Confusing Hiroshima


Memorializing tragic events has become a common practice in society, framing an event for future generations. Japan today sees itself as a bulwark of peace. Without a military — it relies on the U.S. for defense under the treaty that ended World War II — Japan has been left to deftly rebuild its war-torn cities. The Hiroshima monument teaches today’s Japanese children the importance of peace, but it is a complicated place.

The Peace Memorial Park — as it has been designated — consists of the remnants of a surviving domed building, a park with various monuments and a museum. An eternal flame is part of the monument. A highlight vista is a sculptured arch magnificently framing the eternal flame and the bombed out dome. One of the entrances to the park is the bridge that was targeted to receive the bomb. The bridge remains standing — the bomb exploded nearby. The main museum building is elevated on two stilts to conjure the image of the entrance to a Shinto shrine, traditionally a place of quiet and peace.

A large section of the park is devoted to children who died as a result of the bombing. You are invited to remember them by adding an origami crane to the thousands of cranes collected and displayed in memory of Sadako, a Japanese girl who died of radiation-induced leukemia and whose story in a book about her inspired the origami cranes.

Inside the museum, remnants of burnt-out shingles from destroyed buildings, charred bicycles and burned clothing are among the items on display.

In the park, a large cast iron bell of the type used to summon worshippers to Buddhist prayers is adorned with the artist’s designs reflecting on the tragic event and provides an opportunity to interact with the monument by ringing the bell.

Nearby a grass covered hill surrounded by Shinto lanterns with one at its crest is a mass grave mound.

Seventy thousand (according to the exhibit) to 90,000 (according to Wikipedia) people died from the bomb and the effects of its radiation. A section of the museum is devoted to videotaped stories of some of the living 20,000 survivors of the blast. The survivors are all quite old now, more than 70 years having passed since the deadly day. They tell of walking aimlessly home following the blast and how survivors assisted those who could hardly walk.

The newest section of the museum highlights President Obama’s May 2016, visit to Hiroshima. He didn’t apologize, but instead spoke of the need to eliminate nuclear weapons and the importance of peace. The Japanese took his visit as an acknowledgement of the importance of the bombing.

What is hard to understand is the memorial site’s total lack of mention of Japan’s ruthless slaughter of millions of innocent Chinese during World War II that led to the bombing. If you want contrition, you won’t find it here. Focus is on the devastation and the need for peace.

Hiroshima sits on a bay. To lift somber spirits from a visit to this place of “dark tourism,” stop by the offshore island of Miyashima, 20 minutes away by ferry. Miyashima survived the bomb’s tidal wave. Once there, a street through a very active, tourist-oriented village leads to a massive, typical orange-red Shinto shrine dating from the 6th century but reconstructed in the 16th. Remarkably, having been built on stilts to make it appear to float on the water at high tide may have saved it from destruction. As if to mimic the Hiroshima memorial, the Shinto temple stands as an ancient monument to peace.

You can’t overlook modern-day Hiroshima whose skyscrapers surround the memorial park. The city’s population is now more than 1 million, headquarters of Mazda and many other large companies. The modern development around the memorial park quietly demonstrates the ability of humankind to bounce back from life’s worst nightmares.