Hiroshima and Hope

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1.

Sometimes we find ourselves standing in awkward places.

I felt myself to be in one of those places on the sunny morning when a bomb was found in my neighborhood. I heard about it at my yoga class – how streets had been shut down, specialists called in. But there wouldn’t be an investigation, because it was immediately clear who was responsible: the Americans.

I was living in Nagoya, Japan, in a neighborhood that the subway had reached just a year or two before. New developments were springing up everywhere, replacing family homes and the odd post-war tin shack, and a construction crew had uncovered an unexploded bomb dropped by our soldiers in World War II. It really was no wonder that old men in the grocery store would occasionally stop in their tracks and gape at me; I found my presence in the country mind-boggling at times, as well. And awkward. I remember being surrounded by Japanese as I stood in the replica Nagoya Castle – the original, built in 1615, had been destroyed in the war – looking at this picture of their cultural treasure engulfed in flames just moments after my countrymen had firebombed it.

I kind of hoped they thought I was Australian.

The firebombing of Nagoya Castle during World War II.

(I should point out that if you’d like to visit Nagoya Castle, you can choose between two subway stops, one above-ground train stop, or three bus stops. You can also drive a car – but you’ll have a real choice!)

The history buff in me cringes at the knowledge that we destroyed something that had survived so many centuries. In 1615, the Pilgrims had yet to set foot on Plymouth Rock and smallpox had not yet devastated our own native communities. It was a different world entirely.

But this war was brutal beyond words, and this castle was the least of the casualties.

2.

Many of the casualties were in Hiroshima. Given the history, I was a little nervous about our visit to Hiroshima, fearing that “awkward” wouldn’t be the least of it.

The modern city of Hiroshima is built on a stomach-curdling graveyard. The atom bomb, dropped 68 years ago today, may not have been the greatest force of destruction unleashed upon Japan during the war. The firebombing of Tokyo probably killed more people, at least initially. Its horror was in its novelty and the manner in which it killed – and continued to kill.

At 8:15 a.m. an estimated eighty thousand people died instantly, many of them vaporized beyond ash. Nearly as many thousand more died in the following year from radiation poisoning. More still died in the decades following from leukemia and other cancers caused by the radiation. They were ugly, painful, lingering deaths. Survivors often lived ugly lives, with neighbors afraid that radiation sickness was contagious. Some were disfigured, ostracised, unable to marry. Many still fear telling their stories.

Close-up of the A-Bomb Dome. Notice how the support beams have been bent by the blast.
Close-up of the A-Bomb Dome. Notice how the support beams have been bent by the blast.

The effects of an atomic bomb are so horrible that… well, okay, they’re actually not that difficult to convey. Frankly, I just don’t want to describe what an atom bomb does to a human body in detail – that’s how horrifying it is. In fact, whatever you’re thinking, I can guarantee it’s worse than what your imagination is coming up with. But here’s a link to one pictorial record (here) with a warning that although these photos are very graphic, they don’t express the very worst.

3.

Hiroshima doesn’t feel like a graveyard, though. It turned out to be one of my favorite cities in Japan – bustling and beautiful, with green parks fronting the river and great places to eat, small enough to see the hills surrounding the town from the riverfront. In spite of its horrible history – or maybe because of it? – Hiroshima had a comfortable, welcoming feel. And because so many foreign tourists visit the city, I felt relatively inconspicuous as a foreigner there.

Across the river from the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima
Across the river from the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

It was a great place to visit…

Downtown Hiroshima
Downtown Hiroshima

And has streetcars!

Green streetcar rails in Hiroshima
Green streetcar rails in Hiroshima

Despite the fact that the war ended just days after the bomb fell on it, Hiroshima wasn’t rebuilt quickly. It struggled mightily for many years, until the national government decided to fund the rebuilding in order to create a national monument for peace and witness against the atom bomb. And much like the discussions that followed 9/11 on what to do with the space where the World Trade Centers had been, some advocated for relocating the city and leaving the original space dedicated as a resting place for the thousands who had been killed.

A rebuilding proposal that recommended moving the city from its original location.

Ultimately, the city was rebuilt right where it was, with a peace park running through the center, along the river and surrounding the A-Bomb Dome. It was slow work, but beautifully done. (For more of the story, click here.)

4.

Can we learn anything from the rebuilding of Hiroshima? Is it even appropriate to try to “learn” something from an event like this?

Three things come to mind.

First, it’s appropriate to work with hope through crises. Nothing can erase the suffering of the people of Hiroshima after the bomb. This is about as bad as it gets. But it’s not the end of the story. We live in a cynical age that insists that despair and brokenness are the things that are real and true. But hope isn’t insensible, or foolish, or naive – it’s real, it’s something that animates us and drives us to rebuild communities devastated by incomprehensible losses. It’s the part of human nature that allows us to create beauty out of this field of ash, and it’s worth celebrating.

Second, a city in distress may need outside help and investment to recover. Wait, what? Yes, a tax base is a mundane thing to concern ourselves with when talking about the horror of an atom bomb, but the reality that the city faced in the aftermath was a tax base so decimated that there was simply no money for rebuilding. They needed outside help to make that happen, which they found in the national government. It wasn’t something that happened immediately – Hiroshima was far from the only city that had been destroyed and didn’t make the first cut when it came to receiving aid. It wasn’t until they decided to rebuild Hiroshima as a city of peace and a witness against nuclear warfare that the money came through. So with that thought in mind…

Third, it may be in our interests to think more broadly about our purposes in either giving or withholding help from a city. I’m still rolling this one around. We tend to talk about whether a city deserves help or not. But I’m wondering if we might benefit from asking what’s best for our regions and states, as well. Does letting a city fall apart help us? What do we want to see there? Under what circumstances would it be beneficial to intervene, and how, and with what goals? If a greater outside community decides to intervene, how do they honor the citizens who live there every day? In this way, Hiroshima was an easier case than some of the questions we face now. I’m thinking of Detroit and New Orleans, in particular, where questions of culpability and racism and the specter of future disasters overlay the city in ruin.

Less than seventy years after Hiroshima’s devastation a thriving city lies in what was a barren field of suffering. Thanks to people who worked harder than most of us ever will and to the investment of those who had a vision, a decimated city was transformed into a beautiful place where a former enemy can visit and suffer nothing more than mild awkwardness. When I find myself frustrated by relatively small things like a stubborn lack of bike lanes or more sprawl going up behind my house, I need this reminder of humanity’s ability to change what’s around them in circumstances far more extreme than my own.

And on the anniversary of a day of horror, that’s a pretty good reason to hope.

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