‘I apologised for human sinfulness, to nobody in particular’– Shinsaku Koguchi, A-bomb survivor (account of August 6th, 1945)
You probably haven’t heard of Paul Tibbets, but you’ve heard of his plane. Growing up in the Midwest, he moved out to Florida, where he flew regularly as a teenager and became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the US Air Corps. He articulated an uncomplicated view of American exceptionalism, and of his mission: ‘well my thought was, the damn thing worked’.
He was matter-of fact, unapologetic, even cold in interviews; little trace shows of the tenderness which led him to name his plane after his mother, Enola Gay Haggard. He defended his actions to the last: and even advocated using nuclear weapons against al-Qaeda: ‘I wouldn’t hesitate if I had the choice. I’d wipe ‘em out’.
I was a little startled, upon reading Tibbets’ name, that it didn’t sound familiar. His photograph is displayed in an exhibit at the Hiroshima Bank of Japan Building, one of the few buildings to survive the atomic bomb and now a museum of sorts. But perhaps museum is the wrong word- it’s more of a consciously disturbing relic of a destroyed era. The central hall is almost empty, and feels cavernous against the dense backdrop of Hiroshima, where almost all available space is used.
In the bank’s basement, the walls are unadorned, painted a blank, anonymous cream. The muscular bank vaults are still on display, giving you some idea of why this building might have survived. In a couple of rooms, exhibits hung showing hellish artworks drawn by a-bomb survivors, complete with stories. People finding charred bodies in water storage tanks, family members left unrecognisable, death and destruction. It’s difficult to look at, but it fills you with zeal for the arts of peace.
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After the initial shock fades, something else becomes apparent. The stories show no bitterness towards the American people, or the air force which dropped the bomb, or the army which occupied Japan. This could just be selective curation, but I don’t think so. The bomb is often described by people as a ‘tragedy’, but the reasons for its use are not usually questioned. Japan instead has a love affair with American culture, expressed through baseball, jazz, comics and countless other connections.
In the Peace Museum, at the heart of the city, the language used to describe the bombing is straightforward. The closing stages of the Second World War are described dispassionately. The explanation for Hiroshima’s status as target (surrounded by mountains which increase blast damage, major military city) are given, but not overemphasised. Instead the emotional focus is on the damage caused by the bomb, including people being cut by flying glass, suffering from acute radiation poisoning and dying from cancer decades later.
There are also some terrifying mementoes of the bomb’s destruction. Roof tiles melted, glass bottles bent into new shapes, and bottle caps fused into a shapeless lump of metal. But there’s little sign of anger. Instead, the bombing is treated as a tragedy, both for the people of the city and for mankind as it struggles though its nuclear age. The bomb becomes another earthquake, another typhoon, a disaster for which blame is not the answer.
But there’s another side to this depersonalization. One uncomfortable passage leers at visitors from the wall of the Peace Museum:
‘As the war continued, many Japanese soldiers died on the battlefield, never to return to their families. However, as seen in the incident known as the ‘Nanjing Massacre’, the Chinese sacrifice included soldiers, POWs, civilians and even children’.
This might seem like an awkward translation- it’s anything but. The use of the word ‘sacrifice’ is very revealing: placing the sentence in the passive voice, it removes the committers of the massacre. Nanjing of course wasn’t simply a tragic ‘sacrifice’ of lives, it was an atrocity committed by Japanese troops in which the barest minimum of 50,000 people were killed, and many thousands more were raped and mutilated. The Japanese army’s role in World War II gets a few lines elsewhere, but generally it’s avoided, in favour of stories about the tragedy of the bombing and its effects on Hiroshima’s people. These of course must take centre stage in any story of Hiroshima’s modern history- but a truly honest museum would have found room for both.
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Can you make a credible justification for the Peace Museum’s selective memory? Well, I don’t know. Hiroshima’s commitment to world peace feels genuine, symbolised by the Cenotaph and Peace Flame. The argument would go that the museum’s purpose is to record the horrors of nuclear weapons so that they may never be used again. This motive drives many in the city to be anti-nuclear campaigners, as opposed to Fukushima and nuclear power as to North Korea’s nuclear tests.
This argument doesn’t quite sit right with me, though. Even if you regard the bomb as an unjustifiable crime against humanity, and its use as the cynical exploitation of terror, it’s not acceptable to simply strip it of context*. Japan still chooses to remember in controversial ways: some ultranationalist groups have successfully published textbooks that portray Japan as a benevolent, enlightening power in Korea and China. A tiny minority (perhaps only 50 schools) use these textbooks, but the battle has become a proxy for bigger tensions about the war experience and historical memory.
Maybe objectivity is impossible in a city where 80,000 lives disappeared in a moment. Certainly anger and loss are indelible at places like Honkawa-chō, the inner-city elementary school where 400 children died instantly. The building still stands, and it is still part of a modern elementary school.
But for me, the site that best embodies the subsumed complexities of August 6th, 1945 is the Monument to Korean Victims and Survivors.
Here, a column resting on the back of a stone turtle honours the 20,000 Koreans who died during the bombing of Hiroshima. Far from home, they came as students, voluntary labourers and pressganged prisoners. They lived among their colonisers and were killed en masse by their liberators. They’re barely remembered now, but they should be. The peace in our future depends on the long memories of Hiroshima.
*For the record, these aren’t my views on the bomb. My views are complex and need further clarification, even to myself.