The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and – a few days later – Nagasaki, most likely saved a lot of lives, both Allied and Japanese. The alternative was a full scale land invasion of Japan, and the Japanese would not have given up easily at all. Even after the two atomic bombs, a faction of the Japanese military dedicated to fighting to the end tried to find and destroy the surrender papers before Emperor Hirohito could sign them the following day. (They failed, of course, but killed the captain of the palace guard in the process.)
Nonetheless, thousand of people were killed by the blast – about 80,000 directly and perhaps more than 100,000 in total by the end of the year from the effects of radiation and injury, according to one study. Most of them, naturally, were civilians.
In May 2005, during my second visit to Japan, I visited Hiroshima for a few days. Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail I wrote to friends and acquaintances giving my thoughts about the visit to this city forever linked to world history.
“Hiroshima is, naturally, a city of some contrasts. I arrived a bit after noon today, following a nearly five hour rail journey from Tokyo. It`s a modern city like any other in Japan – but of course one with a past. I saw that past immediately when I looked out of the window of my 12th floor hotel room. There below me was the river. Across it was the island containing Peace Park and the Peace Museum, and to the right on my side of the river was the Genbaku Domo – known in English as the A-Bomb Dome.
“One thing that`s hard not to notice is the presence of school children here – there must be more school kids here per square meter than any other place in Japan excluding schools themselves. The kids are really cute. As I was walking through the park, some of them approached me for a class assignment, so I answered some questions, followed by a whole series of photos being taken with different cameras. After going to the stadium to buy my ticket for the (baseball) game, I walked back to the park to go to the museum. A bit of reality came to the fore – in front of the Cenotaph memorial to those who perished here 60 years ago, about two dozen very elderly Japanese people, all in wheelchairs, were wheeled in turn to the monument to make an offering and say prayers. I have to think that these were survivors from that day and it gave me pause to think.
“Indeed, I had thought earlier of my visits to Berlin before and after the wall had come down – how standing at Checkpoint Charlie today one cannot really imagine what it was like back in the days of the divided city. For Hiroshima that lack of true understanding must be even greater.
“The Peace Museum is of course something of a misnomer as it`s mostly about the effects of atomic war. At first I was a bit disappointed. The museum tells of the history of the city, the atomic bomb explosion and the current nuclear proliferation in the world. It was mostly cold numbers. What grabbed me was the final part of the museum walk-through, with stories of individual people – many of them junior high school age children – who perished in the blast and afterwards. We see tattered clothing that they wore, items that they used – the only thing that is left of them.