Photograph by The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images
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Floating lanterns mark the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Each one represents a life lost.

Photograph by The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Hiroshima Tourism Is More Popular Than Ever

More than seven decades ago the atomic bomb devastated an entire city—now millions of people visit.

In August 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered soon after, and World War II was over within a month. Never before had such a devastating weapon been unleashed.

A decade later, the Peace Memorial Park and Museum opened in what was once Hiroshima’s busiest commercial and residential districts, and tourism has steadily increased since. “Dark tourism”—travel to sights of disaster, violence, or war—draws inquisitive crowds to Hiroshima annually. Nearly two million people visited in 2016, and the city only expects that number to grow in 2017.

Commemorating the Past

Hiroshima preserves the memory of the world’s first nuclear attack through memorials, eye witness testimony, and annual anniversary ceremonies.

Every year thousands gather at 8:15 AM on August 6, the moment of the bomb’s blast, for the striking of a peace bell. The same evening, people light candles in a Toro Nagashi ceremony, roughly translated to the Flow of the Lanterns. Colorful, glowing paper illuminates the same waters the injured and dying waded through for relief. Each symbolizes a soul lost on that day, and more than 80,000 are lit every year.

Monuments throughout the city pay tribute to life lost in the blast and afterward. There are statues for the 20,000 Korean nationals killed, and a Children's Peace Monument that honors Sadako Sasaki, a young survivor who later died of leukemia. There is even a little known plaque for the American prisoners of war who perished. All of Hiroshima’s symbols convey a similar message. As the cenotaph in Peace Memorial Park reads: Rest in Peace, for the error shall not be repeated.

Survivor Testimony

While the anniversary is the busiest time of year, thousands visit daily to learn the effects of the atomic bomb, and to engage with people like Kosei Mito and his fellow unofficial park volunteers. They station themselves at the iconic atomic bomb dome, the only building left standing in the center of the explosion. Once the industrial promotion hall for the prefecture, the UNESCO World Heritage site's skeletal remains have become one of the most prolific warnings of nuclear war.

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The Genbaku Dome was the only structure left standing in the area where the atomic bomb exploded.

Mito was in his mother’s womb during the explosion, which qualifies him a Hibakusha, the Japanese term used to describe survivors of the bomb. According to his records, he guided 28,000 tourists in 2016. He says he’s noticed an influx of Americans—1,600 in the past six months alone—indicating growing international interest.

Keiko Ogura is another Hibakusha who leads Hiroshima’s Interpreters for Peace, and has made it her mission to educate these international visitors. Ogura was eight ears old when then the bomb went off, but she still bears what she calls "invisible scars." Hiroshima had been spared from bombing the entirety of the war, but a series of air raid warnings the night before made her father uneasy—she survived because he kept her home from school that day. Ogura trains other survivors to deliver their stories in English, and participates in open testimony sessions held at the museum every year.

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The Japanese inscription on the cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park reads, "Rest in Peace, for the error shall not be repeated."

Spreading the Word

Thanks to other organizations, these stories are making their way across the globe. For example, Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of President Harry S. Truman, the man who ordered the atomic bombings, works with Hibakusha Stories. The nonprofit brings atomic bomb survivors together with nuclear descendants in New York City schools. Daniel was the first member of the Truman family to visit Japan when he was invited by Sadako Sasaki’s family.

Sadako and her brother, Masahiro, were less than a mile from the explosion. Masahiro was just four years old, but remembers escaping the rubble of his house and boating through a river full of dead bodies. Ten years later, Sadako, like many other children exposed to radiation, acquired leukemia.

“She refused pain medicine because it was too expensive and our family faced rising debt,” Masahiro says. “She never complained. Instead, she kept her focus on those tiny paper cranes. She folded over a thousand.” According to Japanese legend, doing so will earn you a wish. A statue of Sadako now stands in Hiroshima Peace Park, where people often leave paper cranes as a symbol of peace.

Masahiro and his son, Yuji, want to use Sadako’s story to send a message of peace and reconciliation to the world. In addition to promoting dialogue exchange between people on opposing sides of the war, they have donated Sadako’s original paper cranes across the globe. Her cranes now grace the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, The Peace Library in Austria, and the city of São Paulo, Brazil.

Ari Beser is a filmmaker and author of The Nuclear Family. He used his Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship (2015-2016) to give voice to the hundreds of thousands of people directly affected by nuclear technology today. He is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on Japan during World War II.