We stood in an exhibit room full of wiggly noisy Japanese school children and took in the grainy black and white panorama of Hiroshima taken the day after the atomic bomb exploded. In the photo, the landscape was strewn with rubble. A handful of people could be seen looking around, perhaps on a futile mission to find survivors. Nearly 80,000 people died instantly in the explosion, many of whom were never identified as there was no trace of their remains.
I recognized two significant structures rising from the rubble: a gutted building with a dome-shaped roof, the A-Bomb Dome, which still stands in ruins in Hiroshima Peace Park; and a Shinto Torii Gate, which has since been moved to the Hiroshima Castle grounds. A torii gate symbolizes entry into the sacred, leaving the profane behind. The shrine had been obliterated, leaving the gate standing forlorn amongst the ruins.
The school children, dressed in uniforms of dark skirts or pants and white dress shirts didn’t pay much attention us, as they darted between exhibits. Their excited chatter created a hum like a school cafeteria. I was grateful for their carefree youthful energy, as it softened the intensity of the heavy emotional impact I felt, as we walked through the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum. Nevertheless, my gut locked in knots as we perused the exhibits portraying unabashed graphic images of profound human suffering.
Photos showed burned and disfigured children, bleeding mouth ulcers of radiation sickness victims, and survivors whose facial expressions cried out with agonizing grief. A glass case held a three-year-old’s tricycle, it’s frame contorted by partial meltdown. The blast had released a fireball with the heat of 6000 degrees C (10,830 degrees F).
Posted along the wall was a timeline of the war and the development of the atomic bomb. One of the boards stated American physicists calculated that detonating the bomb 600 meters (2000 feet) above the ground would inflict especially powerful and destructive energy, as the shock wave intensified in force, rebounding off the surface of the earth, and sweeping over buildings on the ground. The bomb in Hiroshima detonated at 600 meters.
In a separate hall from the main exhibits was a small display case holding origami paper cranes folded by Barack Obama and his handwritten message: “We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.” Obama’s visit to the museum was in May 2016, and he was the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima since the bombing. He paid his respects to the victims and acknowledged Hiroshima’s efforts to promote peace in the world.
A local guide gave us a tour of Peace Memorial Park where multiple structures and monuments had been erected to honor the victims and to promote a world without militarization or nuclear weapons. Our guide was a second generation survivor of the bombing – somewhat of a miracle baby given her parents’ proximity and exposure to the event. Her eyes glistened with tears, and her voice caught several times during her presentation. Stories of Hiroshima’s loss are still painful for locals to recall. Many bombing survivors still live with radiation sickness symptoms; as they pass away, they are added to the running count of victims – now more than 300,000.
In the Hiroshima Peace Park, a saddle-shaped Peace Arch stands to shelter the souls of the victims. A Peace Flame burns between two expansive open palms and will burn until nuclear weapons are eliminated from the world. The A-Bomb Dome is left standing unrestored as a symbol of the most destructive force ever created by humankind and for hope of world peace and the ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons.
A Children’s Peace Monument, “Atomic Bomb Children,” stands to honor Sadako Sasaki and the thousands of child victims of the Hiroshima bombing. Sasaki was two years old at the time of the bombing and exposed to the black rain fallout. Nine years later, she came down with leukemia related to radiation exposure and passed away at 12 years old. Sasaki had heard a Japanese saying that if you fold a thousand paper cranes your wish will be granted. She spent her last days folding a thousand paper cranes. Some say her wish was to live while others say she wished for a world without nuclear weapons.
Sasaki’s story led to origami paper cranes becoming the symbol of peace and hope. Glass cases, adjacent to the Children’s Monument, are crammed full with paper cranes sent by children from all over the world. At the base of the Children’s Peace Monument, which was paid for from funds raised by children, is a plaque with Japanese lettering: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.”
My Japanese friends were puzzled as to why we put Hiroshima on our itinerary in Japan. “It’s just a city,” one said. Another added, “There’s no history there. . .no ancient temples or shrines. . . no interesting architecture.”
I didn’t have a clear answer for my friends. I recalled my visit to Pearl Harbor Memorial as a teen in the 1970s, and my confusion over why so many Japanese tourists were there. My father, a retired world history teacher, put Hiroshima on our itinerary, and my 15-year-old son, who’s favorite subject in school is history, was along on the trip. That was the answer I gave my Japanese friends – “We’re interested in history.”
But the academics – politics, history and science – seemed trivial compared to the profound heartbreak I felt in the face of human suffering inflicted by fellow humans. We have an incredible capacity for destruction. But we are also remarkably resilient, as the Japanese have proven through rebuilding their cities since the war into vibrant pulsing metropolises. Hiroshima is now called the “City of Peace.”
Our visit to Hiroshima Peace Museum and Park was uncomfortable and laden with emotion. But I’m glad we went. Knowing, and teaching our children about, the human consequences of nuclear war is a way to build awareness and compassion. Paying respects to innocent victims is an expression of that compassion.