The New Hiroshima

I wrote this piece when I was 36.

Tony Thomas, The Age, 21/7/1976


“Rest in peace, for the error shall never be repeated.” This is the official translation on the script of the A-bomb cenotaph at Hiroshima sited directly below the explosion point.

You normally find an English subscript but the cenotaph has none. It’s the same with the other major monument, the twisted structure of brick and concrete that was once the rotund and rather pompous Hall of Industrial Promotion.

Standing beside the ruins late in the afternoon, I got talking to three of those unfailingly polite Japanese students and asked for a translation. The most fluent of the trio, Noriake Ishizu, read haltingly.

“The first atomic bomb was dropped above this building, 600 metres above. At that time, 200,000 people were killed by the atomic bomb and at the same time…”
He broke off for consultation with his friends. After all else failed, he drew a geometric picture and we realised the next word was ‘radius’.

“Radius of two kilometres was destroyed. This accident was very sad, so that many people in Japan saved a little money and repaired this building as a monument forever.”

As we wandered through the park, past the memorials to children, the statue of a family inscribed simply, ‘Pray’, and the pond of peace and the flame, we came back to the cenotaph. He translated the inscription, less elegantly but just as movingly as the official version.

“We do not repeat again this fault. Please sleep softly and easily, because we really should not repeat this sadness.”

Many of the statues are decked with ‘sembatsuru’, swathes of colourful paper flowers, strung on string like the tail of a kite.
At the children’s monument, the sembatsuru has some cards written in English. ‘War is not healthy for children and other living things. Peace. Shalom.’ That card was from a group of doctors in Okayama.

We talked with an old taxi driver, Hajime Kanmori, who said he rescued people in his truck the day after the bombing; he particularly remembered how the dead had to be burned with kerosene. He came through with strong health, but his fellow truck-driver Zenichi Tateishi was badly burned and fell ill by the ‘bad disease’.

At dawn, dozens of middle-aged and elderly people were doing exercises in the park. There was a burst of martial music and shouted ordered when someone switched on an exercise routine on a tape recorder, waking up a pair of alcoholics on a park bench.

The dome was singularly eerie that morning, with its rubble covered in weeds. I had been reading eyewitness accounts of how the bomb’s radioactivity had germinated weed seeds within days.

“Over everything – up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks – was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green. Especially in a circle at the centre, sickly regeneration…”

My third and final visit to the park was at about 10am to see the Atomic Museum. There is a model there of a family wandering in the holocaust, which is sheer horror. But most of the other items seemed fairly clinical, except for a familiar kitchen curtain that was scorched to a uniform brown color.

The final tablet in the museum reads, “So that was how Hiroshima perished in the disastrous explosion. Men and women, young and old. For the souls of the fallen victims let us pray, rest in peace.”

In the visitors’ book, a sailor from, the USS Bonefish had added, ‘Why knock a winner? Go to Hell.’ In similar vein, a Filipino had written: ‘Millions of Filipino soldiers and civilians died too.’ Someone from South Yemen wrote, ‘A sorrowful sight’ and a Latvian wrote, ‘I hope God will forgive us.’

I was especially uneasy that morning because I had requested Ichiro, my Foreign Affairs Department guide, to arrange an interview with someone in the hospital for atomic bomb victims.

This was scheduled for 11.30am but I had no idea how I should do such an interview, had forgotten to buy flowers, and was inwardly wanting to call the whole thing off.

We drove through Hiroshima’s bustling city centre, which has the same frenetic, even manic, exuberance of downtown Tokyo or Osaka, and stopped abruptly outside a dingy building that looked more like a block of old flats.

But the waiting room, with the wooden benches and scattering of old, silent people, was unmistakably hospital-like. We were ushered into a conference room, served iced tea and told about the person we would meet by a cheerful and friendly doctor.

This was useful because the time allotted for the interview was short. Mrs Sato (not her real name) was standing outside the Hiroshima station when the bomb dropped, the doctor said, via Ichiro and above the racket of a commercial broadcasting van that was cruising down the road.

