Hiroshima: A Living Monument to Human Resilience

Society Culture

Visiting Hiroshima at a War-Torn Moment

I visited Hiroshima for the first time on November 14, 2015.

The first places that most newcomers to the city visit are the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, strongly associated with the tragedy that befell the city on August 6, 1945, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

Setting foot in the museum, the visitor confronts the same feeling one has at any memorial to preserve the memory of an act of mass killing—the eternal question of when human beings will ever finally learn the lessons from the catastrophes of the past.

Seventy years have passed since the tragic attack on Hiroshima. But we still live in a world where, as Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”(*1) Today there are still debates on whether to conduct air strikes against a country. Even if these are “conventional weapons,” not nuclear ones, they are cutting-edge technologies that can wreak damage on a near-nuclear scale.  Recently Ukraine has seen bloody scenes where once again cities are being destroyed and many people driven from their homes. This reality has led me to view the tragedy of Hiroshima from a different perspective. Instead of looking at that past event from the viewpoint of someone living in a carefree, peaceful world, I now see it as a person living in a world where the flames of conflict are all around us and there are rumblings of even further calamities.

Hiroshima Did Not Lead to Repentance

Precisely because of the global situation today, the questions in my mind kept growing in the days after I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. I asked myself why it was that, even after a tragedy like the attack on Hiroshima, human beings have not been able to repent. Why is it that armed invasions remain common occurrences?

Of course, these are not thoughts that only occurred to me while in Hiroshima. But they came into much sharper focus in that city, the site of a historical tragedy.

Looking at the photographs of the register at the museum, it was clear from the faces of the famous politicians who had visited that they lamented the tragedy—and these are the leaders who have been and in some cases still are responsible for making decisions within the international community. This fact again gave me pause for thought. Why is it that the profound individual sadness that any humane person would feel in contemplating the destruction of a city by an atomic bomb does not lead to resolution to avoid war at all costs? Moreover, war in the twenty-first century is not like the battles of the Middle Ages or even the warfare of the twentieth century. The outbreak of war in our contemporary world can be a merciless death sentence for everyone.

Yet, despite this danger, people make excuses for the situation.

Some say, for instance, that precisely because nuclear weapons have the capacity to wipe out the world, they are weapons that will never be used and thus have the deterrent power to save the world. From this perspective, we are not living on “death row,” under the threat of annihilation, but rather are safeguarded by nuclear weapons themselves, which protect us more than good intentions. This hopeful thinking continues to exist in the world. But what a strange world it is.

The Resilient Spirit of Hiroshima

The image of Hiroshima is very important. This is a city that quite literally was reborn from the ashes of its destruction and the despair of its residents. It is a testament to Hiroshima as a city that it was able to rebuild a living urban space for people out of the ashes. If the tragedy had happened elsewhere, there might just be a vast memorial park to preserve its memory today, but precisely because it occurred in Japan that was not what happened.

The important thing about Hiroshima is not that it is some sort of place that stands apart from other cities in Japan. Rather, it is the very fact that life there is so much like any other Japanese city, with its parks, buildings, traffic jams . . . the crowds of pedestrians hurrying along . . . the young people whiling away the time in cafes. The recovery of Hiroshima is often compared to the phoenix reborn from the ashes, but in fact the city reemerged as something new.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima wiped out parts of the city without a trace. And even today there is a line that stretches back to the unfathomable destruction that was wreaked on the city that day in August 1945. The case of Hiroshima is decisively different from other cities that were destroyed in war, like Stalingrad (*2) or Dresden.(*3) In the cases of such cities that were filled with rubble, the task of rebuilding the roads and buildings was more straightforward; whereas the atomic attack turned Hiroshima into a wasteland, raising the question of where the residents might live. In August 1945 the answer to that question was not clear. Indeed, at first it was thought that the city would remain as ashes and that people would shun the place as a "realm of death."

Quite to the contrary, Hiroshima gained a new lease on life. Like a sick person who has come back from the brink of death, the city was able to recover to the point where it once again sparkled with vitality.

Recovery Is Always Possible

I am curious to find out from ordinary Japanese students, from the junior-high to university level, what they think the charms of Hiroshima are. After students on school trips visit the Memorial Park and learn about the tragic atomic bombing, where do they spend time in the city? Maybe some visit Mazda Museum. Car fans might travel to Hiroshima to see the Mazda cars there that can be seen on city streets in Europe, North America, and Asia. Or maybe others visit the art museums or just walk around the city to window shop. Those are some of the many ordinary sorts of things that visitors to Hiroshima might do.

And those are the same sorts of everyday ways of spending time that one can see in cities around the world, whether Paris, London, Beijing, New York, or Tokyo. For people around the world, however, Hiroshima is a symbol of the tragedy of the nuclear attack.

But it doesn't seem like that at all to those who are walking around the city, checking out the latest Mazda cars, or sipping a coffee at a downtown cafe. People there are not always thinking of themselves as victims of the nuclear attack; they are just caught up in the various activities in their daily lives. I think this normality is the great secret that Hiroshima reveals, as well as its lesson for us. Life goes on and thrives in Hiroshima today!

View of the Genbaku Dome on the day of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park behind it. (© Jiji Press)

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park are at the heart of Hiroshima, and one gets the sense that the historical raison d’être of the city is to preserve the memory of the atomic bombings. Yet for those who visit this modern, charm-filled city, it is the ordinary, everyday life there that is the most moving thing. Seeing the people on the streets of Hiroshima go about their daily lives is a great source of hope to visitors—and to everyone in the world, particularly to those of us who are living so close to the cauldron of war.

Human beings have not been able to learn the lessons of the atomic bombing tragedy. One country after another has developed its own nuclear weapons. What governs the world today is not the rule of law but brute violence. But the fact that Hiroshima rose from the ashes has demonstrated to the world, by the city’s very existence, the tremendous, irrepressible power of life.

(Originally written in Russian and published on December 16, 2015. Banner photo: The aogiri [Chinese parasol] trees that miraculously survived the August 1945 nuclear bomb blast and bloomed the following year; seedlings of those trees were planted in locations around the world.)

(*1) ^ This quote appears in Clausewitz’s classic book On War, in which he draws on his experience as an officer in the Prussian Army during the Napoleonic Wars to formulate a theory of military strategy and war.

(*2) ^ The fierce battle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Red Army in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in 1942–43 reduced the city to rubble, resulting in around 850,000 German deaths and 1.2 million Soviet deaths.

(*3) ^ In February 1945, just prior to the surrender of Nazi Germany, an Anglo-American air raid on the city of Dresden wiped out around 85% of the city. The exact number of victims of the attack is unknown, but estimates range from 25,000 to 135,000.

peace war Hiroshima nuclear bomb nuclear threat theory of deterrence anti-war armed force