Cities work hard to form positive global images of themselves. A city is a brand, and if formed with care and thought, that brand can be projected globally to the benefit of the city and its inhabitants. I’ve seen it close up, first hand, just how much effort a modern city will put into projecting itself positively around the world.
Thus, say New York, or Liverpool, or Sydney, or Tokyo, and you instantly have a mental image of what those places represent, and those images are probably broadly positive.
And yet, if I say ‘Hiroshima’, you won’t think of the modern, confident city that sits between rolling green hills, a city that is home to over a million people. You’re more likely to simply think of a grainy black and white image of a mushroom cloud.
I’m not going to give you the full history, which remains disputed. You already know that on 6 August, 1945, the Allies dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It exploded at 8.15am, 600 metres above the ground. For three seconds, anything – and anyone – within a mile of the blast was subjected to a 4,000 degrees Celsius blast of atomic energy. The city, which was still mostly formed of wooden buildings, burned ferociously. By the time the burning stopped, almost everything was gone.
Somewhere between 90,000 and 150,000 people died, either instantly in the blast, or in the days, weeks, months and even years that followed as the effects of radiation poisoning took their toll.
Today, Hiroshima is a beautiful city. It is a modern, cosmopolitan, well put together place, with wide, tree fringed boulevards, pleasant parks and a range of glittering shopping malls and modern office buildings.
Yet, unsurprisingly, that first A-bomb left a legacy and a history which Hiroshima will almost certainly never be able to shake. Indeed, learning more about the bomb is the reason most travellers come to Hiroshima, and thus the city has reinvented itself as a city of peace and reconciliation.
The history of the Hiroshima atomic bomb is presented in the sober and thoughtfully assembled Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. History is hard to present without being biased, and this particular historical event evokes more emotion than many others. And yet the Peace and Memorial museum manages to avoid the temptation to be hysterical or pass judgment on the use of the A-bomb (its use, and the tangled moral arguments attached, are more complex than you’d imagine). It resists the temptation to blame those who chose to drop the bomb. Rather, it simply records what happened, and presents examples of the effects of the bomb.
It remains a deeply moving, even haunting place. It was very busy on the day we were there – a few handfuls of tourists woven between lines of teenage school kids. Yet despite the crowd of people, the atmosphere was one of quiet, sober reflection.
I’m an old fart when it comes to history. I like to wave my ‘I’ve got a Masters in history’ flag around and so often ruminate on history’s presentation, rather than the history itself. I am almost routinely critical of museums that claim to be the purveyors of ‘facts’, when the very concept of a ‘fact’ is open to debate.
And yet my historical senses were not offended by the Peace and Memorial museum. It presented a potentially divisive subject with laudable sincerity and pragmatism on behalf of the ordinary people who died at Hiroshima, without busying itself with the remote geo-political arguments that go along with the rights and wrongs of the bomb’s use.
The sense you’re left with is, again, that it is too often ordinary people who have to carry the can when governments fail and wars happen. The only way to avoid repeating mistakes in the future is to learn about the past, and ask why these things happen. Personally, I can’t help but think that whilst we continue to draw lines on the ground and divide ourselves into nations, these things will continue to happen.
I guess we can only hope I’m wrong.