Hiroshima – melted people
Hiroshima by: John Hershey pub: Penguin
In January I visited Hiroshima. I’m not sure I wanted to. I was going there on a recommendation of a friend to see bugaku at Miyajima shrine near Hiroshima. I was afraid Hiroshima would be too depressing; maybe upsetting; maybe just too macabre to be a tourist at the worlds first nuclear destruction.
In the event, what I found was a vibrant modern city not overly dominated by it’s past. Yes there are memorials, and a museum, but oddly I didn’t find it depressing as I expected. It’s strange knowing what happened, seeing what survived. There’s the famous A-Bomb dome. The bank, and in the grounds of Hiroshima castle, trees.
And people survived.
Hiroshima is a contemporary account written by an American journalist of six of these peoples stories. I’m not sure what Japanese contemporary accounts exist. I do know the SCAP censored all mention of the bomb by the Japanese. Even in a memorial to schoolchildren killed by the bomb, the coded reference E=MC2 had to be used instead. Also Hershey’s article was the first to put a human face to what happened. Previously articles about the bomb concentrated on its abstract destructive power and America’s triumph.
Originally written as a groundbreaking single article for the New Yorker in 1946, it was updated in 1986 to see what had become of the people in the book. A German Jesuit priest. A Japanese Reverend. A Japanese office lady. Two Japanese doctors. A Japanese Housewife.
The things that struck me about the accounts in the book were
- the sense of resignation. しかたがない。
- the apparent silence of those dying in the ruins of Hiroshima.
- the sense of adventure felt by the children.
- the crassness of “re-uniting” a victim with the co-pilot of the Enola Gay on This Is Your Life.
- the abandonment of the survivors to their fates
- the endurance of the human spirit
It’s a thin volume and well worth a read.
I know when I was at school history studies were very Euro-centric. The Pacific theatre in World War 2 was summed up as Pearl Harbour ’41, British POWs and Hiroshima ’45. Nothing about Manchuria, China, Midway, Firebombings, Okinawa, Occupation.
In the eighties, the accounts of nuclear war tended to be fictional what-ifs. What if a bomb dropped on America, the UK? But strangely the true bombing and it’s effects were ignored. I can’t remember much about it in mainstream media until the 60th anniversary.
Indeed at the start of the HBO documentary White Light Black Rain, Japanese teenagers are vox-popped in Shinjuku about what happened on August 6, 1945. And although I suspect a film-maker’s manipulation at work, none of them knew, nor even guessed, it might have had anything to do with the war.
In that film I saw the melted people of my title. A man whose flesh was quite literally melted onto his bones. You could see holes on his chest between his ribs. Apparently his heart is visible through these. A woman whose fingers cannot be straightened, whose face is a reconstruction. Yet whose spirit is miraculously intact. People whose friends and families disappeared in an instant. A woman who survived with her sister, only to see that sister commit suicide by jumping in front of a train because she couldn’t go on. Ordinary people used as guinea pigs in studying the effects of nuclear weapons.
And I also saw the dehumanising effects on the people who make and drop bombs. An inability to empathise with the potential victims. Or maybe an unwillingness, if you did empathise could you do it.? In the end maybe everyone takes refuge in the mantra “only obeying orders”.
It’s important to known about these things. Then there might be some possibility of them not being repeated, again, and again, in smaller or larger conflicts.