Monday, 1 October 2012

At about 7.30pm the sleek train, possibly a Bullet, pulled in to Hiroshima. Trying to find a computer in order to assess accommodation options, i was directed to the Sheraton hotel on the plaza outside the station. The kind receptionist there took me up in the lift to a fabulously plush ‘internet lobby’ on the 6th floor, in spite of my tramp-like appearance. I corresponded with my friend, ‘K’, here – and discovered that we both happened to be visiting Hiroshima for the first time in our lives on the same day (though she was in a different part of town). A nearby backpacker’s hostel looked promising, so i went outside again and contended with, as it were, a shoal of high-spirited ‘Hiroshima Carp’ baseball fans, coming in the opposite direction after their game. A helpful policeman then ensured that i found the right address, where a nice welcome and excellent sleeping quarters decided me in favour of paying for two nights.

A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
   On the morning of Friday 15th July, St Bonaventure’s day, i did some laundry and had another session on the internet. I then headed off by tram to the ‘A-Bomb Dome’, originally built in 1915 and known as the Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall. The atom bomb which detonated about 600 metres overhead on 6th August 1945 gutted it completely, but didn’t obliterate it[1], unlike almost everything else within a radius of one mile; hence its careful preservation, and designation as a World Heritage site. From there one goes to the Peace Memorial Museum via the Peace Memorial Park, where i was pleasantly way-laid by a Japanese fellow in his mid-60s, a poet with excellent English, who had noticed my rosary. We discussed Christianity (he had a bible) and the theory and practice of pilgrimage, and i showed him some photos. I also gave him a couple of pictures of Dresden, whose war-time ordeal, after all, was directly comparable to that of Hiroshima. He told me of his high regard for Russians, Jews and Greeks, as people who like to talk and debate, and i bought two of his little English language anthologies, before taking his photograph (he also took mine) and exchanging emails.

   Then i came to the Peace Memorial Museum, where the staff were a little anxious that i hadn’t left enough time before it was due to close; i assured them of my hope to come back next day. Particularly memorable in the first hall, which i had time to see, was a watch, stopped at 8.15am, when the tranquillity of a beautiful morning was shattered so brutally.

   On Saturday 16th July, dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, i took up where i’d left off. The horrors experienced by the victims of the A-bomb, including the Hibakusha who survived - defy rational understanding. Aside from the implacable fireball of the blast itself, ‘black rain’ was a ghastly feature of the aftermath, when people of all ages, who seemed to have been spared (though often with horrific burns), would suddenly be taken ill and die; their internal organs wrecked in ways that were not outwardly apparent. The death toll mounted for months and years afterwards, wrenching such a lot of people from their loved ones; at least 90,000 in total, though when the effects of radiation-induced cancer are taken into account, some estimates put the figure nearer to 200,000, of whom as many as 20,000 were from Korea. The name of Sadako Sasaki, who died in October 1955, features prominently in the recollection of this tragedy. Just two years old when the bomb fell, in late 1954 she developed symptoms of Leukemia and was told she had at most a year to live. As popularised in Eleanor Coerr’s Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, published in 1977, the story goes that her best friend brought a golden piece of paper to her hospital bedside, and reminded her of the ancient Japanese folk tale (tied to a traditional reverence for the crane in Japan), that whoever makes a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish. It’s not clear whether she actually completed the task, but her story is important for the way it illustrates that, in the wake of any profoundly traumatic event, the healing process must embrace a ‘reclaiming’ of a community’s common culture; its collective memory. Only in finding reconciliation with the past, it seems, can people be fully equipped to confront the challenges of the future.

   Elsewhere in the museum, i wept when confronted with baby clothes, the only trace left by a helpless infant. In a video interview, an elderly lady, her voice trembling even decades after the event, described losing her husband and two children:

“...we were such a happy family.”

[1] Apparently because of the almost direct downward, rather than angled, force of the explosion. Another building within the radius of total devastation which remained standing was a presbytery, containing eight German Jesuit fathers, who were virtually unscathed. They were not quite the only people within that radius who survived but, for the many years after the event that they were all able to speak about it, they always credited their deliverance to their devotion to the Rosary and the messages of Our Lady of Fatima.

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