace, more than 1.1 million people that inhabit Hiroshima have created peaceful lives for themselves.

It was a clear, sunny August day in 1945 when the atomic bomb exploded some 600 meters above Hiroshima. The sun shone on the city yesterday as a mild fall refused to give way to winter in Western Honshu.

Streetcars rattled through the streets, workers hung up Christmas decorations, ships docked and set sail from Hiroshima and bullet trains zipped in and out of the city’s station. Several of these trains carried hundreds of Japanese schoolchildren who were being brought to Hiroshima for a tour around Peace Memorial Park and lessons about the impact of the A–bomb.

More than 62 years have passed since the bombing but there is still an obvious lesson to be learned and Hiroshima is determined to be the city that teaches it.

Just a year after the bombing, the first Peace Restoration Festival was held in the devastated city, where surviving residents gathered under the banner “World peace begins in Hiroshima.” World peace may appear a long way off but it will not stop Hiroshima and its people from doing their bit.

An elderly local approached me in the information center at Peace Memorial Park to make sure I had an English version of the map that shows all 65 memorials and monuments which have been erected in the park. The latest – the Gates of Peace – went up just two years ago.

“I am not a salesman, I’m just a citizen,” the old man told me. Hiroshima does not have to sell the idea of peace; the shattering effects of war are more evident here than on most places on the planet. A walk around the Hall of Remembrance is enough to jolt even the most skeptical mind. As you descend the anti–clockwise spiral walkway to the hall’s main showpiece, you get the feeling you are sinking toward one of humanity’s lowest points.

Once there, you are met by a panorama of the bombed city taken from the hypocenter – the point above which the atomic bomb exploded. The picture is made up of 140,000 tiles – one for each victim estimated to have died by the end of 1’45.

One of the information panels alludes to the “mistaken national policy” that led to Japan becoming a target for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later. But Hiroshima has never wallowed in its war–torn past. Within hours of the 8.15 a.m. bombing on August 6 1945, the army was handing out disaster certificates to survivors of the attack so they could rebuild their lives.

Hiroshima is a city reaping the bountiful rewards of its peaceful present and looking to a promising future. A city razed to the ground has been rebuilt into a thriving urban center inhabited by courteous and relaxed citizens. In a place where locals could be forgiven for being wary of outsiders, they actually reserve their biggest smiles for visitors. Shoppers amble along wide boulevards, businessmen relax in picturesque parks and children play baseball along one of the city’s numerous riverside walkways.

Hiroshima is a good place to start finding inner peace as well as world peace.

Earlier this month, Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay – the B–29 that dropped the nearly 5–ton bomb on Hiroshima – died at the age of 92.

He asked not to have a funeral or headstone, apparently fearing his grave would become a focus point for anti–nuclear campaigners. Tibbets always insisted he had no regrets about dropping the A–bomb but admitted that the sight he witnessed at 31,000 feet was “devastating.” The success of the Manhattan Project resulted in a significant military breakthrough and perhaps saved more lives than it took but it also led to an indelible bloody stain forming on the conscience of humanity.

It does not look like the stain is going to be scrubbed away soon. More countries than ever are now members of the nuclear club. Since 1968, Hiroshima mayors have been writing to these countries after every nuclear test they carry out in a bid to convince them to abandon this form of weaponry. But the pen holds little sway against the might of a nuclear bomb. North Korea’s nuclear test last year has even sparked a debate in Japan as to whether it should abandon its commitment to not developing nuclear weapons.

That is not a discussion you will hear in Hiroshima. You are more likely to hear the chatter and laughter of regulars at one of the city’s many tiny bars and eateries or the soft sounds of a jazz melody drifting from a riverside cafe.

In fact, sitting next to the Kyobashi River, it is difficult to imagine that the people fleeing the bombing ignored the thousands of dead bodies in the water as they tried to quench their thirst.

It is a past that Hiroshima has overcome but the memories are still there for the rest of the world to share.

Nick Malkoutzis

2 responses to “Hiroshima, peace by peace

  1. Japan is a beautiful country and Kyoto is the soul of Japan.

    Militarism is now prohibited in the Japanese Constitution, yet as new tensions with China and North Korea arise we may have a game changer soon.

  2. constantinecallaghan

    Let’s hope the horrors of that day continue to act as a deterrent for old and new members of the nuclear club alike.

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