National Geographic Archives: Up From Hiroshima

70 years ago, an American bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. In this piece from August 1995, Ted Gup visits the city 50 years after the attack.

Editor's Note: This piece was published in the August 1995 issue of National Geographic Magazine as "Up From Ground Zero: Hiroshima." The text, including ages and numbers, has not been changed from what was originally printed.

IT IS ON THE THIRD FLOOR of Hiroshima’s Funairi Mutsumi Nursing Home that I first hear the name of Akiko Osato, spoken by her 85-year-old mother, Shima Sonoda. A frail, dignified woman with close-cropped black hair, she closes her eyes to remember that distant summer morning in 1945.

Shima, a widow, had asked her three elder children to mind the stationery shop in the front of their wood-frame house while she and Akiko, her four-year-old daughter, readied a wartime breakfast of soybeans, radish leaves, and rice porridge. Shima did so with a sense of relief. A few minutes earlier the air-raid sirens had sounded the all clear, and she and the children had climbed out of their makeshift bomb shelter, a shallow pit behind the house. So far Hiroshima had been spared the firebombings that had disfigured Tokyo, Yokohama, and other cities. It was as if Hiroshima enjoyed some special immunity.

On that morning, as on so many before, Akiko pleaded with her mother to open the coveted tin of tangerines that had been set aside in the event of an aerial attack. “No,” Shima told her daughter, “we must save the tangerines.”

At the moment the atomic bomb exploded, Akiko was in her mother’s arms, less than a mile from ground zero.

Tears run down Shima’s wrinkled cheeks as she recalls her children digging her out of the rubble. Her eyes are tightly closed, her hands uplifted as if in supplication. “I prayed, ‘I have four children, please save me!’ and I heard the command ‘Stand up!’ It was the voice of my long-dead husband.” When she was free they began a frantic—and vain—search for Akiko before the firestorm reached their neighborhood, forcing them to flee barefoot toward the Ota River.

Like so many, Shima has always wondered why she lived and her daughter did not. Not a single photograph of Akiko survived, but Shima still carries her image everywhere, just below the surface, like the tiny shards of glass embedded in her scalp. “My greatest regret,” she says, “is that I didn’t let my daughter have the tangerines.” And so every morning the mother kneels at the Buddhist altar by her bed and offers up a can of tangerines to the soul of her lost daughter.

For Shima Sonoda and countless others in Hiroshima and throughout the world, 1995 is an anniversary of special significance—the 50th year since the epochal first use of an atomic bomb. The commemoration of this event provides a somber occasion to take stock of losses. It also gives an opportunity to explore the rebirth of Hiroshima, which stands at once as a symbol of humanity’s capacity to destroy and of its indomitable will to rebuild.

Shima Sonoda is one of the 100,000 hibakusha—bomb survivors—living in Hiroshima today. An ever shrinking minority in this city of more than a million, they mingle with the young and with newcomers drawn to a vibrant metropolis, a place almost entirely devoid of physical scars.

“Have Fun in Hiroshima,” invites a brochure put out by city boosters, a collage of images of enthusiastic Westerners amid red azaleas, bottles of sake, fireworks, smiling Japanese children giving the peace sign. “Hiroshima,” these promoters write, “has so much to offer: beautiful parks, ancient shrines, engaging museums, breathtaking landscapes, and exciting nightlife.”

Yet for all this, ultramodern and full of promise as the city surely is, it is something else too—a place of deep and abiding sorrow. Indeed it would not be an exaggeration to say that half a century after the bomb, Hiroshima is not one city but two: one that can never forget and the other that can never know.

FOR AN ENTIRE generation of Japanese and Americans the circumstances of 50 years ago are remote. Some find it hard to imagine how the decision to bomb Hiroshima could have been made. But the world was at war, and the A-bomb was said to be a way to hasten an end to the conflict, thereby saving the lives of American servicemen who might otherwise have been doomed in a protracted invasion of the Japanese homeland. Japan’s capitulation on August 15, 1945—nine days after the bombing of Hiroshima and six days after the bombing of Nagasaki—confirmed the efficacy of the decision.

Though I had never been to Hiroshima, it felt as if I were returning. As a boy I had read Hiroshima, John Hersey’s account of the bombing, and I had always wondered what became of the city and its people. I was not alone. Last year more than 65,000 Americans visited Hiroshima.

