Hiroshima: History, City, Event

Hiroshima: History, City, Event

The name Hiroshima has come to stand for the catastrophic tragedy of war in general and for the horrifying potential for nuclear annihilation that has loomed in human affairs since the day in August 1945 when an atomic weapon was first used over that southwestern Japanese city. And yet, as important in world history as Hiroshima as cataclysmic event was, Hiroshima as a place, as a city, has a rich history, too. It is one that certainly now includes the war-time bombing, but that should not be reduced to the horrifically important event of the bombing alone.

Expanding the story of the city of Hiroshima beyond a tale of the atomic bombing can provide a fascinating lens onto the broader themes of Japanese historical experience. Resituating Hiroshima into its longer early modern and modern history also helps reveal the ways that Japan can serve as a national case study of common experiences of modern change around the world. The history of Hiroshima extends far back into centuries prior to the bomb. The formative era of the city was a time when samurai represented the ruling class of Japan, a time when the clash of modern empires that eventually resulted in Hiroshima’s obliteration could not have been imagined. The city also occupied an important place in the modern rise of the Japanese nation as an imperial power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And finally, the history of Hiroshima also continued forward from the mid-summer date of its destruction in 1945. It became a city rebuilt by its citizens, one that lives on today as a bustling, thoroughly contemporary, global city, albeit one whose self-professed identity is now inextricably tied to the atom bomb and a postwar mission to promote disarmament around the world.

In this essay, I hope to provide some insight into the topic of Hiroshima in history as I have been exploring it in a course that I have taught a number of times. The class certainly explores the history of the atomic bombing of the city. But my goal also has been to expand the story of Hiroshima beyond that of the bomb alone and to use its history as a lens onto the history of cities, modern change, empire, and the newer field of what might be termed post-disaster studies. One of the challenges in this pedagogical endeavor, however, is the scarcity of historical writing about the city as such. The overwhelming preponderance of scholarship on Hiroshima, especially in the English language, is devoted to the bomb--the decision to drop it, the dramatic final days of the war in the U.S. and Japan leading up to the event, and the experience of those on the ground during the attack and the days after.

Among historians of urban history, Tokyo, in its earlier incarnation as the shogun’s city of Edo and in its later transformations as the capital of the modern nation, has enjoyed the lion’s share of attention both in Japan and the English-speaking world. Historical writing related to other important urban areas, such cities with national significance as Hiroshima, is not plentiful1.

The very first task I assign in my course is indeed designed to hint at the multiple stories of Hiroshima city that await to be discovered in the historical record but that have rarely been written about at any length in English. It serves certainly to show how the atomic bombing became the story of the city in later accounts. But the assignment also provides hints about the multiple perspectives of that event that have competed with one another over time. The assignment asks students to investigate encyclopedias published at various points during the modern period and to compare the entries in which Hiroshima city appears. Students have found that assignment yields interesting insights about the mostly cultural and economic portraits of the city written before the war, the later mid-century importance attached to the atomic bombing, and the way that those from different political perspectives viewed the history of the city as refracted through that wartime event. (If library—or on-line—resources allow, be sure that students study encyclopedias from different national perspectives. Those of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Japan, in particular, suggest varying interpretations of the bombing. Another hint, too, is to encourage students to think creatively about the entries under which they search for the city. Not all references to Hiroshima will appear under the “Hiroshima” entry heading.)

What follows are introductions to seven facets of Hiroshima up to the time of the bombing that are helpful in placing the city, and the bomb itself, into larger historical contexts. I hope they suggest the outlines of the broader history of the city and its importance in national developments, while remaining mindful of the significance of the event of the bombing itself. In a following essay, I will also speak about life of the city after its obliteration in 1945.

1. Hiroshima as Warring-States Castle Town
Beginning in the earliest years of the Japanese imperial state, the territory that makes up today’s Hiroshima prefecture was divided between two provinces, Bingo and Aki. The area was well situated and grew as a link between the western-most areas of the main Japanese island of Honshû, the Inland Sea, the island of Shikoku, and the imperial heartland of the rising Japanese state to the east. Long before Hiroshima was founded as a city, the Aki region was known for its religious significance. Possibly dating from as early as the late 6th c., though not cited in contemporary historical records until 811, the famous Itsukushima Shrine (Shinto) was located in Aki province on a small island (sometimes known as Miyajima, Shrine Island), a short distance west of where the later Hiroshima city would stand. Built in reverence for the island of Itsukushima and its Mount Misen, the shrine complex grew during the Heian period with the support of the powerful aristocratic clan, the Taira of the imperial capital. Over time this shrine to the sacred island became an important pilgrimage site. Today, Itsukushima Shrine has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its famous torii Shinto gate that appears to float in the water, it remains a major tourist and pilgrimage site just a short journey by train or ferry from Hiroshima2.

