I had mixed feelings about visiting Hiroshima, a city that has been synonymous with destruction ever since the world’s first atomic bomb exploded in its skies almost 70 years ago. I knew it would be fascinating, harrowing and—given the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons—utterly terrifying. Still, I went because I felt it was important to understand the lasting impact of such a momentous and emotive moment in history—not only on the city and its residents, but on the wider world.
Hiroshima today is a thriving place, home to car giant Mazda and its fair share of glass-and-concrete shopping malls. Anyone arriving on the Shinkansen (bullet train) will be greeted by the same neon signs and bright lights that characterize most Japanese cities. But look closely and reminders of the devastation unleashed at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, are ever-present.
Stepping off the tram that trundles through the city center, I was greeted by the empty hulk of the Industrial Promotion Hall, now known as the A-Bomb Dome. Sited at the blast’s epicenter, it was one of the few structures to survive. Its skeletal shell has been preserved ever since as a powerful symbol of what happened here, and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. It was smaller than I had expected, but that did nothing to lessen the impact of its blackened bricks and tangled metal.
Moving along the road I came to the Peace Park, perched on a riverbank beneath weeping willows. It’s home to the Memorial Cenotaph, whose flame flickers continuously; it will only be extinguished once all nuclear weapons have been destroyed. Dotted around it are other, equally moving reminders—a blackened tree stump, statues in memory of Korean victims of the explosion, and the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, which helped to seal Hiroshima’s fate by acting as a clear target for the American bomber crew. And there are moments of light relief provided by the gaggles of brightly clothed peace protesters who roam the paths offering free hugs to passers-by.
My next stop was the Peace Memorial Museum, which houses a surprisingly balanced account of events. The decision to use atomic weapons may seem unjustifiable today, when many of us are cushioned from the horrific impact of war, but the museum presents a detailed account of the Allies’ reasoning, of the need to bring a swift end to an increasingly bitter Pacific conflict, and of the Japanese decision to ignore invitations to surrender in the weeks leading up to the attack. There’s no blame or retribution; simply an honest and informative presentation of human suffering.
The exhibits are harrowing and at times extremely graphic—blood-stained school uniforms, photographs of survivors’ injuries, a watch frozen at the exact moment of the explosion—but for me the most poignant was a vast wall of protest letters penned by successive mayors of Hiroshima after every nuclear arms test carried out across the globe. The first dated from the 1940s; the most recent from weeks before my visit. It was a sobering reminder that the world may again witness such unthinkable devastation.
Ultimately, though, my brief stop in Hiroshima was uplifting. As I got back on the tram, I noticed that the first cherry blossoms of the year had begun to flower on the trees encircling the A-Bomb Dome, and it seemed apt. After the blast the city’s survivors began to rebuild almost immediately, and the tram system was up and running again within days. Though many suffer physical damage and psychological scars to this day, their dignified resolve is testament to the power of human resilience, and their subsequent peace campaigns are an inspiration. I left with a tiny glimmer of hope that the Cenotaph’s flame might, one day, be extinguished.