Human life is not commodity, figures, statistics, or make believe.
– Dennis Lyxzén, Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull
I’ve been a history geek since I was a wean. For a brief time there in school I toyed with the idea of studying veterinary, maybe medicine (the kind of vocational ideas you toy with), but at my core I always knew I’d pursue learning history in one form or another. I remember when I was applying to Glasgow, more than a few of my pals questioned my decision. Why was I choosing to study history? What good could it do? At the time I did not have an answer for them. Why was I? All I knew was that I enjoyed learning about the past. So in the end, this is the only reasoning I could provide.
How I wish I could turn back the clocks and tell them why. Not because enjoying something is an insufficient reason for pursuing it, but because now I know. Now I know why history is not just important, but arguably the most important faculty we as humans have to progress as a species.
(Medicine and science and engineering and art and shit help too, sure, but hear me out).
Today, or yesterday, or last week, or whenever it is I get round to posting this, I visited the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima: symbolically situated at the hypocentre of the first ever atomic bomb attack, which took place at 8.15am on August 6th 1945.
In my life I’ve visited several sites of historic atrocity and hatred. I’ve been to the mass graves in Ypre: the resting place of countless named and unnamed soldiers of the First World War. I’ve been to Auschwitz and been entirely unable to compute the surreal levels of horror and despair attached to that place. And now I’ve been to Hiroshima, ground zero of the Allied decision to erase one hundred and forty thousand lives in less time than it would have taken to sign the order condemning these people to death.
Arriving by tram to the Peace Park on a sunny day, in what is now a gorgeous, bustling city centre, ripe with life – both floral and animal – with commuters out to lunch and school kids being led about by their teachers, it was hard (nae, impossible) to believe that just 70 years ago, barely a handful of buildings remained standing for as far as the eye could see. Harder, then, to imagine that just 70 years ago the city’s population had been halfed between August, and the initial effects of the bomb, and December, with the same number as died on the day dying from wounds sustained.
The park, and Hiroshima itself, is testimony to the strength of the Japanese people.
I started at the ‘A-Bomb Dome’, or the Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall.
This building, maintained to its exact appearance following the nuclear blast of 1945, contrasts the busy modern development of Japanese cities. A point of contention for decades – many citizens called for demolition of the walls housing such painful memories, others called for preservation in a bid to remind the world of the dangers of nuclear weaponry – it was eventually made a protected World Heritage Site, with donations made from all over Japan to see its upkeep secured.
Seeing the A-Bomb Dome (barely) standing there, I found myself already overwhelmed with emotion.
To cast a small ray of light humour into the murky anger and sadness of this post, ask any of my good friends and they’ll tell you I’m a crier. It’s true. I cry at videos of other people crying. Star Wars: Episode VII cut me to the core. Catch me hungover and play me music from home, you best get the tissues out. I’m an emotional guy (and I’m not ashamed); but there’s a difference between needing a good weep once in a while, and coming face to face with something which shocks, angers, and bewilders you with such magnitude you have can no other response but to cry. Picturing this building, spared in the eye of the storm, stood vacant on a 4-square-mile field of rubble, empty too of people, where seconds before had flourished life, was such a something to come face to face with.
Moving on to the Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims I was stopped by an elderly man, taking a small group of school children around the park; he asked my name and where I was from. Presuming that this man was an Hiroshimite, it goes without saying that he’d not only have grown up during the post-war hardships of Japan, but during the exhausting decades of rebuilding in Hiroshima. Even if too young to have witnessed the attack himself, certainly he’d have been surrounded by those who had. Can you imagine such a childhood? Because I cannot. And yet there he was, taking youngsters around the park, teaching them about their past, lest newer generations forget it. What’s more, he was excited to hear I was from Scotland, UK. Yet the United Kingdom, via the Quebec Agreement, endorsed and supported America’s decision to drop a weapon of untold destructive power on this city. Of course, no-one with an ounce of intelligence would hold Germans/Austrians accountable for Hitler, nor Japanese accountable for the Burma Railway, but my generation were not privy to these atrocities. They are removed enough to be judged objectively. I think if I had, like this gentleman, been alive during those post-war years, I’d have found it very hard to forgive the countries responsible.
Again, testament to the strength of the Japanese people.
The memorial hall for the victims of the attack houses the testimonies of thousands of those who survived, and records of the hundreds of thousands who did not. As with Auschwitz, I found these accounts difficult to read, though find them the most important part of the history. As Lyxzén says, human life is not figures or statistics. It’s a great deal easier to read a sign saying “the atomic bomb killed 70,000 people instantly”, than it is to see the face and name and read the memoirs of a fourteen year old boy who lost his home, his friends, and family members all in a morning. This same boy, and again I find myself tearing up, this same boy, at fourteen, used his memoirs to plead the world not to forget – and to use his experiences as fuel in the fight to demilitarise on a global scale.