The city of Hiroshima itself was founded as a castle town on Hiroshima Bay in the late sixteenth century, a period when most of Japan’s medium and large-sized cities were founded, nearly all of them as castle towns constructed throughout Japan by competing warlords. The early history of the city is thus closely linked to the broader--and relatively long--history of urbanization in Japan. Urbanization began in this period of civil warfare and later witnessed, under different circumstances, successive waves of expansion in later centuries, particularly in the decades after the Meiji Restoration, then in the 1910s and 1920s, and then again after the Second World War.

The founder of Hiroshima was the powerful warlord Môri Terumoto, who was closely aligned by the late 1580s with Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the lord who was rapidly bringing the warring clans of sixteenth century Japan under his dominion. The home base of the Môri clan had long been western inland areas of the island of Honshu, where they had originally been assigned by the Kamakura Shogunate centuries before. By the end of the 1580s, Terumoto was flush from the successes of his alliance with Hideyoshi and Hideyoshi’s achievement of a sort of unifying overlordship among all warrior clans. In 1589, inspired no doubt by the construction by Hideyoshi himself of a massive new castle in Osaka, Terumoto set about building a grand castle headquarters for his clan on the shores of Hiroshima Bay, a location blessed by strategic and commercial advantages. This building project followed a pattern being repeated all over the country, as warlords, either in open battle with one another, or newly victorious, built immense fortifications and lavish headquarters. Terumoto moved in to his new castle, even before completion, in 1593.

Hiroshima castle was surrounded on three sides by mountains and situated on the delta of the river Ôta where it emptied into the bay. The branches of the river formed a series of islands before merging with the Inland Sea. One theory about the derivation of the name of Hiroshima castle is that the fortification was constructed on the largest of these low, flat islands of the time (“hiro” meaning wide and “shima” meaning island). From this location, the Môri clan controlled a large part of the commerce in the western portion of the Seto Inland Sea.

Paralleling the history of many other urban settlements in Japan during the last quarter of the sixteenth and the first quarter of the seventeenth centuries, Hiroshima soon became more than a mere castle fortification. As Terumoto’s samurai retainers gathered there, it grew into a bustling castle town. These samurai were soon joined in the new city by artisans, merchants, and workers of all stripes who made their lives around the castle. The Môri clan oversaw the building of bridges linking the islands of the Ôta river delta. The successors to the Môri in Hiroshima eventually also rerouted the Sanyô highway, which connected the expanding city to points east and west, so that the road went directly through the center of the burgeoning commercial center. The city would become by far the largest in the Chûgoku region of the main island of Japan and probably the sixth or seventh largest overall in Japan during the next three centuries.

2. Hiroshima as an Early-Modern City
After Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s death and the competition to replace him as the lord of lords in Japan ensued, Môri Terumoto became the leader of the federation of warlords who attempted to stave off the rising power of the upstart Tokugawa Ieyasu far to the east. The Tokugawa forces defeated the forces allied against him, however, at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. As a result, the Tokugawa removed the Môri clan from their choice location in Hiroshima, dramatically reduced the size of their land holdings, and relocated them to the Chôshû domain in the very western tip of Honshû. In this way, the history of Hiroshima even has a link of sorts to the Meiji Restoration, the modern rebellion that 268 years later would overthrow the Tokugawa and launch Japanese society toward the construction of the modern nation-state: It was vassals of the Môri clan in the Chôshû domain who led the alliance of rebels that in the early days of 1868 orchestrated the final removal of the house of Tokugawa as shogun.

Tokugawa Ieyasu assigned the newly vacated, powerful Hiroshima domain and its capital city to Fukushima Masanori, who had allied himself with Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara. By 1619, however, the Tokugawa shogun removed the Fukushima clan itself from Hiroshima for failing to receive permission from the shogun to rebuild portions of the Hiroshima castle damaged in a flood. The dismissal of the Fukushima clan from Hiroshima reflected the new, intricate system of political and military checks placed on the hundreds of lords enfiefed throughout Japan by the Tokugawa house. Each lord was allowed to maintain precisely one castle in his domain, and the shogun strictly surveilled any activity relating to the castle city fortifications of the lords or to their relations with neighboring domainal clan heads. Domainal lords ruled their fiefs at the pleasure of the shogun. Their relocation or demotion to non-daimyo (domainal lord) status could be the penalties for infractions within the quid pro quo alliance system of the Tokugawa regime.