Like many of them, I am drawn to ground zero, a narrow street in the heart of the city where I stand before a simple red granite monument festooned with thousands of tiny paper cranes folded by schoolchildren. (In Japan the crane is a symbol of longevity.) Behind me shoppers sweep past, oblivious of the monument and its brass engraving of a city flattened by the bomb. In front rises the rebuilt Shima Surgical Clinic, where some survivors come for treatment. I look up into a cloudless sky and feel, with a shiver, 50 years gone.

August 6, 1945. Eight-sixteen in the morning. Nineteen hundred feet above Hiroshima a single uranium bomb dropped from the B-29 Enola Gay detonated with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT. Where I stand, the temperature rose almost instantly to 5400°F. Then came the shock wave, firestorm, cyclonic winds, and radioactive rain as black as ink. Some 80,000 men, women, and children died. Among them were at least 23 American prisoners of war and thousands of Koreans whom the Japanese had forced into wartime labor. Nature compounded the misery when scarcely more than a month later the Makurazaki typhoon raked Hiroshima.

By the end of the year the city’s death count had reached 140,000, as radiation, burns, and infection took their toll. The population then stood at 137,000, down from a wartime high of 419,000. Seventy thousand buildings—hospitals, police stations, post offices, and schools as well as houses and apartments—had been reduced to rubble. Survivors scanning the atomic wasteland concluded that no plant would take root in the poisoned earth for 70 years or more.

Yet even that first spring the blackened stumps of camphor and willow put out new growth. Buds and blossoms reappeared, offering hope. Shacks sprouted along the Motoyasu River. Limited trolley service boosted morale, despite the fact that most residents had no place to go. A black market flourished.

Although Americans with the Allied Occupation Force provided technical help, financial assistance for reconstruction was not forthcoming: The United States was committed to helping rehabilitate its allies in Europe. By November 1946 plans had been drafted for new roads and parks. Schools were open again, albeit in temporary buildings, and movie theaters and dance halls were doing a brisk business. By 1953 the water and sewage systems had been fully restored. A decade later Hiroshima had grown to half a million people.

Today lush pink and white oleanders line broad avenues, and stately sycamores and ginkgo trees extend their shade to pedestrians wilting in the August heat. Out of the ashes has arisen a fully modern city with an unwavering sense of destiny. Before the bomb Hiroshima had been a seat of Japanese militarism; its port, bristling with wartime industry, had dispatched relentless invasions, notably of China and Korea. The new Hiroshima is a self-proclaimed City of Peace, with a towering skyline, cosmopolitan shopping arcades, and more than 700 manicured parks. Its port sends out to New York, Shanghai, and London not soldiers but the latest in consumer and industrial products. Last year the city was host to the Asian Games, marking its coming of age.

HIROSHIMA STRETCHES from the Inland Sea across the broad plain of the Ota and up into the foothills of the forested Chugoku Mountains. It occupies the site of a castle town that emerged in the late 1500s, replacing earlier farming and fishing villages in the Ota Delta.

On the southern side of the city, near the sea, rises a single peak, Ogonzan, with a serpentine road to its summit. From an overlook where vendors hawk souvenirs, I scan the spreading quilt of neighborhoods and commercial areas. To the south the gargantuan headquarters of Mazda, one of the world’s largest auto production sites, can turn out 830,000 vehicles a year. Beyond my sight to the southwest is another behemoth, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., which produces bridge girders, boilers, turbines, and machinery used in manufacturing iron and steel. When the bomb fell, this plant was part of the Mitsubishi powerhouse of wartime shipbuilding and machine manufacturing—manned in part by forced laborers from Korea.

It is not only heavy industry that busies the city. Workers turn out soccer balls, intricately carved Buddhist altars, elegant fude, or writing brushes used for calligraphy, even sewing needles, an item that has been made here for more than 300 years.

When I first arrived in Hiroshima on the highway from Osaka, I searched the skyline for the skeleton of the Industrial Promotion Hall—better known as the A-bomb Dome—which I had expected to be a prominent landmark. But my eye was drawn to the familiar signs of home, a rotating golden arch and a blazing Coca-Cola sign. Overhead zipped cars of the astram, Hiroshima’s ultramodern electric transit system. In the distance a gigantic bowling pin loomed amid convenience stores and shopping malls.

I drove along one of the six deltaic fingers of the Ota, on whose banks the dying had once clustered, salving their burns in the cool water. On these same banks joggers now weave among luxuriant public gardens. On one street corner I spotted a National Football League shop, with a jersey of the Kansas City Chiefs and a poster of ace quarterback Joe Montana displayed in the window.