One of the great misconceptions about studying history is that it’s about memorising dates, numbers, place-names. But this could not be farther from the truth. History is the study of humankind, and through that, of people. If we forget this, and reduce atrocities such as the bombing of Hiroshima to numbers on a gravestone, we will soon repeat our actions. History must be presented tangibly, physically, and relatably, if we can ever hope to learn lessons from it.
After the Memorial Hall, I visited the Museum, located in the centre of the park and crowded with schoolkids. Hiroshima’s a big place, but from the number of children in the park I’d have to presume that some of these groups had travelled from other prefectures.
I don’t know how common it is in different countries for sights as unique as this to be a place of constant education, but I was impressed and happy to see this was the case.
The Museum was harder than I’d imagined (or perhaps just as hard as I’d imagined). By the entrance were photographs of the blast taken by survivors, from as close as a few kilometres away, to twenty kilometres or more. Collectively they went someway to showing the vast extent of the destruction and death executed by the Allies. One of the photo’s which shocked me most actually was one taken from a small island in the East Sea, around a half hour after the detonation. The mushroom cloud was still as monstrous and hellish as it had been in photo’s taken minutes after the explosion; the span of its radioactive polution too wide to imagine. This matched with accounts of survivors retelling of the instant darkness which consumed and gripped Hiroshima after the bomb.
The Museum displayed a great many artifacts, too – material history plays an integral part in helping us relate to the past, even on such an unrelatable, uncomputable event as this. As I said before, when presented with tangible evidence of history, it is made much easier to learn. Here I saw countless possessions of the dead, donated by family members to the museum. There was a sandal which identified to a mother, her daughter – by the decoration on the material which the mother had crafted herself. A pocketwatch which a boy had gifted his father. A school lunchbox with food inside turned to ash. A three year old’s tricycle. A son’s fingernails. A lock of a daughter’s hair. The shadow of a person cast against a surviving brick wall.
An odd collection of items, you may think. And yet they all shared the same defining trait – they were the only things that remained of their owners. It’s impossible to get my head round – especially given an atomic bomb has only ever been used twice in history and so we have nothing modern to compare its effects with – but this part of the museum was important for me, because it made me really realise that not only did the US destroy so many lives, the US literally destroyed every trace of so many of these people. Those anywhere close to the hypocentre of the blast were wiped clean off the face of the earth. Their bodies disappeared. I don’t know enough about the science behind it, but the strength of the shockwave, combined with the 6000 degrees celsius surface temperature, meant that human bodies just disintegrated. I think there is not even a word in the English language accurate enough to describe what happened to those people who were never found. All that remained were material objects of theirs left somewhere somewhat protected from the direct effects of the blast.
Emerging from the horrors held in that museum, back into the sunshine, bird song, and idle chatter of passers-by, my mind was too full of anger and sadness to smile at how beautiful and special a place Hiroshima had, against all odds, managed to become.
Looking back now though, on my experience there, I find more and more admiration in my heart for Japan and its people. To come out the other side of something like the Hiroshima bombing (not to mention the bombing which occurred just days later in Nagasaki) and rebuild, thrive, and forgive, is incredible.
I’ve been here in Japan only one week so far, yet I love it already. It is a place where a love and respect for nature and life and happiness is as synonymous as drinking is to Scotland, or cheese is to France (god I miss cheese). It is a place where beauty can be found in the most unlikely places; where kindness and a willingness to help and to engage, bridges age and distance. I cannot even begin to fathom the mindset of the world and army leaders who made the decision to destroy, with such ferocity, a place and people such as these.
And here’s the crux of it. Japan, Hiroshima, the Japanese, are prime examples of the importance of history. Because they have learned from it. Japan does not have any nuclear weapons in its arsenal. It has the capability, sure. And it has some arsehole politicians calling for armament, sure. But it does not, and has not ever, had nuclear weapons. What’s more, it continues to push globally for nuclear disarmament. All throughout the Peace Memorial Park are the opportunities to learn of and, should you choose, help petition for the movement to rid the world of these terrifying symbols of humanity’s capacity for harm.
On that positive note, then, I will leave you with a quote. Not, however, an empowering punk lyric as the one I started with, nor an inspiring bid for world peace; but a quote from then American president Harry S. Truman, from a statement telling Japan to surrender, issued just sixteen hours after Little Boy had decimated Hiroshima. Bearing in mind the Americans had stopped bombing of Hiroshima back in April 1945 so as to provide ‘pristine’ conditions on which to test the A-Bomb, and bearing in mind they knew by this point just how unthinkably horrific the effects of their ‘test’ on Hiroshima had been.
[Surrender or] expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
– Harry S. Truman
Emploring all my wonderful friends and family back home and all around the world to never, ever think that your country having nuclear weapons is a good thing.