Hiroshima was once a vibrant castle town. And the Sarugaku-cho neighbourhood was a lively place of noh actors, artisans, physicians and shops.
Until the day that everyone died.
At 8:15am on Monday August 6, 1945 an American B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay flew over and unleashed the greatest destructive force the world had ever known.
The bomb was detonated in the air, 580m above the ground, instantly vaporizing almost everyone within a 2km radius. The temperature at the epicentre reached over a million degrees centigrade, creating a 280m diameter fireball that burned exposed skin as far as 3.5km away.
And then the shock wave moved outward, with winds of up to 440m/sec (1,000mph) that blew outwards and then sucked back in, flattening wooden buildings, and breaking windows up to 27km away.
Iron shutters were twisted by the force of the blast. Glass bottles and dishes fused together from the tremendous heat. The shadow of a person was burned onto a wall, leaving only black on stone where life used to be.
And then the black rain started to fall. Those who somehow survived the blast staggered away from the city, their clothing just patches of burned rags and their skin hanging off in bloody sheets. Survivors would later suffer from leukaemia, thyroid, breast, lung and other cancers.
Around 80,000 people were killed directly by the explosion, and 70% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. By the end of the year, radiation brought the total to between 90,000 and 160,000 killed by this single device.
The plane that dropped the atomic bomb was flown by Colonel Paul Tibbets. And I think what amazes me most about the entire story is that, even years later, he expressed no remorse for unleashing this terrible weapon.
Tibbets took pride in his work, and in the planning and training which led up to the compete destruction of the city of Hiroshima. In a 1975 interview, he said, “I’m proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did … I sleep clearly every night.”
In fact, Tibbets’s remorse was so entirely absent that in 1976 he jumped into a restored B-29 and reenacted the bombing at a Texas air show, complete with mushroom cloud. The US government later had to apologize to Japan for this incredibly insensitive and totally moronic act. (Could you imagine the outrage in America if someone reenacted 9/11 at a Middle Eastern air show?)
When the Enola Gay was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution for the 50th anniversary of the bombing in 1995, Tibbets described the display as a “damn big insult” because it focused on the casualties of the bomb rather than on the brutality of the Japanese army during WWII.
Just two years before his death at the age of 92, he told a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch, “We knew it was going to kill people right and left. But my one driving interest was to do the best job I could so that we could end the killing as quickly as possible.”
But was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary?
The official party line is that the bomb ended the war and forced Japan’s surrender, whereas the alternative would have been many more months of bombing civilian targets, followed by a land invasion which was sure to cost tens of thousands of lives. Advocates of the atomic bombing believe that an overwhelming demonstration of destructive capability was needed to convince an already broken Japanese army — an army whose leaders knew the war to be lost — to surrender unconditionally.
In other words, it’s for your own good, to save both American and Japanese lives.
But is this really true?
A great deal of research has come out in the decades since the war which calls the decision into question.
Japan had been militarily defeated by June 1945. Its Navy had been almost totally destroyed. And its air power was such that America could fly unopposed anywhere over Japan, and was bombing cities at will.
In the days leading up to the first atomic bomb, Japan had approached Russia to act as a go between in negotiating a surrender which would retain the Emperor as head of the country. But Russia ignored their diplomatic cables. And Japan waited.
Was the bomb actually meant to intimidate the Soviet Union? The coming conflict between the West and Russia had been foreshadowed long before the end of WWII. Or did Allied scientists simply want to justify testing this new weapon that they had created?
What if Nazi Germany had developed the bomb first, and had used it on two American cities? Can anyone doubt that such actions would not have been classed as war crimes? What makes such actions immoral if you lose, but moral if you win?
The debate will continue for as long as historians exist to sift through the records. What remains true today — and what seems incredibly shameful to me about this issue — is that the United States has never once apologized to the people of Japan for this unprecedented act of destruction.
Germany has faced up to its Nazi past. Japan has apologized more than once for the atrocities its soldiers committed during WWII in China and Southeast Asia. But America — the first and only country to use nuclear weapons on anyone else — remains silent. And they continue to justify the bombings to this day.
Hiroshima remained silent too, for a while. But the radioactive rain stopped falling. The ashes eventually settled. The dead were buried. And people began rebuilding their lives.
We left the Peace Park to spend the rest of that sunny Spring day with old friends, and to celebrate life in a city whose name is linked with death and destruction in the minds of most people.
Today Hiroshima is a vibrant city of rivers and gardens, restaurants and museums.
It has a lively bar district, and is home to the Hiroshima Carp, one of Japan’s most popular baseball teams. The city is surrounded by mountains, and it always seems to get a nice sea breeze. It’s also very liveable, with much lower rents than you’d find in Tokyo or Osaka.
After a walk around to explore the Prefectural Art Museum and Shukkei-en Japanese garden, we set out for the main event, which in Japan always revolves around food.
You can’t visit Hiroshima without trying the okonomiyaki.
The city of Osaka is better known for this savoury pancake-like delicacy. There, the ingredients are first mixed in a bowl before being poured on the hot plate in the centre of the table and cooked.
But Hiroshima claims to have invented okonomiyaki too, and they do it very differently from the residents of the Kansai plain. In Hiroshima, the ingredients are layered.
First a crepe is made on the grill. Then dried bonito flakes are added, followed by cabbage, bean sprouts, sliced bacon or pork, and options like fried squid, octopus, cheese, or mochi. Soba or udon noodles come next. And finally another layer of egg, topped with a generous squirt of okonomiyaki sauce.
Slather your portion with as much mayonnaise as your arteries can handle, and chase it down with an ice-cold draft beer from a frosted glass.
I love Osaka okonomiyaki and eat it every chance I get. And I will look for the Hiroshima version now too. It’s excellent and should not be missed.
But don’t stuff yourself too senseless, because the night is just getting started.
We continued our evening at nearby Molly Malone’s Irish bar, where our friend Natsu used to work. The owner, Mark from Ireland, pours the best Guinness in town, and he’s got an excellent whiskey selection too.
And with that, I raise a glass to the Hiroshima of today. And we drink to the memory of those whose lives were lost here, in the hope that humanity never commits such a barbaric act of destruction again.