Hiroshima: Hiroshima Unearths Pre-tragedy Traces of Life

The Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The excavated remains of a house and the asphalt of a road in the Nakajima district are seen in Naka Ward, Hiroshima, on Aug. 5.

HIROSHIMA — The area around the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park — symbolized by the Atomic Bomb Dome — was one of the city’s busiest shopping areas before World War II. After it was razed by the atomic bombing, the Nakajima district became a park, and lately the devastated district has disappeared not only from sight, but also from memory.

Seventy-five years after the atomic bombing, the Hiroshima city government hopes to keep the memories of the tragedy alive by turning the Nakajima area remains, which lie underneath the park, into an exhibit.

On Nov. 11, I met with eight children at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, who are sixth-graders from Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture. They were all astonished when I told them what the park used to be at the park before the bombing — a busy shopping area.

“Oh, that’s too scary! Does it mean a lot of people were killed?” one child said.

The park has become increasingly important as a place to show the actual damage of the atomic bombing, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in the park has seen a record number of visitors that include foreigners.

In recent years, however, some students on field trips and foreign tourists have misunderstood the area. It is said some people actually say, “It’s a good thing the atomic bomb was dropped on such a vacant park.”

The average age of the hibakusha atomic bomb victims is now over 83, making it increasingly difficult to pass on the memory of the bombing.

By exhibiting the remains of the Nakajima district, the Hiroshima city government hopes visitors will be able to visually understand how a single bomb can steal the life of so many in an instant.

The exhibition facility to show the district is a single-story building with a floor area of 60 to 70 square meters. Old houses and other remains will be displayed, along with some replicas that include charred tatami mats. Completion is scheduled for around the end of fiscal 2021.

A town vanished

From the end of the Edo period (1603-1867) to the Showa era (1926-1989), about 4,400 people lived in the Nakajima district. There were private houses, merchant houses, temples and shrines, coffee shops and movie theaters.

Photos taken by a former resident before the war show the glittering lights of the Hiroshima Prefectural Exhibition Hall, now the Atomic Bomb Dome. They also show various aspects of daily life, such as families cooling off in the evening along the river and chindonya music groups parading in front of shops.

An 88-year-old man living in Hino, Tokyo, lived in Hiroshima in the area around the current Children’s Peace Monument before the war.

“I used to play in the sand with my sister and brother in the river,” he said. “In front of the fancy restaurant, I saw a waitress splashing water on the street, which made me feel like I shouldn’t go near it,” he said. “There are probably few people who can talk about the prewar days’ Nakajima district.”

Most of the district is within 500 meters of the blast site, which had an almost 100% mortality rate, and the scorched earth was buried in the process of being made into a park in 1955.

Devastating damage

In 2018, an exploratory dig took place in the park — between the east wing of the museum and the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims — and traces of life from before the bombing have been found after a confirmatory study in 2019.

There are clear traces of ditches and asphalt from the former main street. Stones bordering houses have also been found, indicating a series of dwellings. The burned-out layers of earthen walls and ceilings, as well as charred tatami mats and planks, testify to the sheer force of the explosion when the houses were crushed.

After the war, debris was removed and the land was leveled, making it impossible to see the remains. The remains of the latest discovery are said to be in a well-preserved state and extremely valuable.

The new facility will be completed in 1-1/2 years, with the remains of the town as its main feature.

The traces of life found before becoming the center of the bombing will awaken from their long slumber of more than half a century and take center stage as the new face of the park.

Passion, good will keep dome standing

The Atomic Bomb Dome was registered as a World Heritage Site in 1996, but its preservation as a message against nuclear war was not always guaranteed. After World War II, the building was so dilapidated that a budget was allocated for its demolition.

Originally opened in 1915 as the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, it was renamed the Hiroshima Prefectural Product Exhibition Hall in 1921. Its name changed again in 1933 to the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall and during World War II it was repurposed and used as a government office.

“I was impressed by the sight of such an amazing building, which made me feel like I wasn’t even in Japan,” said a 79-year-old man who visited the building a week before the atom bomb was detonated above the city and almost directly over the building.

For some reason the dome-shaped skeleton of the building survived the blast and later became known as the Atomic Bomb Dome.

At the time, however, disagreements flared about what should be done with it. Some thought that the dome should remain as a symbol of peace, while those who wanted it demolished argued that the crumbling structure had become dangerous and was an ever-present traumatic reminder of the tragedy. And still others believed that a preserved dome would lead to misunderstandings about the actual destructive power that atomic bombs wield.

In the 1960s, public opinion was edging toward “let’s preserve it.” The sentiment was spurred in large part from the diary of Hiroko Kajiyama, who was exposed to the atom bombing at the age of 1 and died from leukemia 15 years later.

She wrote in her diary: “Only the painful appearance of the Hall will always be able to tell the world about how horrible the atomic bombing was.”

The Hiroshima city assembly voted to preserve the dome in 1966 after a citizen volunteer group read the diary and collected signatures from the public. The city government decided to cover the cost of the preservation work along with donations. More than 66 million yen was raised from more than 1.3 million people, exceeding the goal of 40 million yen.

The Atomic Bomb Dome was protected by a great deal of passion and good will. It has undergone numerous repairs, but it still stands tall, sending its powerful message of nuclear abolition to the world.

Girl’s courage beyond belief

“This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world.”

This is the inscription on the “Children’s Peace Monument,” which was unveiled in 1958 on May 5, Children’s Day in Japan, 13 years after the bombing.

The statue is modeled after Sadako Sasaki, who lived through the Hiroshima bombing but died in 1955 after a battle with leukemia.

Before her death, Sadako made many paper origami cranes in the belief that she would be cured of her illnesses. Her classmates as well as others in her social circle, moved by her actions, wanted to create a monument commemorating the children who were killed in the atomic bombing. They called on people nationwide to help raise money and the monument was completed in three years.

After the statue was completed, Austrian journalist Robert Junk wrote of the story in his book “Light in the Ruins” and Sadako Sasaki’s story began to spread and resonate throughout the world.

During the Cold War period, her story took on two interpretations. In the East, Sadako became known as an innocent young girl who fell victim to inhumane weaponry developed by the United States. And in the West, the young girl was heralded as an anti-nuclear weapons activist who strove for peace.

In 1996, the city of Santa Barbara, Calif., declared Aug. 6 to be Sadako Peace Day. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in the city still holds a local peace event.

The story of the girl who never gave up on making paper origami cranes with a wish to live has been told and retold to people around the world in the many picture books, films and plays in which she appears.

The Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Foreign dignitaries pose for a commemorative photo with the Atomic Bomb Dome in the background.