Human shadows etched in stone

The Enola Gay as it returns from bombing Hiroshima

The Enola Gay as it returns from bombing Hiroshima

I had completed my daily walk from Hatchobori to the Bank of Hiroshima in Kamiya-cho where I worked and reported for duty. I had enjoyed the beautiful morning and felt better after what had proved to have been yet another night of air raid warnings and the fear of the threat of bombing. We could not understand why we had not been bombed as we had heard so many stories of other cities having been devastated by the American planes. We were, however, grateful for their oversight even as we took precautions to protect our city as best we could from the fires that raged after an aerial bombardment. Indeed, that was my task right now, having been sent by the manager of the bank to consult with the local civil defence unit whether personnel from the bank would be needed today to help to create fire lanes in the neighbourhood.

As I reached the Motoyasu bridge I stopped as was my custom as the view was so beautiful. I knew that I had to hurry, but one or two seconds would not hurt. As I looked at the river Is aw a number of American planes high in the sky but thought nothing of them as no air raid warning had been sounded. They were probably the daily weather or reconnaissance aircraft that we had seen so often before. Yet I could not take my eyes off them as they slowly moved towards the city. They posed no threat and actually looked rather beautiful in the clear blue sky.

The parachutes that were released were a novelty and I had never seen that before. They sank very slowly down towards us and possibly they would distribute leaflets from the Americans. If I could I would try to find one for my eldest son. As the parachutes descended, the one that was nearest to us suddenly exploded and my soul cried out in acute anguish and fear at the unknown evil that was about to visit our city.

In the one billionth of a second that remained of my life I did not see the flash of light that signalled my demise nor did I hear anything, all I could think of was my wife and my two children. How would they fare and who would look after them? I hoped that they would bury me with my ancestors.

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We had spent most of the night awake or sleeping fitfully in my uncle’s house outside Hiroshima; one ear cocked for the sound of falling bombs. The air raid sirens had sounded throughout the night adding to the general tension, which we were used to but which still generated such fear and irritation towards the Americans. If they were going to bomb us why did they not do so, they had bombed most of the cities and so what was their plan? We had already had our breakfast and I was helping our aunt while uncle started his chores on the farm. It was already a humid morning and I longed to be outside and ran out happily enough when my uncle shouted for me.

I ran to where he was standing, one hand over his eyes as he stared towards the city. I could not see what he was looking at, but suddenly I was assaulted by a wave of sounds such as I had never heard before. It felt as if an earthquake was going to start but one that was in the sky instead of in the ground beneath our feet. My uncle kept pointing and shouting “explosion” but I could not fathom what had upset him so. Then I saw the clouds start to build from the city and climb towards the sky! They were such filthy clouds, venomous vapours that swirled and began to devour the azure sky, choking it of its beauty and serenity.

About 30 seconds after the explosion, the Enola Gay circled in order to get a better look at what was happening. By that time, although the plane was flying at 30,000 feet, the mushroom cloud had risen above them. The city itself was completely engulfed in a thick black smoke.

About 30 seconds after the explosion, the Enola Gay circled in order to get a better look at what was happening. By that time, although the plane was flying at 30,000 feet, the mushroom cloud had risen above them. The city itself was completely engulfed in a thick black smoke.

 

The clouds became bigger and the power of the sun diminished as darkness fell upon us. Yet this was      not night but something fundamentally evil. I watched in trepidation, as this obscenity grew ever            bigger, towering above us and generating such incredible fear within my very soul. I stood closer to my    uncle and he put his arm around me; I think to comfort him as much as me. All I could think of was that  my parents were in the city, our city that was now, finally, the victim of some enormous bombardment  from the Americans.

And then soon afterwards it started to rain. Not the gentle rain that we expected at this time of the year  and neither was it the heavy rains of winter, both of which are life giving and greatly valued by farmers.  No, this was evil rain, black, thick, smelling of sulphur and death. As some of the drops hit my arms I  felt their sting and immediately felt contaminated. Yet I did nothing about it and remained staring at the  clouds that lay over our city. I knew that I had to go to find my parents as indeed did my uncle, but he  was wise enough to suggest that I went early the following morning.