Finally I reached the A-bomb Dome, a puny structure of twisted concrete and steel that resembles a parasol stripped of its cover by a gust of wind. As one of few buildings near ground zero to have partly withstood the blast, it is cordoned off, preserved for all time as a cautionary statement, a plea for restraint in a nuclear world.

SCIENTISTS WHO FIRST CAME to Hiroshima to study the effects of the bomb plotted concentric circles of destruction from ground zero. Today different circles mark the lingering impact—rings of memory spreading out from August 6, 1945. Japan claims some 333,000 registered atomic bomb survivors, including those from Nagasaki. In Hiroshima, many of the 100,000 hibakusha cling tenaciously to their memories.

Take Yoshiki Yamauchi. Yamauchi is one of Hiroshima’s estimated 5,000 A-bomb orphans, a hundred of whom were brought to the island of Ninoshima, 20 minutes away from the city by ferry. Over the years Ninoshima came to be known as the “island of boys.” A peaceful spot only 15 miles in circumference, it strikes me as an oasis: Shiro palm trees and Susuki grass fringe the shore, giving way to the verdant slopes of a lone peak, Little Mount Fuji.

By midmorning, when I meet Yamauchi at Ninoshima Gakuen, the school that now occupies the orphanage where he grew up, the sea breeze barely nudges the summer heat. Yamauchi works as the school’s maintenance man. Wearing loose-fitting green trousers, he is a muscular 60-year-old with a bull neck and stringy hair slicked down with sweat. But his manner is childlike.

That morning in 1945 his widowed mother had boarded a trolley for the ill-fated Industrial Promotion Hall. Yamauchi, who was then ten years old, was standing near the Hiroshima railroad station when the bomb went off. Even now Yamauchi puts out his hands to break the fall in his mind’s eye. Sand filled his mouth. Heat seared his limbs, and he leaped into one of the tubs of water for use in an emergency fire.

His memory of the turmoil that followed is hazy. Days later, in the confusion, he became separated from his sister. It would be 29 years before they found each other, following her emotional appeal on television.

After the blast he wandered the stricken city, scavenging for food and earning what he could by shining shoes. He slept in empty train cars. One day in the fall of 1946, he and other parentless children were rounded up by the police and brought to the orphanage. Yamauchi sets a dog-eared photo album on the table in front of me and opens it as reverently as if it were an ancient scroll. “There I am,” he says simply, pointing to a snapshot of a boy with a baseball bat across his lap.

“I wanted to get married when I was 25 or 30,” he continues. Then, as if to ask, “What woman would have me?” Yamauchi shows me the scar from a fibrous tumor that was removed from his leg. I am reminded of Philoctetes, the archer in Greek mythology whose shipmates abandoned him on an island because they were repelled by a wound that would not heal. The difference, though, is that Yamauchi’s continuing exile is in some measure self-imposed.

These days he often plays softball with the schoolchildren, many of whom are mentally retarded or disabled. “I envy these children because they have a parent,” he says. “I am an orphan. No one ever came to visit me with a box or a gift.”

When it is time for me to leave, Yamauchi insists on showing me the way to the ferry. He pedals his bicycle furiously, keeping well ahead of my van on the twisting road. At the harbor turnoff he waves good-bye, smiling for the first time, much like a lonely child who at last has had a visitor.

Even hibakusha who sought to integrate themselves into society often concealed their identities as bomb survivors. Many employers refused to hire hibakusha because they were prone to cancer and other ailments or because they suffered from exhaustion and depression. They also carried a social stigma. People went out of their way to avoid marrying either hibakusha or their children, for fear of genetic abnormalities induced by radiation.

It was not unusual for some parents to hire private investigators to find out if prospective in-laws were hibakusha. And although researchers at the city’s Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hijiyama Park insist they see no evidence of intergenerational effects of radiation, they concede that current analytical techniques are not refined enough to detect variations. The foundation is therefore collecting cells from a thousand hibakusha families and preserving the samples in huge stainless steel vats of liquid nitrogen, to be thawed sometime in the future, when more precise methods are at hand.

FURTHERANCE OF PEACE is a recurrent theme in Hiroshima. People like Akihiro Takahashi, who was a 14-year-old schoolboy at the time of the bomb, now lecture on the subject as part of an outreach program in a building in Peace Memorial Park, bordered by the hundred-yard-wide expanse of Peace Boulevard. “We have to tell what happened,” he said. “This must be handed down from one generation to the next.”

