I’ll be honest, I was nervous about our trip to Hiroshima in the days leading up to it. The city’s name seems to be underlined with sadness whenever it’s said, regardless of the context. No one I’ve heard talks about the city the way they do with Tokyo or New York or London, even though they’ve also been subjected to attacks in the past. When people hear “Hiroshima,” they think “atomic bomb” and not much else. So planning an overnight trip there made me anxious.
In preparation, I tried to remember the first time I learned about Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. I read a story in elementary school about Sadako and the thousand paper cranes she wanted to fold. I’ve watched Jaws about a couple dozen times, and Robert Shaw’s infamous monologue ends with “Anyway, we delivered the bomb.” But it’s hard for anyone to conceptualize a single event which left over 100,000 people dead and an entire city flattened. It’s harder still to grow up and learn that your own national leaders ordered such an incomprehensible attack, the same men who have been touted as heroes for “winning” World War II. My grandfather was a WWII vet who fought in the Pacific during those years – what was he fighting for? What did “we” win? As an American, what should my relationship with this city look like?
The trip was also clouded by a memory I have from 2015: Ethan and I went to New York City (my first time there) and made a point to visit Ground Zero and the World Trade Center memorial. After getting lost in the surrounding buildings numerous times, we finally found the site – and it was packed with tourists and selfie sticks. Malls were under construction around virtually the whole area. We ended up leaving after fifteen minutes, because it didn’t feel like a place with history anymore. It felt like a local attraction.
I didn’t want Hiroshima to be a kitschy place, but I also didn’t want it to be a place without history. There lies the problem – I was trying to predict what this place might be like now, and what I wanted from it. I wasn’t thinking about what Hiroshima is.
During the ferry trip from Matsuyama to Hiroshima, I read John Hersey’s article for the New Yorker. Published in August 1946 (exactly one year later), it was one of the first articles many Americans read about the bombing. And he pulled few punches – the fear, the chaos, the violence, and the destruction caused are all there in his essay. I followed that up with Wikipedia research on the bombing, the Manhattan Project, and the city landmarks that mark important sites. When we arrived in Hiroshima, I nearly expected a flattened city still in ruins, since my head was swimming with all of those horrific words and images.
But traveling from the ferry to our hostel proved different. A fully functioning, dense, and populous city spread out before me, full of nail salons and banks and vending machines. The people waiting for pedestrian lights and walking out of restaurants didn’t seem to be unbearably sad or burdened with the memory of their longitude and latitude. They seemed to be… regular people.
That night, Ethan and I watched Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film with one of my favorite screenplays (written by the indefatigable Marguerite Duras). Made in 1959, the film focuses on an affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect, but it quickly devolves into an exploration of the trauma of war (just super uplifting stuff, you know?) The first ten minutes are essentially stock footage videos of post-bomb Hiroshima, the burned victims and the fallen buildings and the immense suffering. But the rest of the movie was filmed in Hiroshima in 1958, giving its audience an idea of how quickly the city began to rebuild. A museum had already been built to memorialize the bombing, tour guides are shown bringing groups around the city, hotels are fully furnished, and modern cafes are bustling with crowds and booze (it’s a half-French movie, after all).
The next morning, we woke up early and prepared for our daunting walk through the city. On the way to our first stop, Ethan suddenly pointed at the roof of our covered walkway – “It’s the same one from the movie, we’re on the same street.” Fifty years after the film debuted, some parts of Hiroshima were still recognizable. And I began to see it differently.
We went to a small museum in an elementary school, one of the few buildings left standing when the bomb hit. Walking through the exhibits talking about the number of lives lost, I could hear students playing at recess outside. It was almost hard to concentrate on the pain, when positivity was so immediately present. While looking at the paper cranes made by today’s students for the museum, the docent approached me and handed me two small ones. “Gifts for visitors.” He asked me where I was from, smiled, and thanked me for visiting.
Our next stop was the official Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a huge building with incredibly detailed and well-curated exhibits. Hundreds of people, from every corner of the world, were there together – learning and talking and bumping into each other while swarming the interactive tables. If that sounds a bit cliché, well, I suppose it was. But the museum was living up to its goal – promoting history and peace between all peoples. I saw a few tears, but mostly the smiles of children who were visiting with their parents. The heavy stuff went over their head, but the diversity of the group around them kept them engaged. It’s not every day you hear twenty different languages spoken in one room.
Ethan and I walked through most of the park, full of monuments dedicated to victims and peacemakers alike. Friendly locals stopped to say hello, and even our trek to the hypocenter – the direct spot beneath the location in the sky where the bomb went off – was with a tour group of elementary school students (inadvertently). One of the boys was very keen to impress Ethan with his knowledge of the site, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Walking through Hiroshima, I began to feel less afraid and more encouraged. One of the worst tragedies in human history had befallen this place, and yet all around me were tall buildings and families and hundred-year old trees. Not even a nuclear bomb could defeat the spirit of the people of Japan (and Hiroshima in particular), and the evidence is plain as day. The people here know their history, and what’s more, they know all of it: the centuries before, the hot day in August 1945, and the decades spent rebuilding and doggedly pursuing a new goal – peace.
Let me remain on my soapbox for just one more paragraph – it wasn’t until visiting Hiroshima that I realized just how “little” a bomb can do. I’m not trying to minimize the lives lost, the trauma of survivors, or the evils of war. But before this trip, the words “nuclear bomb” sounded to me like an ending. As we hear more and more about countries developing nuclear weapons, and we’re told the end is near, it’s easy to be totally pessimistic and anticipate the end of the world. But Hiroshima is proof that even the most unfathomable attack can’t break the human spirit. Even if World War 3 starts tomorrow, there will be those who survive, stand up, and rebuild.
As we packed up and headed to the train station, I remarked to Ethan that I’d like to travel to Hiroshima again. I saw a few neighborhoods and museums I wanted to revisit, and the overall vibe felt relaxed but engaging. He was visibly taken aback, and pointed out that that was the first time I said that about a city (that’s normally “his line”) during our trip. That may be so, but Hiroshima is a special enough place to keep watching it grow.