Nippon Day Twenty: Hiroshima Then and Now

On Friday of last week, President Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima, Japan. As an American writing about Japanese food and culture, I did not feel I could let this pass without comment, and so I am breaking from my historical chronology to speak about this event and give some specific information about Hiroshima past and present. If you are squeamish on the subject of nuclear consequences, don't worry, I am too and shall be focusing mostly on the before and present. Next week we shall return to the subject of the ancient history of Japan.

As for Obama's visit, he is the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima since the nuclear attack seventy one years ago. This bombing, and that of Nagasaki, brought World War II to an end but killed over 140,000 people (the exact number is unknown), most of whom were civilians. Though the president decided against an official apology for those attacks he did make a stirring speech about the devastation of nuclear weapons and our responsibility to never let such a tragedy happen again. He also met with survivors of the bombing and laid a wreath on the memorial. As to why he did not apologize, the subject is still a political quagmire, with many Americans and other Asian countries that suffered under the Japanese empire during the war, feeling that Japan has yet to take responsibility for its actions. Whether or not this is how you feel, I think we can all agree that killing 140,000 is a horrific thing that the word tragedy doesn't even begin to cover.

Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima Castle

Before it became known world wide as the first city to be the target of an atomic bomb, Hiroshima had been around for quite some time. You'll find out more about the Sengoku period (1467-1603) when I get to it in my chronological order, but suffice to say that its alternate name of "Waring States period" more or less covers its prevailing themes. This was the time when many different daimyo (Japanese lords) were fighting amongst themselves for control of the country. One of those lords was a man by the name of Mori Terumoto, who is believed to have been a bit of a lack luster general, but none the less had command of some 120,000 soldiers. He made the rather unfortunate decision to side against Tokugawa Ieyasu, who you might recognize as the guy who the next period is named after. But before Mori Terumoto's decision kicked him in the butt, he came to Hiroshima and built a large castle, becoming the official founder of the city.

Once Tokugawa Ieyasu came out of the battle of Shizugatake as the victorious leader and established the Tokugawa shogunate, Mori Terumoto was lucky enough to keep his life, but he did loose Hiroshima. It was given instead to one the the amazingly named Seven Spears of Shizugatake, Fukushima Masanori. What he did with it, I'm not entirely sure, because it's really hard to find any information about Hiroshima during the Edo or Tokugawa period. The Meiji reformation was a very important time in Japan's history, making many changes to the social system and even the geography. Before this time Japan was divided up into dominions, or han, each ruled over by a daimyo. In 1871 these han were disbanded and the prefecture system that is still used today was established. So instead of Hiroshima being a city in Aki Province, it became the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture.

During the Meiji period the economy of Japan began to shift from the realm of rural agriculture to urban industrialization. Hiroshima was then able to become an important hub, constructing a port harbor in the 1880s and connecting to the railway in 1894. But this is not called the imperial period for nothing, and with the start of the first Sino-Japanese war in that same year, the railway was used for military transport. Hiroshima played a very important role in that war, even becoming the temporary house of the Japanese government, while Emperor Meiji lived in Hiroshima Castle. As Japan entered the twentieth century and became embroiled in another conflict, the Russo-Japanese war, the industrialization of Hiroshima that had started with cotton mills, moved onto military supplies.

Map of 1930s Hiroshima

Map of 1930s Hiroshima

A lot of people do not realize that during World War I, Japan was actually on the Allied side. During that period Hiroshima was used to house the five hundred German POWs that they had taken captive. Despite Japan's involvement in so many wars, they did not have the kinds of resources to support large scale military operations indefinitely and the economic crunch after World War I caused prices to rise on such important staples as rice. This caused "Rice Riots" across Japan, including Hiroshima. However, the city continued to grow in spite of the countries economic troubles, even establishing Hiroshima University of Literature and Science in 1929.

With the outbreak of the second World War, Hiroshima once again became a city of great military importance, hosting the headquarters of both the army and the Marine Army, and housing significant military stores. For this reason it was chosen as the target of the first nuclear bomb, with the inappropriately jaunty name "Little Boy". The population of the city at the time was at least 340,000. On Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m, the bomb was dropped and some 80,000 people were killed, a number which rose by the end of the year to at somewhere between 90,000-166,000, due to radiation and further injuries. Seventy percent of the buildings in Hiroshima were destroyed and another seven percent were heavily damaged.

I think that in this time of mass media it is hard to imagine the fact that the people of Japan wouldn't know immediately what had happened in Hiroshima, but of course, this was the case. The first indication that Tokyo, five hundred miles away, had of the bombing was the Japan Broadcasting Corporation noticing that the Hiroshima station had gone off air. When they tried to contact the station they discovered that the phone line was also down. Twenty minutes passed before anyone noticed that the telegraph lines had gone dead. Then from towns as close as ten miles to Hiroshima, reports of a horrible explosion began to pour in. The government did not know how this could have happened as they knew that there had been no significant air strike and the city did not hold enough explosives to have self detonated. And so they sent a pilot to fly to the city and establish what had happened. While still a hundred miles from Hiroshima the pilot saw the dust and smoke cloud above the city. It can not be imagined what this lone pilot must have felt when he saw this.

The attack was soon followed by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on Thursday, August 9, 1945, killing another 39,000-80,000 people. I don't need to tell you how devastating and horrific these events were for Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Japan at large. The best way I can convey this is with the following pictures, the first of Hiroshima from above before the bomb, the second from after.

Japan surrendered on September 9th, 1945, and the American occupation was established (I wrote about this period and the overall recovery of Japan last December). Just eight days after the surrender, before Hiroshima could even begin to recover, it was hit by the Makurazaki Typhoon and a further 3,000 people were killed. Most of the bridges and railroads were destroyed by the storm, adding to the overall destruction. Now Hiroshima had to begin the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding and recovering.

Hiroshima's Peace Bell

Hiroshima's Peace Bell

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law was passed in 1949, which granted government money for reconstruction and also donated land that had previously been owned by the government for military purposes. The Hiroshima Memorial Park was built at the center of the city where the bomb fell and is a beautiful tribute to the memory of the victims and a testament to the hope for the future. Hiroshima was proclaimed "The City of Peace" in 1949 and this legacy continues on today, with the city's government dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. The mayor of Hiroshima is the president of "Mayors for Peace", an international organization that is working to eliminate atomic weapons by 2020. I sincerely hope that they are successful in this endeavor.

President Obama ended his speech in Hiroshima with these words, which I think we can all agree capture a hope we can all hold dear. "The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace. What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening."

P.S. If you would like to read the full speech, here it is in transcript. If you would like to read an interesting article on the subject, this is a good one.