 

 

Nuclear WastelandThe wait was an eternity of dread and anguish but nothing like the fears that welled within my heart at the sights that I experienced that day as I neared the city.

What city? It had been completely destroyed. I walked across a scorched plain of utter devastation. There    were a few buildings that appeared to be intact, but they stood there in accusation as the odd tooth in the    mouth of an old man; present but almost useless. Everything was scorched black and such evil smells    prevailed around me.

Yet, even those sights were naught when compared to the people that walked past me, or were driven past    me who were heading out of the city. People in utter distress, their eyes devoid of humanity and all too  often  with skin that hung off their bodies in strands of gelatinous corruption. I cried as I walked, so afraid  and  yet so determined to go home and to find my parents.

 

We never did find my father, or my mother, or any of our neighbours.

Indeed I did not even find my house, although I walked in fetid dust where it may once have stood. I was told to go to a nearby school that was not too damaged as survivors had left messages indicating that they were alive and where they might be found. I was not so lucky and there were no messages for me. I was alone in a hell that I did not understand and quickly accepted the offer from a civil defence officer to help with the search and rescue operations.

Nobody, let alone a schoolboy, ought to see such sights. I hope that nobody ever will need to do so. The bodies that we pulled out of the rubble were so disfigured and burnt that they did not resemble the human beings that they had been only yesterday morning. We were instructed to carry them to designated, temporary cremation pits and we moved them on to the after life with as much dignity as we could when they were not known to us, but did constitute a health hazard.

A-bomb victim

A-bomb victim

Over the course of the next few days I continued to help. The work was slow and dreadful, yet as we  laboured we did receive information about what had happened. We heard that only one bomb had been  dropped on the city. One bomb! That is was a new kind of bomb and that was why the Americans had  not bombed us previously, as had clearly been the case with other cities, rather they were waiting until    this one bomb was ready for their use. We learnt that all of us were now exposed to something called radiation and that people could die from such exposure, but we did not really believe that. However, we did believe the evidence that was before us. This one bomb had created a blast that was so powerful that  it had simply knocked buildings down as if they were of no consequence. Then it had generated a  fireball that had blazed like a small sun, which had generated temperatures so high that everything had  been incinerated. All wooden buildings within a 2 kilometer radius of the hypercenter had been totally  destroyed. People had been vapourised and perhaps as it transpired, they were the lucky ones.

Our classroom was outdoors.

Our classroom was outdoors.

Slowly, my new world took form and eventually I was returned to school. My classroom was outside as there were no buildings that could house us all, but the fact that I was learning again was a huge relief  and brought a sense of purpose to my reality as an orphan and survivor (hibakusha).

I lived with other survivors and we gained knowledge of the people that were dying each day from the  invisible injuries that they had received from the bomb. Our vocabulary expanded to include words such  as “radiation”, “Atomic Bomb” and “A-bomb microcephaly”, but I suppose we had very little  understanding. Suffice to state that we did not understand why the Americans would have wanted to  bring such devastation to our city at a time when the prospect of peace was a real possibility. Nor indeed  did we understand why the Americans appeared to be more interested in collecting data, measuring and  recording injuries rather tan in providing help for those affected by catastrophic injuries. All that we  knew was that an outstanding number of people had died on 6th August and that people were  continuing to die from the effects of the Atomic bomb and more would probably do so over the course of  time.

Yet we were young and more able to set aside concerns about radiation and illnesses that were new to mankind. I too had developed keloids on my arms as my skin had been exposed to the “black rain”, but my injuries were as nothing compared to the sights that I had seen from those who had been close to the blast. I was relatively healthy and my interest in baseball soon brought a certain degree of normality to my life. Not that I ever forgot my parents, not for a minute, but the young are resilient and life goes on.

As trees were planted along the rivers and building work commenced in earnest, our city began to take on an appearance of home again and hope was reborn in our hearts. Yet even as I studied, played and engaged in youthful activities I never could understand why this had happened to us. We were taught that the decision to bomb our city, and Nagasaki as well apparently had been made by the three world leaders. But did they do so to bring about a hasty end to the war or was there some other motive?