There were terrible scenes and she saw a lot of people fleeting and she followed them. She walked and walked and finally came to a farm where she had her first rest. That was the time she realised how badly she was burnt. Her skin was peeling off and she found that her lips were swollen and injured. She was terribly thirsty and suffering from shock.

Her parents came but could not identify her, so she had to identify herself to them and they took her home to Iakaya-cho where treatment began.

The doctor broke off as Mrs Sata herself was shown in. She was wearing an attractive pink lacy dress with long sleeves and showed no signs of facial scarring. She was somewhat overwhelmed by the occasion, giving deep bows to Ichiro and myself, and laughing in an embarrassed way – behind her hand.

We talked about her family for a while, but at Ichiro’s suggestion came quickly to the point.

“It was a very hot day that day,” she said. “I was going into town under military orders to help clear away demolished houses.

(Hiroshima had been hardly touched by the B29s, but in anticipation of ‘incendiary raids’ housing had been pulled down at right angles to the river to form escape lanes and to localise fires. All able-bodied girls from the secondary schools had been summoned the day before to help the work. About 20,000 of them perished and are commemorated in a memorial in the park.)

“I was standing with classmates outside the station in the open about one kilometre from the epicentre waiting for a streetcar, and quite unprotected by anything. There was a flash ten times or 100 times brighter than lightning in the sky, enough to damage your eyes, it was so bright.”

(The eyes of many people, such as anti-aircraftmen looking directly at the bomb, melted.)

“I instantly lay down on the ground, as we had earlier been told to do if anything menacing happened. I heard no sound. When I raised my head again, after about ten minutes, everything was a very dark grey with suspended ashes, like when you turn an old fire in a stove upside-down.

“I was no sure if I was in the same spot where I lay down. There was no way to tell. But I think I was about 15m from that spot.

“I was hit and burnt from the right side. Because I was a girl I had instinctively protected my face with my arms.

She rolled up a lacy pink sleeve to show the disfiguring. It began on the upper arm where a short sleeve had ended, and was more prominent about the elbow. Her ankle, where her wartime trousers had ended, was also burnt, she said.“Many people were crushed down under wreckage. I got up and followed people who were walking along the railroad. In the river, lots of people were floating. I heard cries for help from people in buildings. Most probably they were crushed down too.

“Finally I reached a primary school that was packed with suffering people, and I saw many people dying in front of me. I lost consciousness.

“Afterwards I did my best to keep my arms as clean as possible, so no germs would cause a deep infection. I did not have any grafts but the doctors had to cut my elbow and stretch it back. The moment any skin formed the doctors peeled it off again so no germs would stay inside. I was fortunate because my parents could look after me. They were living outside Hiroshima.

“Many people in Hiroshima who suffered from radiation and burns don’t like to talk about things. There are so many people nowadays who don’t know anything about what happened then, and they get scared when they see the damage to people.

“I never fail to go to the memorial service every August 6. My classmates all died that day, all 240 of them.

“I am quite confident about the Japanese Government policy for peace. There is no question about it. But if a country tried to attack us from outside, I am not sure what is the right thing to do. There may be some people who would say Japan should stand up and fight back. That is what I am afraid of…but I am not sure. Because of my bitterest experience, I pray that things such as that should not happen. I am very conscious that H-bomb tests are still being conducted and I am worried about it.”

I asked about her attitude to peaceful use of nuclear power. She said it was very hard to judge what ‘peaceful use’ meant in modern conditions, but with that proviso, she did not object to ‘peaceful’ uses.

Our time was up. Mrs Sato had taken time off from her clerical job with a construction firm to meet us. We offered her a lift back but she declined.

She had seemed quite willing to tell her story but at many points I judged she was close to tears.

Next Friday morning at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, Mayor Takeshi Araki will add to the cenotaph the names of 101 more people who died of radiation diseases in 1975-76.

At 8.15am, the same time that bombardier Tom Ferebee dropped the bomb from the hatch of Enola Gay, two relatives of victims will toll the peace bell to start a one minute’s silence.

We now live in the atomic age. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. #


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