Thursday, 12 January 2012

Hiroshima - The Price of Peace

"安らかに眠って下さい 過ちは 繰返しませぬから"

See that? The event which did it heralded a new era in humanity's history: an era we must admit as one of the worst mistakes of our kind.

This is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It is located in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which occupies the city's central "island" from the T-shaped Aioi Bridge in the north to the Museum in the south. It is a peaceful green space, dotted with monuments like the Children's Peace Monument, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall, the Peace Flame, the Peace Bells, and the Gates of Peace.

You might discern a certain theme here. This should not be a surprise.

On 6 August 1945, an American B-29 aircraft dropped a "special bomb" which exploded above what was then the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall – now the iconic ruin above. The temperature on the ground reached four thousand degrees Celsius. Up to 80,000 people going about their lives were incinerated, skeletonized, their flesh melted, their organs ruptured, their bodies ripped apart by the shockwave. The annihilation was absolute: the city centre and surrounding districts were flattened to dust. Hospitals and schools were obliterated; so too Hiroshima's ancient castle; the Hondōri shopping arcade; the Shukkeien Garden. Whatever still stood, erupted in flames; rising radioactive ash collected in mositure and fell back to Earth as "black rain", which survivors, desperate with thirst, held open their mouths to catch. Over time, radiation from the blast would kill another 70,000 people and leave many more as hibakusha ("explosion-affected people") struggling with radiation sicknesses, social discrimination, survivor's guilt, and memories not renderable in words.

Hell was opened upon Hiroshima that day. The Peace Museum bears witness to this massacre through survivors' testimonies, historical records, and pieces of buildings or everyday items like watches and bicycles hit by the blast, along with detailed consideration of the exact implications of what it meant in practice to be a human being in Hiroshima a few seconds after 8:15am on 6 August 1945. One survivor remarked that the sight of what followed was indeed reminiscent of hell; except that in pictures of hell, you at least get patches of green or blue here and there. Hiroshima lacked even that: nothing but red, black and brown. And of course, Nagasaki would suffer a similar experience three days later.

City of Peace
There are forms of injury which no-one can expect you to just accept and move on from. That said, the city we found on the site of that devastation left me profoundly impressed. In rebuilding, what was once the city centre was given over entirely to the Peace Park, and as its memorials attest, Hiroshima has resurrected itself upon a new identity dedicated to remembering and learning from the horrors of history. The city is especially active in the international struggle to abolish nuclear weapons; meanwhile the unidentified ashes of 70,000 of the weapons' victims are kept within the park's memorial mound, while the cenotaph, below, contains a register of the names of all those the atom bomb killed.

The city reflects peace in a more immediate sense, too. It is quiet, not a fraction as crowded as Tokyo. Trees line the gentle rivers which feed the harbour, and people chug around on trams in view of solemn mountains on the horizon. Yet there is a liveliness too, a genuine vibrancy, which hums in the air of the new central district and Hondōri, not to mention in the intensity of the okonomiyaki restaurants. The city has character, and to think of where it has come from to build it – from the very image of the End of the World it once was – must stir respect and amazement.

More recently, Hiroshima's traumas have taken on a new layer of meaning following the March 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. In the city's Peace Declaration of August 6 last year, the mayor stated: 'The trust the Japanese people once had in nuclear power has been shattered. From the common admonition that "nuclear energy and humankind cannot coexist", some seek to abandon nuclear power altogether...The Japanese goverment should humbly accept this reality, quickly review our energy policies, and institute concrete countermeasures to regain the understanding and trust of the people."

It Was Wrong
I am not surprised that some people still argue the bombing was justified. I am surprised by the apparent mainstreamness of that argument in the countries which carried it out. It was "necessary". It "saved lives". It was "war", and was therefore okay.

The context is indeed important, so let's remember it. The conduct of the Japanese empire during and prior to the Pacific War included some of the most repugnant, systematized atrocities ever wrought by the human race. Great propotions thereof were visited upon the people of China – and I write as a half-Chinese myself, whose blood has repeatedly boiled down the years as I learnt of the two centuries of monstrousness perpetrated upon the Chinese people by predatory foreign barbarians from West and East alike. The Japanese manner of fighting was honourless and utterly cruel: mass rape, torture and bloodthirsty experiments on civilians, abuses against prisoners, pillaging of colonies, all on an unbelievable scale.

The Japanese perspective is often ignored in Western education about this period, and should be better studied – though it does not diminish Japan's culpability. Japan was effectively forced by European and American imperialism to either die or become a competitive empire just like theirs. Yes, it was economically vulnerable, the target of ferocious racism, and surrounded by countries whose entrails were getting feasted on by those same Westerners. The arrogant, exploitative, xenophobic paradigm in Western civilization needed someone to stand up to it, and Japan could have done that. But Japan chose differently: instead of standing up to the West, it remade itself in exactly the West's image. Nothing aside from Japanese choices determined that it would brutalize the Chinese, oppress the Koreans, or cast contempt instead of kindness upon the Southeast Asian peoples it genuinely liberated from the imperialists, only to replace their tyranny with its own. None of this wickedness was necessary; all of it was chosen. For these choices, the Japanese nation must bear responsibility – and that it still has trouble doing so even today is well-known, the stuff of less-than-faithful history textbooks and international scandals over the honouring of war criminals.

But the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was still one hundred percent abominable.

