Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima: Japan’s Nuclear Story

The last two destinations on our Japan itinerary were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both cities have much to recommend them to the traveller or expat. Hiroshima reminded me a lot of Melbourne with its broad leafy streets, tramways and multiple rivers; Nagasaki is hilly, rich in historical significance and dotted with temples. Both are vibrantly modern and come alive with neon-bathed restaurants and bars in the evening. However, it is hard to forget for long the most historically significant commonality between the two cities: both have experienced the immeasurable trauma of nuclear devastation at the hand of the atom bomb.

Walking around Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and visiting its museums was one of the most memorable, and certainly moving, experiences of my time in Japan. The skeletal remains of the so-called ‘A-Bomb Dome’ overlook the park from across the river to remind all who see the site of the incredible destructive power of the bomb. The shrine erected in memory of Sadako (a young girl who died of leukemia some years after exposure to radiation at the time of the explosion) stands as a monument to all those children who died following the bombing and is visited throughout the day by wave after wave of Japanese schoolchildren on excursion. Most bring with them boxes of folded paper cranes to commemorate Sadako’s penchant for crane-folding while in hospital. The strings of cranes, in every colour and pattern, are hung in receptacles around the shrine. The flame at the heart of the Memorial Park burns constantly and will only be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon has been abolished from the Earth.

The city of Hiroshima (and, no doubt, Nagasaki) is still characterised politically by a desire for lasting peace and a determination not to forget the experience of nuclear destruction. The main museum in the Park contains copies of letters written by successive mayors of Hiroshima to ambassadors and heads of state on each known occasion that their country has carried out nuclear weapons tests. If you’re struggling to remember the last time that nuclear weapons were tested, that’s because basically all testing nowadays is ‘sub-critical,’ meaning it is either contained or computer-modelled and does not involve an actual explosion. Inclusion of those tests means that Hiroshima’s mayors have actually put pen to paper almost every year since their city was demolished in 1945, in what even the museum itself suggests may be an “exercise in futility.”

In any case, the most recent letter on display was written to President Obama in 2009 and expressed the current mayor’s displeasure with US sub-critical tests in no uncertain terms (you can read some excerpts from a more recent letter to Obama here).

Another museum in Hiroshima’s park contains a number of personal accounts of the day of the bombing that attest to the unprecedented intensity of the explosion, its awesome heat and the aftereffects of nuclear fallout and exposure to radiation. As the number of living survivors from 1945 continues to shrink, these stories will be crucial in maintaining a real and vivid connection with the events of August 6 and August 9.

The suffering of the past has been thrown into stark relief in the last few days as the Japanese people try to cope with the reality of the 9.0M earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck the northeast coast on Friday. At the time, we had just arrived in Nagasaki and were walking the city’s streets, a thousand kilometres between us and disaster. The scale of death and destruction wreaked by the twin events is mind-blowing and the images and video captured have shocked everyone.

The resulting crisis at the First and Second Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants has highlighted the dangers of nuclear power, though we hope comparisons with Chernobyl are well beyond the pale. Having just left Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I am certain that there will be many in Japan asking fresh questions of their country’s politicians, wondering at the wisdom of nuclear power. Though I hope that the nuclear crisis remains a far lesser concern than the tens of thousands of people already dead and the whole towns annihilated by the tsunami, I can understand how close this issue must be to so many Japanese who lost friends, family and livelihoods in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Their experiences and Japan’s collective past should be reflected on as people everywhere come to terms with this new horror delivered upon the country. In particular, a lot of these people need to spend some time considering the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and perhaps even pay the cities a quick visit.

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