Takahashi and those like him are on a mission to bear witness in the name of peace. They constitute a powerful lobby, whose influence gives city politics a global reach. No nuclear test anywhere in the world is reported without a telegram of protest signed by the mayor of Hiroshima; at one time or another the leaders of China, France, the U. S., and the former Soviet Union have all received such telegrams. And in the heart of the peace park a flame will be kept burning until the world is free of nuclear weapons.

Peace education is an integral part of the curriculum in public schools throughout the city, and schoolchildren on field trips are frequent visitors to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “I want to make Japan a peaceful country,” said 11-year-old Maho Shichijo, pulling up her Mickey Mouse socks.

When I met Maho, she was standing with her mother in the playground of the Fukuromachi Primary School, where 300 children had died in the nuclear inferno. Maho has read more than ten books on the bomb, written school reports about it, and badgered the custodian of her apartment building, a hibakusha, to tell her all about how he survived. Her mother, Tomoko Shichijo, who moved here from Nagasaki, nodded approvingly at this interest. “This is the best peace education. To know the reality. If we lived somewhere else, we would never feel it firsthand.”

I met another newcomer, Sakiko Ume, a housewife from the island of Shikoku, who also told me that to be in Hiroshima is to feel its past. “On the surface,” she said, “Hiroshima looks bright, but deep inside it’s sad.”

At no time is the sadness more palpable than on the day of remembrance. Early in the morning of August 6, 1994, I join thousands of hibakusha gathering in the peace park, a triangular swath of green between the Honkawa and Motoyasu Rivers. Here the idea of peace is enshrined in numerous monuments—among them fountains, clock tower, bell, and cenotaph. The throng presses toward the altar at the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, in front of which rises a mountain of flowers. Every few minutes attendants cart off armfuls of bouquets to prevent the mound from collapsing under its own weight. Mourners, many dressed in black and clutching prayer beads, drift like apparitions through a white veil of incense. “Forgive me! Forgive me!” sobs one aged woman, dropping to her knees. Is she, perhaps, blaming herself for having survived?

Behind a sign that reads A-bomb Survivors (With Invitations), we take seats to hear the remarks of dignitaries. At precisely 8:15 there is a minute of unearthly silence. I am aware only of the sound of cicadas. The Peace Bell tolls, and a cloud of doves is released beside the cenotaph. The flutter of their wings fills the void left by 50,000 silent prayers.

IN THE HONDORI SHOPPING ARCADE, 200 yards or so from ground zero, it is business as usual this morning at Cats Pachinko Parlor. Cats is a hot spot for young people, who congregate here to while away the hours amid a barrage of flashing lights and throbbing music. Part pinball, part slot machine, pachinko is a mesmerizing game: Every one of the scores of machines is in play. Drawers full of silver balls, representing winnings, are neatly stacked on the floor. Outside, knots of youths trade compact discs and take stock of one another’s outfits.

On the opposite side of the arcade, in a trendy clothing boutique, Mieko Nagafuji folds shirts to the beat of the Rolling Stones. “I never think about the A-bomb,” says Mieko, a pixieish 21-year-old wearing a necklace of pewter beads.

For her, World War II must seem as remote as the time of the shoguns. Although she has lived in Hiroshima for three years, she knows no hibakusha and has never set foot in the peace museum. Even Peace Memorial Park, where the anniversary observations are still going on a few blocks away, is merely a romantic retreat: She and her boyfriend take quiet walks there on Sunday afternoons. I ask Mieko if she knows when the bomb fell. “I learned it in school,” she says, blushing, “but I've forgotten. Was it 1935?”

Enough time has passed now for Hiroshima to feel at ease with its new affluence. Indeed the city is something of a sybaritic haven, celebrated for its fine sake and delectable oysters, best eaten in winter.

Nightlife centers on the downtown districts of Nagaregawa and Yagenbori, warrens of narrow streets and alleys awash in the neon light of more than 3,500 bars, restaurants, and discos. In Yagenbori my interpreter, Kunio Kadowaki, and I duck through cotton curtains into a smoky little cafe. We join patrons, many of them regulars, who come here to indulge their taste for grilled octopus from the Inland Sea, marinated chicken on a skewer, or crispy fried lionfish. Late into the night, as the sake and beer flow, the level of laughter rises. Smoke from the grill and the ubiquitous cigarettes forms a thick cloud. This is the other Hiroshima, vital yet relaxed and congenial.

