Sunday, October 23, 2011

8:15. The Time It's Always Been

The name Hiroshima will forever be linked in the consciousness of the world with the events of the 6th of August 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, ushering in the nuclear era with a bang. A bang so large that it destroyed 90% of the city and killed almost half of its population and helped precipitate the end of the Second World War (although some academics argue that the USSR's declaration of war against Japan and invasion of Manchuria on the 9th of August was a far greater reason for their surrender). The effects of the atomic bombs on the world were momentous and too great to mention here, but in Japan it led to the pacifist constitution and a widespread national desire for peace (not that Japan doesn't have its militarist nationalists, and its continued inability to admit and apologise for, rather than regret, its World War II atrocities doesn't help make it any friends in the region). The epicentre for the peace and nuclear disarmament movement worldwide is undoubtedly Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park where a museum, shrine, cenotaphs and statues pay moving tribute to those who perished on that fateful day. The symbol of the complex is the A-Bomb Dome. The building was an exhibition hall before the war and was almost directly below the bomb - the hypocentre, or ground zero - when it exploded (the bomb was detonated 600m above the ground so that the destructive heat and shock waves would not be impeded so as to cause maximum damage) and so its vertical walls survived the devastating blast since they were perpendicular to the shock waves. Its preserved skeleton serves as a grim reminder to what happened on that fateful day.

The empty shell of the A-Bomb Dome serves as a stark reminder of that horrific day 66 years ago.

I spent a whole day inching through the Peace Memorial Museum, reading every scrap of information, every exhibit. No matter what your views may be regarding Japan's conduct in the war, it is a place that cannot leave you unmoved as story after story of innocent human suffering is described in painful detail, stabbing you in the heart. Padding through the dark halls of the museum I was reminded of Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng and the mass suffering that man is able to mete out to his fellow man. Unlike Auschwitz, where the hills of suitcases,shoes, combs, clothes and hair form a physical representation of the lives lost to the gas chambers, very little is left over from the bombing of Hiroshima because most people within a kilometre of the hypocentre were burnt to a cinder along with their clothes. Instead the power lies in the small fragments of flotsam that survived the conflagration: shreds of a child's school uniform, a half-melted Buddha statuette, a wristwatch eternally stopped at 8:15, the time the bomb exploded, and even the "shadow" indelibly left on the masonry of a building by a person who was standing nearby - all that is left of them as they were so close to ground zero that they were instantly vapourised. That person might be considered to have been one of the lucky ones. 70,000 died instantly in the initial blast and firestorm that followed, a further 70,000 died in the following months to December, suffering from acute radiation sickness, bleeding from the inside, their bodies liquefying, breaking down and wasting away in agony; unaware of what radiation even was or its effects. Since then a further 140,000 have died as a direct consequence of radiation or injuries acquired in that dreadful instant when the world changed forever (a number of them not yet born at the time but exposed in utero). What I found particularly scary was that of the 50kg of uranium in the bomb that was dropped, only 1kg underwent the chain reaction that caused the blast. 280,000 people died from just 2% of the bomb's destructive potential.

Before and after aerial pictures of Hiroshima give you some idea of the scale of destruction though they are unable to convey the scale of suffering.

