Tonight I am a long way from home. My wife and I came to Japan so that I could give lectures at a university in Tokyo, but now that I am done there we are exploring the country for a few days.
Guided by a Japanese friend, we have visited ancient Buddhist temples, hiked to a mountaintop Shinto shrine and explored back alley shops where a single family has made a certain kind of cookie or a special indigo dye or a unique brand of sake for centuries.
Today we are in Hiroshima, where we visited memorials to the victims of the atomic bomb that fell on the city on August 6, 1945.
It has been a trip of many joys, but I don’t have words for what we saw here in Hiroshima or for what I feel now.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park
For me the hardest thing to hear in Hiroshima was the stories about the children killed or hurt in the atomic bombing.
At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, we saw several exhibits that included keepsakes from children lost to the atomic bomb, such as this lunchbox that belonged to a 12-year-old boy named Koji Kano.
Koji’s name is inscribed on the lunch box’s lid. His remains were never found, however. His family kept the lunchbox in its Buddhist altar for 66 years, until they donated it to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
This is a portrait of Koji, his older brother Tsuneharu (who donated the lunchbox to the museum) and their little sister. Koji was in 4th grade at the time of the photograph.
Shinichi Tetsutani’s Tricycle
Another exhibit at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum featured this tricycle. It belonged to a little boy named Shinichi Tetsutani. He was riding the tricycle when the atomic bomb’s great burst of heat swept through his neighborhood.
The surface heat resulting from the atomic bomb blast ranged from 5,400 to 7,200 degrees F. It made roof tiles boil, and trees turn to charcoal.
Shinichi died of burns later that night. His father, Nobuo Tetsutani, buried him and his tricycle together in the family’s backyard.
Forty years later, Nobuo removed Shinichi’s remains and relocated them to a family burial site. At that time, he also donated the tricycle to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
This is a photograph of Shinichi with Michiko, his older sister. Michiko also died in the atomic bombing.
Hiroshima National Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims
We also visited the Hiroshima National Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. To me the Memorial Hall felt partly like a library and partly like a place of prayer and contemplation.
The archivists at the Hiroshima National Memorial Hall maintain a central registry of the names of the people who perished in the atomic bomb’s initial blast and firestorm, and also those who died later from severe burns and exposure to radiation.
An estimated 70-80,000 people died almost instantly, either in the initial explosion or the firestorms. Others died later from burn wounds and radiation exposure. The leading researchers have concluded that a total of approximately 140,000 men, women and children died by the end of 1945.
The Memorial Hall has a research library that has collected more than 1,400 testimonials from survivors of the atomic bomb.
The Memorial Hall’s archivists also collect photographs of people who lost their lives that summer day in 1945. This is a tiny part of a poster featuring some of those faces — the scale of the tragedy brought home in the youthful eyes of human souls extinguished.
The Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum .
No one could have planned a more moving memorial to Hiroshima’s children of 1945 than the Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum. The Fukuro-machi Elementary school was located only ½ mile from where the atomic bomb detonated, which was in downtown Hiroshima, 1,900 feet above the Shima Hospital.
The blast immediately killed the teachers and approximately 70 children on the school’s playground.
Built out of reinforced concrete, one wing of the school somehow survived the blast. It was one of the few buildings in downtown Hiroshima that was not completely reduced to ashes and rubble.
Today the city’s citizens have turned the remnants of the old school into a little museum that is a place of remembrance and education.
The photograph above shows how the elementary school looked some weeks after the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.
The Motoyasu River
Throngs of survivors of the initial blast ran into the Motoyasu River, where many drowned.
Many of those people had gone to the river to seek relief from their burns. Others wanted to get away from what was later called “black rain,” which was a mix of radioactive soot, dirt and water vapor that formed in the bomb’s mushroom cloud and then fell back to earth.
This is a photograph of the Motoyasu River today.
Writing on the Wall
In the weeks after the atomic bomb fell, the survivors of the initial blast and firestorm used the Fukuro-machi Elementary School to leave messages for those that might be looking for them.
In this photograph, you can see handwritten notes that survivors from the surrounding neighborhoods left on the walls of the school.
Some are pleas for help. Some indicate where individuals have gone for shelter or medical help, so that friends and family might find them. There were very few other walls left standing for them to leave such messages.
Renovation crews discovered the messages when removing plaster in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I saw things I don’t want to remember”
The museum’s exhibits also include firsthand testimonials from the students who survived the atomic bomb.
A student listed only as “H. K.” was not in Hiroshima when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb, but H. K. recorded his or her memories of returning to the city four days after the bombing.
H. K.’s testimonial begins:
“August 1945. It is extremely painful to talk about the hellish scenes I saw. I saw things I don’t want to remember. Things I don’t want to say. My heart rebels, yet I cannot help speaking about them. I was ten. My sister was seven. We lost five members of our family, including our parents and an aunt, to the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima.”
In the school’s basement
For many years, local authorities assumed that all the schoolchildren at Fukuro-nachi Elementary School had perished in the atomic bomb blast. Decades later, though, a research team discovered that three children had survived. At the time of the bombing, all of them had been in the school’s basement.
This photograph shows the stairwell into the school’s basement when we visited this morning.
Many years later, at least two of those survivors gave testimony to a research team from Hiroshima University.
One said that he had lived because he had gone inside the basement to take off his street shoes and put on his gym shoes.
After the bomb fell, he crawled out of the school and discovered that all the other children and teachers were gone.
The sky had gone pitch black and walls of flame surrounded the school. He said that he walked on corpses as he found a path through the flames.
When he reached a relief center, he discovered that his body was covered with glass splinters.
“I was a little slower”
Many years later, another survivor from the Fukuro-nachi Elementary School wrote a letter to a more recent generation of the school’s students. In that letter (which is on exhibit at the museum), this survivor still seemed to be wondering at how fragile the line was between living and dying that day.
“Six of us who had gone to school barefoot had been sent in to put on shoes. The five who went out ahead of me were probably exposed to the bomb as soon as they got in the playground. I was a little slower, still climbing the stairs. That’s why I was saved.”
The cranes of peace
On the second floor stairwell at the Fukuro-nachi Elementary School Peace Museum, we discovered a beautiful sign of hope. Schoolchildren had left many hundreds of brightly colored paper cranes and other prayers for peace.
Throughout the year, the museum hosts school groups and sponsors peace education programs.
When I see these stories about the atomic bomb’s victims, and especially the stories about the children, I can’t help wondering about the nation, my beloved country, that did this to Hiroshima.
I ask myself, how could a civilized country have done this?
And once it was done, how could it not be considered something terrible? How could it not be remembered as something for which one would forever after seek atonement?
But, as at all the memorials and museums that we visited in Hiroshima, the memorials and exhibits at the Fukuro-nachi Elementary School Museum do not reflect anger or blame or resentment.
Instead, they express a deep, deep desire for the world to remember what happened here and a deep, deep hope that the world’s people will not let it happen again.
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