In Hiroshima city, it’s spring. The sun is warm and the air is fresh. Smells somewhat green. Birds are singing. In the city center, a tram pulls off and the street vibrates. Men in pressed pinstriped suits and polished brogues walk briskly and women cycle to their offices in chunky heels (how do they do it?).
The Motoyasu river glitters past the A-bomb dome. The dome looks benign, protected by an exoskeleton of scaffolding. Further along the river, Hiroshima Castle soars into the sky like an iced wedding cake. The cherry trees on the castle grounds sprout pink buds. Some are already blossoming. A man gently sleeps under the trees. Fountains bloom. Flowers smile.
In the Peace Memorial Park, an old woman doubles over in prayer, clasping two withered hands in front of a cenotaph for the A-bomb victims. Colorful bouquets rest in front of it.
The Peace Memorial Museum stands nearby, a gray rectangle with rows of long windows cut into its sides. Inside the museum tells another story of the city. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, the Allies dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, then Japan’s military stronghold. At first, the residents saw a flash in the sky ten times brighter than the sun. Then, they heard a heavy boom and felt an intense heat. At ground level, the nuclear bomb created firestorms that swept through the city, melting everything. Thirty minutes after the blast, black rain fell on the survivors and the wreckage. Little Boy instantly killed 80,000 people and injured 100,000 more.
Inside the museum, the war becomes a story of remains. Things left behind. A khaki cloth satchel discolored by death and the passing of time. A stained Shirley Temple doll and a black and white photo of a little girl clutching the doll to her chest. A scene: wax figures running away from the blast, mouths open in horror, skin melting off their limbs. A lock of singed hair. Disembodied, shriveled fingernails. Close-ups of hibakusha, those exposed to the radiation: scorched faces, blistered backs, buttocks, legs, and arms. Stories of human deterioration: hair loss, internal bleeding, diarrhea, birth defects, cancer.
Soon, it becomes too much to bear. How could Japan hold on to such a dreadful past? As a Caribbean person, I couldn’t understand because I suffer from historical amnesia, evident in Derek Walcott’s poem, “The Sea is History.” He writes:
“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”
In the Caribbean, we love to forget. We raze old buildings and build new ones. We clear the landscapes and start afresh. Our relics are buried deep in the ocean bed. The sea becomes the sole repository of our history: our dirty past of conquest, colonialism, slavery, and indentureship. In Japan, it’s different. The good, the bad, and the ugly are preserved in well-curated museums and restored castles, shrines, and temples.
Perhaps the Japanese don’t want to forget. American poet Susan Stewart explains that humans look for objects that embody an “authentic experience”:
“…the memory of the body is replaced by the memory of the object, a memory standing outside the self and thus presenting both a surplus and lack of significance- it is saturated with meanings that can never be fully revealed to us.”
In the same way, the objects carefully curated by Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum have become imbued with a special significance. Without understanding their context, they look mundane. But when we understand the backstory, they become more poignant. They remind the Japanese people of a horror that happened in real life. They do not forget because over time, they can develop the perspective needed to deal with the dreadful past.
When I exit, the city of Hiroshima still seems lovely. The sun still shines. The cherry trees still blossom. The river still glitters. The center still bustles. However, under the surface, there is always the memory of pain and the city still cries for the bodies that remain, burned into the fabric of the streets.
Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography
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