The sheer horror of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki made my bile rise. The justification for using the bomb was to eliminate the need for an Allied ground invasion of Japan which would have led to more casualties, which is admirable enough in theory. But then to drop the bomb on civilians with no forewarning not once, but twice, smacks me as barbaric (the 3 days between the two bombs was not enough for the Japanese authorities to fully study what had happened - the first report from Japanese scientists that confirmed the nuclear nature of the attack was presented to the government the day after Nagasaki). The West likes to claim moral principles in its foreign relations (both in war and peace time) but it seems hard for me to reconcile that with what I have seen and learnt. Does the fact that there was no malice in the decision to bomb Hiroshima, but instead cold calculation (the final decision to choose Hiroshima hinged on the fact that there were no American PoWs in the city, which, perversely, turns out to make the case for using human shields), make it any better than the killings of Roma, homosexuals and Jews by the Nazis. Although it could be argued that in the Nazi worldview these groups did not constitute people and so their extermination was just ruthlessly efficient. Whatever the case may be, the rightness of the use of the atomic bombs never made it to an impartial hearing and today the populace of these cities see it as their duty to maintain the flame of the disarmament campaign. One of the manifestations of this is that the majors of both cities write protest letters to heads of state whenever they carry out nuclear tests. Copies of the letters are displayed in the museum. As an interesting little experiment I counted all the letters that had been written since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were exactly 100 in total. Such neatness was an invitation to see who the greatest transgressors in terms of nuclear testing over the past 20 years have been. In that period 9 countries have carried out nuclear tests: China, France, India, North Korea, Pakistan, the UK, and the USA. I was genuinely surprised to find that fully 50% of the letters were addressed to American presidents (occupying second place, with 21% of the votes, was France). I'm no anti-American at heart, but I am getting sick and tired of hearing laudable goals and statements coming from the Leadership of the Free World only to find, by digging a little deeper, an underlying hypocrisy.

It's not particularly easy to make out, but there is a darker patch on the steps of this building: all that is left of an unfortunate soul who was sitting outside the bank that morning, waiting for it to open. The building was so close to ground zero that the person was vaporised, the only evidence of their passing the shadow left upon the granite stones.

But I had not come to Hiroshima to feed my prejudices. Instead the city and its immediate surroundings display a fantastic microcosm of medieval, imperial and modern Japan. I think I've touched on the imperial enough for one post so let's move to the medieval. The shrines of Japan's indigenous Shinto religion are easily recognisable by their torii, or entrance gates. These symbolic gateways that represent the divide between the sacred and profane are a common sight throughout the country. Undoubtedly the most famous and iconic is the floating torii of the Itsukushima shrine by the island of Miyajima. Every tourist brochure, guidebook and travel programme about Japan shows the vermilion torii which seems to float magically on the water. The torii is placed in the water because the whole island was considered sacred and off limits to common people. Therefore the main shrine is built on stone piles driven into the sand in the shallows so that it is possible to be visited without technically setting foot on the island. There is also a colony of half-tame deer that have come to subsist from harassing tourists for handouts.

Sunset behind the Itsakushima shrine torii.

Shinto shrines are wonderfully fascinating places. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, and their breakneck development since then, religious belief as we live it in Islamo-Christian cultures (where faith in a deity an scriptures form an important pillar in daily life) has more or less disappeared, yet shrines and temples are still popularly frequented by many people. I would love to talk about it with a local, but it seems to me as if giving an offering at a shrine or performing a certain ritual (such as having your new car blessed by a Shinto priest) is a way of hedging your bets. Sort of like saying "better safe than sorry". It probably helps that these rituals can be done at any shrine and only take a few minutes and can be fit around your busy working schedule. And although I am an avowed atheist it grates on my Western sensibilities where religious belief implies a certain amount of sacrifice, devotion and dedication rather than fitting it in between going to the hairdresser and doing the weekly shopping.

Votive tablets, ema,  hanging at the Itsukushima shrine.

As for the modern, Hiroshima is the home of Mazda. There can be nothing more symbolic of Japan's post-war success than its automobile industry. Particularly impressive when yu think that only 150 years ago all wheeled forms of transport were banned in Japan. Four of the world's top 10 car makers are Japanese and the country produces some 10 million cars annually. What's more it is possible to visit Mazda's main factory and get an English tour for free (always an important consideration, especially here in Japan). So in between school groups of raucous children our little group of gaijin were given a rundown of the company's history from its first commercial trike in the early 30's to the present day where it is known for its sporty-yet-affordable cars. The highlight was, without a doubt, the production line where workers fluidly bolted together the cars as they slowly, inexorably trundled along the conveyor belt. I was impressed to see that, with the help of computer inventories, it was possible to have several different models being assembled on the same line.

Mazda's unique rotary engine, for which it is famous.

1 comment:

Bitan Photo said...

I like the OMD reference. Enjoying your blog. Happy trails, Erik!