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August 6, 2009

What is Hiroshima like Today?

To the world at large, Hiroshima means one thing. But here in Japan’s lively city, it’s a place called home. I travelled to the city to answer the question: what is Hiroshima like today?

What is Hiroshima like today?

As the sleek shinkansen train slid into Hiroshima station, I admit I felt nervous. The weight of the name infused my muscles, each of my movements becoming that bit slower, that bit heavier, that bit more apprehensive.

In my mind, grey images of flattened buildings and emaciated children reappeared, alongside textbook photos of billowing mushroom clouds. Sixty-four years have passed since the Enola Gay dropped its bombshell in 1945: 80 000 dead in a single day, 120 000 to follow through injury and disease. Yet for all the studies and reports, I was still unprepared for what I saw.

A sunny, lively, normal city.

Trams bustled along the streets and giggling schoolchildren in navy uniforms followed me around, falling quiet before summoning the courage to practice their English.

“Excuse me, mister. Where you from? Your first Japan visit?”

Shop fronts were clean, commuters strode along the pavements and Hello Kitty charms swayed from mobile phones. Decades have passed after all, and to the locals “Hiroshima” means “home”, rather than “history lesson.”

I was still unprepared for what I saw. A sunny, lively, normal city.

Not that the city has forgotten. The twisted remains of the Industrial Promotion Hall, now renamed the A-bomb Dome, form a cobweb on the city’s landscape. Staring at the ruined building, its curved metal girders silhouetted against the sky, I’m shocked to catch myself thinking that it doesn’t look that bad. Perhaps today’s visceral scenes from Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down have desensitized me.

Then I see the photograph that shows that this was the only building left standing after the blast.

Hiroshima has transformed the rest of the decimated ground into a modern, thriving metropolis, sparing only a central area for the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. Both are airy, clinical affairs that commemorate the dead and catalogue the damage, but among the ration books and military uniforms, I found a provocative section that discussed “the causes of war.” In particular, it invited Japan to question how its own actions may have contributed to that fateful 8:15 explosion. This unexpected question still lingers with me today.

Outside, plenty of answers and opinions decorate the Children’s Memorial, scribbled in rainbow-coloured crayons from classrooms across the globe. The statue symbolizes the story of Sadako, a child with radiation sickness who hoped that she could avoid death by folding 1000 paper cranes. She created 664.

Today, paper cranes cascade in interlocking formations under the protection of Perspex casing. Unguarded crane garlands hang outside the memorial and plastic Hello Kitty cranes dangle from mobile phones. There’s more than one way to remember.

Both Hiroshima and Tokyo have Peace Flames that promise to burn until the world abolishes nuclear weapons. To my surprise, instead of a confrontation with horror and revenge, a visit to Hiroshima teaches hope. Not only through the explicit messages at the memorials but also, perhaps more so, through the city itself. The visible proof that life and the human spirit can recover.

As I headed back towards the train station, another cluster of schoolchildren circled around. With bright eyes and concentrated effort, their ringleader asked, “Excuse me, mister. Where you from? Do you like Hiroshima?”

Now that I’ve seen it, “Yes. Do you?”

A brief look of confusion, a glance back at the clipboard, then a smile. “Yes I like Hiroshima very much. I live here. Is my home.”


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