In that same 1619, the Tokugawa shogun then assigned the Hiroshima fief to another ally, Asano Nagaakira, who was expected to serve there as a linchpin in the shogun’s network of control over the entire Chûgoku region of far southwestern Honshû. Hiroshima was thus ruled as the capital city of the Asano clan’s domain, in close alliance to the Tokugawa, until the end of the Tokugawa period.

These early years of the Tokugawa era continued to be a time of great city building. Nagaakira and his successors expanded on the earlier programs of the Môri and Fukushima lords to increase the infrastructure of the city. The Asano lords also promoted the continued expansion of the city through land reclamation projects in the bay. Much like its other important castle town counterparts during the relatively peaceful centuries of the Tokugawa period, Hiroshima became an early modern city, a place where samurai and commoner cultures intermingled and flourished, a center of intellectual production, the relatively cosmopolitan home of an expanding reading public, and a commercial hub during an era when Japan was to undergo a dramatic explosion in the scale of realm-wide commerce and a proto-industrial revolution in modes of economic production.

3. Hiroshima as Post-Meiji Restoration Modern City
In the tumultuous and politically experimental first years following the Meiji revolution that overthrew the Tokugawa house, the new government set about to reconsider the administrative and political boundaries that had defined the old bakuhan (shogunal government and domainal governments) system of territorial rule in Japan. In 1871, the Meiji government dramatically announced the abolition of the domains and, by extension, their daimyo rulers. The new national government in Tokyo remade Hiroshima domain and the neighboring domain of Fukuyama into Hiroshima prefecture (ken), a new category of administrative unit over which the top executive official would be an appointed governor.

These changes were sudden and affected more than the domainal lords or those of the samurai caste alone. Commoners, too, felt great anxiety and suspicion over the rapid political and administrative changes. These uncertainties led to frequent uprising around Japan during the uncertain years after the Meiji revolution, including the incident when commoners led by a farmer named Buichirô launched a large armed uprising against local officials throughout the new prefecture of Hiroshima. The riot eventually was suppressed, and as so often happened in these cases, officials executed Buichirô and eight other leaders. In the eyes of those in charge at the prefectural and national levels, the progress represented in their eyes by the new political systems being erected could not be impeded.3

A more thorough-going and formalized system of local rule, at the village, town, city, and prefectural levels, emerged during the 1880s and continued largely unchanged to 1945. In 1889, under this modern system of local and municipal governance, the national government in Tokyo officially designated Hiroshima as an incorporated city. It had roughly 83,000 residents. One of 31 cities recognized under the new system, Hiroshima took its place within the hierarchical administrative structures of the centralized nation-state system with which Japanese were rapidly replacing the institutions of centuries past.

4. Hiroshima as Industrial City
Hiroshima city was also becoming modern in ways other than those related to its official municipal designation. As Japanese pursued new forms of economic and military strength during the Meiji period, Hiroshima grew in importance as a city of heavy industrial manufacturing. While not in those areas of the country most commonly identified with the industrial urban powerhouses--the Kantô area centered on Tokyo and the Nagoya-Kobe-Osaka nexus of cities--Hiroshima nevertheless also became an important city in the rise of Japanese industrial capitalism.

Recalling some of the economic reasons behind the original founding of the city, Hiroshima’s location on an important harbor and at the crossroads between the industrial centers of Kyûshû (especially the increasingly important city of Fukuoka), the Inland Sea and industrial cities further east contributed to its continuing success in the emerging new economy. The city became a critical modern transportation hub with the construction of the port of Ujina at the end of the 1880s. By the mid-1890s, the Sanyô Railroad was extended to Hiroshima, providing a link to Kobe and Shimonoseki in the east, and a new branch line from Ujina port connected the port to the main Sanyô Railroad station in the heart of the city. Entrepreneurs also constructed the sorts of light-industrial plants in Hiroshima that formed the basis of much of Japanese early industrialization during the modern period, including especially cotton mills. Located near the coal producing regions of northern Kyûshû and able to receive shipments of coal from overseas suppliers, the iron and steel industries also flourished in Hiroshima. In the city was also founded Tôyô Industries in 1920, later renamed the Mazda Corporation and famous in the post-WWII period as a global manufacturer of automobiles. By the wartime 1940s, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries constructed a major naval ship-building factory on the port waterfront of the city.