Many transplants are drawn to this city by its proximity to the sea and to ski resorts. Yukihiro Masukawa makes a tidy profit selling sportfishing vessels, which well-to-do clients ply in the Inland Sea in pursuit of bonito, mackerel, and marlin. In his office by Hiroshima Bay we sip barley tea with Koichi Aoki, owner of a computer-supply business. Aoki, 46 and already silver haired, gazes out the window at his $500,000 boat, Marici, in dry dock for cleaning. “That’s like my religion,” he laughs. Above us, tacked to the ceiling, is a white sheet with the inked outline of one of Aoki’s recent catches—a 440-pound marlin. His retriever, Tabasa, curls up at his feet. “Life is good,” he says, patting his ample belly.

Even for those of ordinary means Hiroshima offers abundant diversions. Just north of the A-bomb Dome is the 32,000-seat baseball stadium, home to the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Every season more than a million fans show up for the games. Among those they come to see is a 31-year-old American named Luis Medina, who at six-foot-three dwarfs his Japanese teammates. Medina, a first baseman, is the sole Yank on the team; only three foreigners are allowed under the rules. He once played for the Cleveland Indians and has moved 37 times in the past decade.

After a stint in the outfield shagging flies in hundred-degree heat, Medina decides to take a break. He stoops to clear the dugout's ceiling. “Yesterday I hit my head four times,” he says with a grin. He is happy to be a Carp—not only because he signed a lucrative two-year contract but also because he and his wife could unpack their bags at last. During games Medina is coached through an interpreter, but the fans don’t mind. Sometimes they jump to their feet, yelling Med-in-a! He admits to being moved.

“Here, in the place we bombed 50 years ago, it sort of freaks me out to get up at bat and see there’s somebody out there, a Japanese, waving the American flag. It’s a really good feeling.”

When I met him Luis Medina had not yet joined the 1.5 million people who stream through the halls of the peace museum each year. Half a million of them are students, and all but 80,000 are Japanese. On my first visit I stood behind Yoshihisa Hirano and his daughter, Mariko, and son, Hiroyuki.

“It’s scary,” said Hiroyuki, transfixed by a diorama depicting a woman, a girl, and a boy picking their way through a fire-ravaged landscape. “I think all nuclear weapons should be abolished as quickly as possible,” added his father, who, it turned out, is a nuclear-reactor operator with the Chugoku Electric Power Company. His reactor is one of two that supply a sixth of the area’s electricity.

Many visitors record their impressions in a book on a table near the museum exit. American remarks vary. Some wonder how many more Japanese civilians might have perished had the war continued. “Maybe the Japanese should visit the Pearl Harbor Museum,” suggested a U. S. marine. Another American wrote, “I never really knew the full effects of the bomb until now. I am sorry.”

In the basement of the museum complex, stretching along the length of the wall, a catalog of index cards is displayed every August. Each card has the name of someone who died as a result of the bombing. The clerk offers to search out one name for me. I choose Akiko Osato, the girl remembered daily in her mother’s prayers. Minutes later he returns with a pink card. It has Akiko’s name on one line, and on the next, under the heading “cause of death,” is the word “crushed.” On the line below that is the name Yoshiharu Agari—apparently the man who found Akiko’s body.

I cannot bring myself to tell her grieving mother about the card. Her pain still seems too deep.

HEALING, for many, comes with faith, and that is the concern of Shoin Aso, a Buddhist priest at the medieval Fudoin Temple. Except for a few lost roof tiles, this national treasure, which is located on the northern fringe of the city, escaped the bomb. In August, during the season of remembrance, Aso invites the grieving to participate in the traditional Bon dance, through which the faithful welcome the souls of the dead and send them on to a place of greater peace. Aso hears many stories of loss. “Year by year we forget the grief, but the guilt of surviving doesn’t disappear even as the years pass.”

On a hill overlooking the temple are the graves of some of those who died in the bombing. Many of the funeral urns contain only rocks, because no remains of the deceased were ever found.

The extent of the losses—in some instances the elimination of entire bloodlines—explains why the past still hangs in the air over the City of Peace. But, Aso insists, “People shouldn't think Hiroshima is a sad or sorry town. We should overcome self-pity. We cannot live unless we think about the future. Hand, eye, and nose are all forward looking.”

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