The strict censorship that was imposed on Hiroshima after the world precluded any publication of information about the effects of the Atomic bomb on the city as well as on its inhabitants. Then of course there were the teams of “specialists” who came to Hiroshima to collect data and the information that eventually was published that indicated that the decision not to bomb Hiroshima with conventional explosives had been driven by a need to preserve the city so as to better understand the effects of the A-bomb. So we asked ourselves whether we were in effect part of some complex laboratory experiment rather than the survivors of a punitive raid designed to inflict such damage that our Emperor would agree to unconditional peace.

The Cenotaph in the Peace Park.

The Cenotaph in the Peace Park.

In truth, it did not matter what we thought as nobody was gong to be mindful of our opinion. Hopes that further      atomic bombs would never be used were increased with the opening of the Cenotaph for A-bomb Victims in 1952 set  in the beautiful peace park that was so close to the hypercenter. Many world leaders have come to pray at the  Cenotaph and to reflect on the inscription that lies before it, which states “Let all the souls here rest in peace; for we  shall not repeat the veil.” Religious leaders have also come to Hiroshima and have sought to argue for the eradication  of nuclear weapons and an end to war.

Even as new nuclear tests are carried out, the Hiroshima City government protests to the government that conducted  the test. Even though many may think that this is an exercise in futility, it is a pragmatic cry for peace every bit as  important as the words of the Pope, the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa. Indeed the greatest hope that we, the common  man, my have is from the proliferation of Mayors around the world who want to see an end to war and who meet  regularly to seek ways to bring about this hope.

Yet right now, I see no such possibility. Rather I hear many fine words and then I read of this conflict or that conflict,  death, pain and suffering brought to may poor people and always the threat that some man, some individual, will  press the button and condemn us to the reality of a nuclear winter. Hiroshima and Nagasaki know only too well of  the mushroom cloud hovering over the city, mocking the fury of the conflagration that consumes the buildings and  condemned people to become human shadows etched in stone and we fear that others may one day face that  Armageddon.

Every 6th August I stand before the Cenotaph, empty my heart of rancour and pray for my parents and for the thousands of innocent people whose lives were taken away from them by that one bomb. Later that night, I gently place my lantern on the river and pray for peace as my lantern flows away on the current. I pray for lasting peace whereby children will grow up with their parents in a society that values social justice. My prayer is always with me and perhaps I will die before it is finally realised, yet if I, a hibakusha, cannot find such hope, then who will speak out for others?

The Hakushima Tram

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Trams are an everyday feature of life in the city of Hiroshima, where they continue to serve a very effective means of providing cheap and low polluting mass transportation.  There are in fact nine lines operating today, but the focus on my writing today is the Hakushima tram.

The Hakushima tram is our neighbourhood tram service that conveys us to downtown Hiroshima; which actually is no more than just over one kilometer in distance.  The line has been operating since 1912, with an obvious pause of a few years after the atomic bomb blast on 6th August 1945.

Repairing the Tram Lines in the days after the A-bombing

Repairing the Tram Lines in the days after the A-bombing

Frankly I adore riding on the Hakushima line (Tram No. 9) with its five stations dotted along the route.  The trams on this route are amongst the oldest in current service, affectionately referred to as the “travelling museum”.  The tram is composed of a single carriage, coloured either brown and crème or green and cream and spotlessly clean.  The drivers are dressed formally in their green uniforms, peaked cap and white gloves, each of them clutching what appears to be a black, leather handbag.  There are meticulous in their appearance as well as in their punctuality.

P1030695 Yet the punctuality of the tram drivers on the Number 9 line does not prevent them from being courteous to their    passengers; waiting for them should they be running to catch the tram, greeting each passenger and even getting off the  tram too attract a passenger’s attention if s/he has left a package on the tram by mistake.

