Seventy years on, Hiroshima remains a haunting talisman for selective pain

The horror lives on in Japan’s memory as some others accuse it of victimhood

Paper lanterns float in the Motoyasu River in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima during a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nagi/AFP/Getty Images

Paper lanterns float in the Motoyasu River in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima during a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nagi/AFP/Getty Images

 

It is impossible to conjure up the agony visited upon Hiroshima 70 years ago as you walk around the rebuilt city, with its airy shopping centres and tree-lined boulevards.

Photographs of the vapourised city taken in August 1945 are poor, grainy substitutes. The main conduit to the past is through the memories of the atomic-bomb survivors.

Once a year, elderly hibakusha – survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings – must relive the most excruciating experiences of their lives. Their stories become numbing: people blown away like flecks of dust; children screaming for mothers who had been incinerated; the dangling eyeballs, burst intestines and mutilated skin of neighbours and friends; the stench of burning flesh and death in the summer heat.

Radiation poisoning

Sakue Shimohira

Terumi Tanaka tells me how, as a 13-year-old boy, he helped cremate much of his family before the end of August; of witnessing ponds and rivers filled with bloated corpses, the survivors sitting blank-eyed, their wounds filled with maggots. “Nobody wants to remember such things but we do because we want people to know the truth,” he says.

“These are people who lived through the worst hell imaginable yet they’re not bitter and they don’t want revenge,” explains Peter Kuznick, a history professor at American University who brings his students every year to Hiroshima. “They want to use their experience in a positive way to build world peace. It’s such an incredible and powerful message.”

Official Hiroshima cultivates this message, with its museums, memorial parks, peace boulevards and the iconic, hollowed-out Dome. In August, school children stage “die-ins” beside the dome, replaying the events of 70 years ago. As I watched this performance, the sound of John Lennon’s Imagine wafted from a speaker across the river.

Twin mushroom clouds

United States

But America is not alone in being accused of sanitising the past. For many Asians, Hiroshima is a talisman for selective pain. The Japanese paid into the bank of suffering with the atomic bombing and they’ve been withdrawing ever since, whitewashing the suffering they inflicted on others in their schools, history books and popular culture.

Writer Ian Buruma calls the city the centre of “Japanese victimhood”, a pilgrimage with the “atmosphere of a religious centre”. “It has martyrs, but no single god. It has prayers and it has a ready-made myth about the fall of man.”

A-bombed cities

ChinaJapan

Most hibakusha reject this narrative of selective pain. They are among the fiercest critics of attempts by Japan’s government to rewrite history or water down its commitment to pacifism. It is telling that, in polls, the percentage of Japanese who describe the bombings as “unforgivable” is higher nationwide than in Hiroshima, where most appear to have forgiven – but not forgotten.

Forgetting the past puts Japan on the road to war again, says Shoji Sawada. He was forced to abandon his mother to the fires that blazed after the bomb.

“I was 13 years old,” he recalls, his face blank. The least he can do, he says, is remember her and speak up about what happened. “It’s what she would have wanted.”