Hiroshima, my last stop on this my first visit to Japan, needs little introduction. It is known throughout the world as the first city in history subjected to nuclear warfare with the atomic bombing of the city by the Americans during World War II. Since that fateful day in August 1945, Hiroshima, the largest city in Western Honshu, Japan’s largest & most populated island, has become a byword for the devastating effects of the atomic bomb. It’s for this reason alone that millions visit the city annually. Most come to pay their respects at the city’s Peace Park Memorial and Memorial Museum but the city itself is an attractive port city, the total rebuilding of which is eloquent testimony to the power of man over destruction – where once there was nothing but ashes as far as the eye could see there now stands a busy, modern city, one that still contains an old-world feel with its creaky trams and sunny disposition.
Attack Background || How Did It Come To This?
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the US naval base at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour, starting the Pacific War of World War II. Although the early days of the Pacific war went well for the Japanese (in rapid succession, the Philippine’s, Indonesia, Malaya and Burma fell to the seemingly unstoppable Japanese forces) the tide was stemmed in New Guinea and, in June 1942, the US Navy won a decisive victory at the Battle of Midway by sinking Japanese aircraft carriers. Although Japan had launched its campaign to secure the “Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”, in which she would free her neighbours from colonization and help them develop like the West, the brutal and exploitative reality of Japanese occupation meant there was no support from these potential Southeast Asian allies. Nor was there a likelihood of military cooperation between Japan and Germany, who both eyed each other suspiciously despite the non-aggression pact they had between themselves. By 1944, & with the US capture of the Pacific island of Saipan, Japan was clearly heading for defeat in the war. The country was now within range of US heavy bombers but there was a determination to fight to the bitter end, as exemplified by suicidal kamikaze pilots and the defending forces on the islands of lwa-jima and Okmawa who fought to the last man. In March 1945 Tokyo was in ashes and 100,000 were dead fallowing three days of fire bombings. The government insisted that the emperor system remain inviolate when they put down arms, but no such assurances were offered by the Allies and in July 1945 they called for Japan’s unconditional surrender. Japan failed to respond providing the Allies with the excuse they needed to drop the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6.
Attack Background || Why Hiroshima?
As a garrison town Hiroshima was an obvious target during World War II but until that dark day in August 1945 it had been spared Allied bombing. It’s speculated that this was an intentional strategy by the US military so that the effects of the bomb when exploded could be fully understood. Even so, when the B29 bomber Enola Gay set off on its mission Hiroshima was one of three possible targets (the others being Nagasaki and Kokura) whose fate was sealed by reconnaissance planes above the city reporting clear skies. When “Little Boy”, as the bomb was nicknamed, exploded 580 metres above the city at 8.15 am it unleashed the equivalent of the destructive power of 15,000 tonnes of TNT. Beneath some 350,000 people looked up and saw the sun fall to earth. In less than a second a kilometre wide radioactive fireball consumed the city. The heat was so intense that all that remained of some victims was their shadow seared onto the rubble. Immediately some 70,000 buildings and 80,000 people were destroyed. Two days later the USSR declared war on Japan while the next day the second A-bomb exploded over Nagasaki. With millions homeless and starving and the country brought to its knees it was a breathtaking understatement for Emperor Hirohito to broadcast, on August 15, 1945, that the war had “developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”. For his subjects, gathered at wireless sets around the country, the realization of defeat was tempered by their amazement at hearing, for the first time, the voice of a living God.
– Inscription on the coffin under the Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
The dropping of the bomb was only start of the suffering for the people of Hiroshima. By the end of the year 60,000 more had died from burns, wounds and radiation sickness. The final death roll is still unknown, the figure offered by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum being 140,000 (plus or minus 10,000). Many survivors despaired of anything growing again for decades in the city’s poisoned earth but their hopes were raised on seeing fresh buds and blossom on the trees less than a year after the blast.
The reborn Hiroshima, with its population of more than a million, is now the self-proclaimed “city of international peace and culture” and one of the most memorable and moving days to visit the city is August 6, when a memorial service is held in the Peace Park and 10,000 lanterns for the souls of the dead are set adrift on the Ota-gawa delta. However, for all Hiroshima’s symbolic importance it’s important to put the number of those killed into context. During the World War II battle of Okinawa, 265,000 people were killed in a few weeks, more than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, while close to 200,000 died in Tokyo in a single night of allied bombing in 1945 (and the Japanese themselves are said to have brutally massacred a similar number of soldiers and civilians in Nanking, China).