But woe betides you if you try to get off the tram without having paid.  A woman tried to do on Saturday.  Our normally  mild-mannered driver became quite stern and when she paid him no heed, he leant over the payment console so that his  head actually protruded out of the door of the tram and yelled at her until such time as she returned to the tram and  settled her account to his complete satisfaction! Nobody in the tram paid any attention to this cameo but it most certainly  caught my attention.  I was intrigued because in the first place this was clear evidence of power and authority made boldly  manifest.  Somehow this personified one of the essential elements of life in Japan; that of shame and honour.

Secondly, there was the comical sight of the driver’s green uniform hanging out of the tram as he bellowed after the  miscreant, white gloves clutching onto the console as a means of stabilizing his impending fall onto the station.  How did  his hat stay on his head under such circumstances?

While researching  a few salient facts about trams in Hiroshima I cam across an interesting post by Jonathan Webb in which he comments on the use of female high school students that served as tram drivers after the atomic bomb blast in August 1945.  As I had already found examples of how high school girls had contributed to the resurrection of life after this momentous occasion, I was intrigued about this event.  It appears that there were approximately three hundred girls that were trained as tram drivers, even though their training may very well have been somewhat briefer than normally was the custom.  These novice drivers then worked their shifts moving people around the city where indeed there were lines in existence while they also had to deal with the realities of finding their relatives; or not as was the case for so many.P1030693

One statement included in Jonathan Webb’s posting highlights this reality when he wrote that “tram girl Haruno Horimoto said :”One day I would be working on the tram, the next I would be searching for my mother. I feared that even her bones had been burnt to ashes. I have no idea what happened to her even today.””

Today it is very difficult to appreciate that these girls worked as tram drivers and particularly so at such a time of tremendous uncertainty and danger.  Yet the evidence exists that confirms this as indeed do the records of their subsequent annual meetings which were held to commemorate their devotion to their duty and to their city.  Although the image that is created is one of pathos, I am sure that there were indeed moments when the young tram driver found some relief in their daily work.  Indeed perhaps one of them even shouted at a passenger who had not paid!  Or perhaps their hat did fall off at a moment when the world was not looking.

The Peace Park – musings in Hiroshima

The Enola Gay

As I stood and read one of the plaques in the Peace Park in Hiroshima, a myriad of emotions ran through my mind; part of which imagined myself there on the 6th August 1945.  It was early in the morning; people were starting their day, thinking of what they had to do, how their relatives were and many just normal musings.  Little did they know that an airplane was moving inexorably towards them high in the sky; the most important airplane in a group of three.  Truly if they had seen the vapors trails they may well not have been too perturbed for the skies had witnessed many American planes and this was a small group and most probably weather planes.  What damage could they do to a city?

Inside the primary airplane a group of young men were about to open a new chapter in the history of warfare, indeed in the history of the world.  The airplane that was approaching Hiroshima that morning was called the “Enola Gay” and it carried only one bomb, “Little Boy”; an atomic bomb.  Colonel Paul Tibbets was the captain of the airplane and he stated in an interview years later that the morning was sunny and it was perfectly easy to see the city beneath them.  Finding the bridges that demarked their primary target was therefore very easy and made the dropping of the bomb almost routine.  Once the bomb was dropped the airplane was quickly moved out of the confines of the valley until those on board felt the blasts of the bomb indicating that it had detonated at six hundred meters above the city.  That was a relief as nobody had really known if it would, such had been the haste to move from primary tests to the deployment of the first atomic weapon used against an enemy city.

As the shock waves passed Colonel Tibbets banked the airplane around to fly back over the city.  He wanted to report to his superiors what had actually happened as this was a completely new challenge and all evidence would be of extreme importance to the scientists that were continuing to work on further developments.  Tibbets stated that the scenes that they saw were such a  shock as the “city that they had seen so clearly in the sunlight a few minutes before was now an ugly smudge.  It had completely disappeared under this awful blanket of smoke and fire.”[1]

I have seen video footage of the aftermath of the bombing and the devastation was incredible, in fact difficult to imagine today.  So many people died instantly in the firestorm and many others died later as a direct result of the effects of radiation poisoning.  So many lives lost in a few seconds, lives that had been contemplating the day, possibly even looking up unconcernedly at the sight of that particular airplane.  What must the men in the airplane have thought as they flew back over the city that they had just destroyed?

