Thoughts on Hiroshima

Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima Peace Park
Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima Peace Park
I’m guessing the moment you read the header for this post, certain images and thoughts popped into your head. In fact, for most people in the world, Hiroshima means one and only one thing. If you asked someone to name something else about Hiroshima, they probably couldn’t. The word Hiroshima has become so intertwined with the events of 1945 that the word has developed a meaning of its own. If you told someone “I’m going to go Hiroshima on your ass”, there would be no doubt as to the meaning.

Hiroshima, however, isn’t a city that dwells on its past. I didn’t see a single souvenir in Hiroshima that dealt with its 20th Century history. No black humor items. In fact, outside of the Peace Park, I really couldn’t find a single reference to what had happened. Nothing.

Hiroshima has moved on.

The Path to Hiroshima

The first real stop on my trip was back in April in Hawaii. One of the places I visited was the USS Arizona Memorial. Hawaii is a big tourist destination for Japanese and I initially thought it was odd that so many Japanese tourists would go to the Pearl Harbor. I quickly realized that it really wasn’t any different than me visiting Hiroshima. As my father put it, “it’s their history too”.

After Hawaii, many of my stops were almost a reenactment of the flow of the war in the Pacific: Noumea, Port Vila, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Guam, Saipan, Manila, Okinawa. Many of those places have had nothing happen there before or since to enter the greater public consciousness. They are known primarily as stopping points in the war.

Each place I would go, you would learn a little bit more, often about things which never make it into the history books. (For example, I was told that when John F. Kennedy was serving on PT 109, he had a girlfriend on Rennell Island. Nine months after he leaves, she has a child. It is possible that there is a descendant of JFK somewhere in the Solomon Islands.) I also got to see things first hand. When you see the pillboxes in Guam, or the layout of the Okinawa, you have an appreciation of how difficult it was to storm a beach.

When I saw the video of Japanese women throwing themselves off the cliffs of Saipan, you can have some sympathy for why they thought the invasion of Japan would be so difficult.

Prior to arriving in Japan, I read the Pulitzer Prize winning book Embracing Defeat by John Dower. Japanese society was really turned inside out by its sudden and abrupt surrender. They were preparing for a long, drawn out defense of the country, and the announcement by the Emperor was the societal equivalent of getting punched in the stomach. (One thing I didn’t know, the reason why the Japanese surrendered after Nagasaki instead of Hiroshima was they didn’t think the United States was able to do it again. They thought it was a one time event.) The surrender changed Japanese society in a way which was probably more dramatic than the decision to open up the country during the Meiji Restoration.

While I didn’t plan it that way, in some respects, my whole trip had been leading up to Hiroshima. If I had been trying to follow the footsteps of the Pacific campaign, it wouldn’t have looked too much different from the actual route I took.

School Children at Peace Park
School Children at Peace Park

Peace Park

The Peace Park itself seems to be primarily a destination for school children and westerners. The children are the first thing you notice when you get to the park. Every day there would be kids from grade school to high school there on school trips. The children, like all Japanese school children, are dressed in blue uniforms. If you are a westerner, there is a good chance some kids will approach you carrying workbooks and ask you some questions in English. I think it is a standard project classes are given when the visit the park.

Hiroshima was on the agenda for almost every traveler I met in Japan. Most of them were going there for the express purpose of visiting the peace park. Most weren’t aware of anything else to see in Hiroshima.

The primary feature of the Peace Park is the Genbaku Dome. The dome was the prominent feature of the Hiroshima landscape immediately following the devastation. As the city slowly rebuilt itself in the decades following surrender, the decision was made to preserve the Genbaku Dome as a reminder of what happened. The dome was almost literally at ground zero. The bridge immediately next to the dome was a unique “T” shape and was used as the target. Both the bridge and the dome survived. In fact, the bridge was still in use until the 1980s when it had to be replaced.

In addition to the Genbaku Dome, the park has a bell which can be rung by anyone visiting the park, an eternal flame, a children’s memorial, and a museum/library. The park actually isn’t that big. No bigger than a large city park.

Yes, its a tourist attraction, but it is one of those attractions that you can’t avoid. You can’t come to Hiroshima and not go to the Peace Park any more than you could go to Cairo and miss the pyramids or go to Delhi and miss the Taj Mahal.

I have had other people say that visiting the Peace Park must be like visiting Auschwitz. I’ve not visited Auschwitz so I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but the Peace Park is not a place of dread. Its not the death park, it’s the peace park. The mood doesn’t seem somber.

Hiroshima Castle
Hiroshima Castle

Beyond the Dome

Hiroshima is more than the skeletons of domes and peace memorials. It is more than what happened in one day in 1945.

Hiroshima Castle is a good example what has happened to many of the historical buildings in Japan. The current manifestation of Hiroshima castle was built in 1958, the previous castle being destroyed along with everything else in 1945. I found a similar situation to Okinawa where most of the major historical buildings were destroyed in the invasion of Okinawa and have since been rebuilt.

The style of the castle is typical of the style of most Japanese castles. You can see similar construction in the Osaka Castle and Himeji Castle. Because it was rebuilt, the castle today is nothing more than a museum of artifacts from old Hiroshima and an interpretative center for Hiroshima history.

Ottori Gate at Itsukushima Shrine
Ottori Gate at Itsukushima Shrine
The real attraction in the greater Hiroshima area is Miyajima (translated: shrine island) home of the the Itsukushima Shrine, the Otorri Gate and Daisho-in Temple. Along with Mount Fuji, the Otorri Gate is one of the most stereotypical photos which is used to represent Japan.

There is a short ferry trip to the island. It is only about a 15-minute trip. Once you get off of the boat, the first thing you notice is the deer. I’m used to seeing deer. I’m used to seeing deer in urban environments. I am not used to seeing deer so tame that they will walk up to you and stick their nose in any plastic bag you are holding. The deer in Miyajima seem to have no fear of humans whatsoever. The are also very small. They are closer to the size of a large dog than of a North American Whitetail deer. The bucks had their antlers sawed off as to avoid posing a danger to the public. I assume they have some sort of regular capture and release program for the deer when the antlers get too big.

Shinto Wedding at Itsukushima Shrine
Shinto Wedding at Itsukushima Shrine
Itsukushima Shine is a Shinto shrine resting on the water. While I was there I was lucky enough to witness a Shinto wedding. It was very different from anything which I’ve seen before. Not the least of which is the fact that the bride and groom stand at opposite sides of the room from each other. I didn’t stick around to watch the whole ceremony because I felt a bit like an unwelcome guest.

In addition to the shrines and temples, Miyajima also had a lot of restaurants and shops, including many which served a specialty of the island. A type of small, moist cake with various fillings. Many of the stores would have large windows where you could watch the machines making the cakes. I had several of the chocolate ones which were delicious.

Hiroshima was definitely one of the highlights of Japan. If nothing else, I came away with an image of the city which is very different than the one I had before I arrived. To me, it is no longer associated with destruction, devastation, and death. It is a vibrant city with baseball teams, stores, and people going about their daily lives, who have put their terrible past behind them.