Because if we're going to remember the context, let's remember it properly. None of the above was or is unique to the Japanese. The 1937-1945 cataclysm was not a matter of "good" countries versus "bad" countries. In fact, every major party to World War II had a share in all of this manner of shameful conduct – including the winners. The German and Japanese crimes against humanity, reprehensible and sick as they were to the extreme, were ethically equivalent to the crimes of the United States in the saturation firebombing of Japanese civilians: the calculated decision, as a military tactic, to unleash an orgy of flaming terror upon cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, Sendai and Aomori, most of which were made of wood, each of which was levelled, in some cases completely, burning more people to death than the atom bombs with no lesser callousness. The British conducted themselves little better towards German cities. And as we consider Japanese atrocities against civilians in its colonial and occupied territories, so too must we consider those of the Europeans in Africa, the Americas and Asia – some of the latter's peoples had the misfortune to experience both! – as well as the US against its own colonies and indigenous populations.

Like the Japanese, the Europeans and Americans still have trouble with the notion that they did anything wrong. Attacking or tormenting those not able to defend themselves constitutes an atrocity and a crime against humanity in all circumstances, no different to more recent examples like the attacks on the World Trade Center (2001) and London Underground (2005). And yet, oftentimes the smug denialism and responsibility-dodging becomes downright nauseating.

We must confront ourselves with the question: when we condemn an atrocity, do we abhor it because it is an atrocity against humankind? Or do we only bother to call it an atrocity if "they" do it to "us", rather than "us" to "them"?

Any meaningful dividing line in the 1937-45 cataclysm had nothing to do with nation. All nationalities produced their heroes, their villains, and most of all their majorities who languished somewhere in between. The entire period was a global outbreak of insanity and bloodlust, by which the most contemptible fiends in all countries, with all their nationalist egos and xenophobic convictions, laid waste to the most innocent and vulnerable human beings in all countries. That the carnage of Earth went as far as it did represents an existential breakdown of sanity within and between all peoples, for which all humanity, as a single race, must take responsibility.

What the United States should have done instead of using the atom bomb is a pointless question: because by the time the bombs were used, its firebombing of Japanese cities had already sealed its place in the record as as dishonourable a faction as any in that war, and by then all possible outcomes were set to bring forth a miserable post-war order on Earth. Such was exactly what we got, afflicted thereafter the tyrannies, bloodbaths and crimes against humanity of the Cold War – which incredibly, some still argue was an era where nuclear deterrence maintained peace.

All nations have butchery on their records, and in order that the lessons are learned, those mistakes must be the first thing all nations teach their children in history classes: starting with the recognition that an atrocity is an atrocity – period. Even if the other side is doing it. Even if your cause is "right" and theirs is "wrong". Even if the only alternative is that you die fighting, though in practice the choice is never so crude a binary. It is still evil; still inhuman; still a choice you make and for which you are held to account by the universe forever.

Otherwise, we will never be free of the scourge of crimes against humanity. The manner of arguments put forth to justify what was done to Hiroshima can and have been used in defence of every act of mass carnage ever committed. Open the door of excuses even an inch and every demon from the pit will pile forth through the gap; it must remain locked, bolted and welded shut for eternity. And to this day and age, with the same "good guys" from World War II still involved in wars of aggression, attacks on civilians and the torture of prisoners of war, it is clear that there are still those among us who see fit to hold the door wide open, in delight at what satisfying allies the demons make.

Correcting our Mistakes
Within this brazier burns a flame which will only be extinguished when all nuclear weapons on the planet have been destroyed.

In theory, this is an inherent goal for all that lives, as necessary as to drink or to sleep. In practice, nuclear disarmament has been preposterously difficult because of the derangement, on the part of several nations, that they might need, or even have the right to, the ability to sear the flesh of human beings as was done to a quarter of a million people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

They do not have this right. No-one possibly can – not even those nations such as India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, where people may feel, accurately or not, that a nuclear arsenal is all that preserves them from destruction by their enemies. Once more, not even death is an excuse: any nation, any human being, should prefer his or her own demise than to enter the annals of history as having deployed so odious a weapon, sullying his or her name and that of the human race forever. As for countries with not even this pretext, indeed none at all, who still cling to their own nuclear weapons for the sake of showing off large national genitals – the United Kingdom first among them – shame, disgrace and degredation. Any person who could countenance a nuclear attack on a human population, in any situation, towards any purpose, is complicit in the drowning of our species in the mire of barbarity.

Deterrrence is as unworkable as it is heinous. Unworkable, because Fear is the weakest of all motivators (ask yourself honestly: if you truly believe in a goal, especially if driven to it by anger, are threats and taunts from your enemies going to convince you to abandon it, or propel you towards it with double determination?) Heinous, because a world ruled by Fear is not a world any of us should desire to live in; because we can do better; because we deserve better.

Nuclear disarmament will not solve the problem of conflict. These weapons were never the source; only the hideous consummation. Other weapons – conventional bombings and explosives, small arms, and our very own limbs and appendages – have created a far greater magnitude of suffering throughout the entire nuclear age. But the power of the mushroom cloud is its embodiment of something worse still: of an order in which humanity accepts such barbarity as natural; as "realistic"; becomes indifferent to the suffering it begets; and establishes it as the balancer in a status quo it ridicules as madness in the very acronym of Mutually Assured Destruction, even as it embraces it with the delirious trappings of peace.

Will the day arrive when Hiroshima's flame can sleep? Can humanity be rid of its nuclear weapons? That goal is not idealism, but the only reality worth living for. A humanity capable of this is the only humanity that deserves to exist.


  1. Well stated. War is never necessary. Lock the angry world leaders and their followers in a room and let them sort it out. Leave the normal life-living people out of it.
    That said, was "Dreamination" still happening while you were there? We enjoyed walking through the huge illuminations. Very pretty and imaginative.

  2. It was - and I was looking forward to taking a look at it - but a nasty stomach bug (which apparently was going around) denied me the pleasure of it :( Perhaps in the future!

  3. I will be visiting Hiroshima at the end of November, and found this piece very moving. A nuclear- free world is not hopeless idealism; it must be a reality. Beautifully written, well done.