Tibbets stated that it was such a harrowing sight that even Dante “would have been terrified[2]” but that consideration was probably offset by the elation of completing the mission as well as tempered with the need to leave Japanese airspace before they could be intercepted and return to base safely.  They may also have been excited at having brought such damage to the enemy, but I walked around the Peace Park wondering what the crew must have felt over the course of the following years.  Did they continue to feel combat elated or were there recriminations?

Paul Tibbets died recently at the age of ninety-two and stated unequivocally before his death that “he never lost a night’s sleep over the apocalyptic mission[3]” and that ought to satisfy my curiosity.  But somehow it does not.  For I remain convinced that although those men were doing their duty, that they were unaware of the full magnitude of the bomb that they were delivering into the heart of their enemy, they still saw the direct consequences of the bomb that exploded and they must have felt a sense of responsibility for having caused the death of so many civilians.  I remain convinced that it is a rare human being who cannot find sympathy for the deaths of others and the more so if that human being provoked those deaths.

Nothing could ever return those who died to life and I am not at all willing to accuse the young men who dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima.  What I am wondering is, did they ever feel regret for what they had done?  Did they ever pray for the souls of those that they had killed in the quiet and anonymity of their local place of worship?  And what did they feel about the possibility of further bombings when they saw what they had done to Hiroshima?  Were they perhaps concerned enough to advocate that governments invested the inventive skills of their citizens into peaceful purposes rather than not?

What I have read about Colonel Paul Tibbets to date, suggests that none of these questions can be answered in the affirmative.  But I dare to hope.

First Days in Japan

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Paradoxically, it appears to me that all modern airports look alike.  So much so that if one does not pay too much attention to the advertising nor the names of cafes and restaurants, it is possible to contemplate that one is in some neutral zone; a holding place.  Certainly that is how I felt when I arrived in Hiroshima airport, although I do have to state that I was impressed with the speed of the arrival of our suitcases and the general absence of loud noises around us.  Moving outside the terminal, it was comforting to note that cars drove on the “right side of the road” and that the general appearance of both traffic and roads aptly portrayed a modern, developed country.

All very comforting, and especially important as one’s body is reeling from the effects of flying across many time zones.  Yet, not is all as it seems.  As one begins to move around and to interact with the people in the city it soon becomes apparent that appearances can be deceiving.   In truth, Japanese culture is so alien to us.  What is worse is that it is precariously easy for us to give offense without the slightest knowledge of having done so.  Indeed there is a veritable “mine field” of possible ways to cause offense, starting with wanting to use the toilet and not changing into the toilet slippers that are placed there for our use!  Or sniffing (actually there ought to be a more descriptive word for this process) in public rather than blowing one’s nose!  Or getting on a bus or tram at the front when the correct way is to enter via the middle door!

There is a phrase that is introduced to newly arrived people in Japan, which they are invited to learn.  That phrase is yoroshiku onegaishmasu and these two words alone tend to epitomise the complexities of the new culture that we find ourselves in.  Yoroshiku onegaishmasu is a magic phrase that softens future requests, expresses gratitude and makes everybody feel good.  Obviously there is no literal English translation, and has a multitude of possible uses, but it could serve to state the following; “Hello, I am your new neighbour.  Thank you for looking after me and I apologise if my music is too loud or I cause offense.”

It may well seem an unlikely prospect, but it actually works.  It works because Japan is such an ordered society wherein people have to learn to live successfully, and harmoniously, in such close proximity to others.  Space is a premium in Japan, which is so densely populated, and thus living accommodation is tiny in comparison to standards in the West.  It stands to reason, therefore, that strong social agreements, etiquette, are so necessary if the society is going to thrive.  Learning those agreements is the biggest challenge to a newly arrived Gaijin (outside person or foreigner).  Yet fortunately the Japanese people are so warm and receptive to Gaijin and especially those who are making an effort to “fit in”.

So although it may not be all that it first appears, Japan is a wonderful opportunity and an amazing learning experience.  Every day provides opportunities to become more integrated and to understand more clearly what underpins the way that the Japanese act and think.

Now for the language………