As measured by its ranking in terms of total population size, Hiroshima displayed a remarkable resilience in the face of the transformations from the end of the Tokugawa period through the modern economic changes of the first half of the twentieth century. At the end of the Tokugawa period, Hiroshima was the sixth most populous city in Japan. In 1935, its position was virtually unchanged at number seven. The top four cities in size also remained virtually unchanged in rank during that nearly 70-year period. Yet other cities did not fare so well in the transition to a modern economy, including most obviously the fifth largest city at the time of the Meiji transformation, Kanazawa. By 1935 its rank had fallen to number 22! Other major Tokugawa-era cities suffered similar fates, those such as Tôyama, Fukui, and Tottori, the latter of which dropped in size ranking from number 15 to 1004.

In the era of Japanese urban history before the rise of modern technologies, Hiroshima had flourished due to its location at the cross-roads of regional commerce, a location that had been decided based not only on economic advantage, but also pure military-strategic calculations. Many other major Tokugawa-era cities, however, had become large simply because the domains in which they were located were large and their lords were economically well off, though often not well aligned with the shogun. This weak position in relation to the shogun meant that such lords were placed in peripheral areas of the realm such as along the Sea of Japan coast, in the far north, or on the far side of the island of Shikoku. Such locations meant that during the modern period the cities associated with these old domainal lords found themselves located in peripheral regions of the emerging industrial economy. They often, therefore, shrank dramatically in size. Moreover, other cities that had been of smaller size under the Tokugawa system (e.g. Nagasaki) or that had not yet even existed as separate cities as such (e.g. Kobe) grew dramatically during the modern period based on their situational advantages given the growth industries of the modern economy.

Hiroshima’s advantages as a geographical crossroads, by contrast, remained undiminished across the early-modern and modern transition. Furthermore, Hiroshima was in the modern era also fortunately situated for taking advantage of the new fossil-fuel driven industrial technologies and shipping opportunities of the age. The result was Hiroshima’s extraordinarily long history as one of the premier cities in both the Tokugawa and modern eras.

5. Hiroshima as Imperial City 

"The almost exclusive attention given to the day of the bombing itself ironically works to efface the key roles that the city did indeed play in modern empire and war-making."

Hiroshima’s modernity was also determined by the central role it played in the history of Japanese imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and in the important place that the modern Japanese military would play in the life of the city. The almost exclusive attention given to the day of the bombing itself ironically works to efface the key roles that the city did indeed play in modern empire and war-making. These modern historical roles do not necessarily by themselves make any case as to the morality or necessity of the dropping of the bomb. They do however place Hiroshima at the center of a longer history of national expansionism that by the end of 1945 did, rightly or wrongly, place Japan in the cross hairs of an atomic attack. Understanding the history of Japanese national strategies and expansion overseas as reflected in part in the history of Hiroshima helps to contextualize the bombing.

Hiroshima was a city where hundreds of thousands of civilians made their lives. Shops, small businesses, factories, banks, schools, hospitals, and government offices lined its streets. It was, however, also a military city. So common was the image of military personnel in the daily life of the city that it was dubbed by residents a “soldier’s city.” Military personnel could regularly be seen at the Chûgoku Regional Army and Fifth Army Division headquarters complex at Hiroshima castle, at their barracks and on drill grounds, and marching to and from transport ships and train stations as they entered the city or shipped out during the successive wars of the modern period by which Japanese extended their imperial reach.

Hiroshima first became a garrison city of the emerging modern military in 1871, and by 1886 the Fifth Division (of six total) of the military was headquartered at the old castle in the heart of the city. In addition, just two years later, the Japanese Imperial Naval Academy was relocated from Tokyo to the large island of Etajima in Hiroshima Bay. Etajima remained the officer training facility for the navy until the end of the war. It continues today as the Officer Candidate School of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and is also the location of the Museum of Naval History.

Beginning with the First Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95, Hiroshima became an assembly area for troops from all over the rest of Japan shipping out from the new Ujina port to the war zones of the Meiji period. In the first war with China, and then the war with Russia ten years later, the territory given over to military facilities in the city increased dramatically. By the end of those victorious wars, Hiroshima had also become a key military supply and ordinance depot, a training area, and communications center. As much as 10% of the city was dedicated to military purposes5. In addition, the war with China was the impetus behind the construction on the harbor island of Ninojima of a quarantine and disinfection station for all troops returning to Japan from war theaters and, soon enough, other parts of the empire. Because some of the very few medical facilities of any kind still standing after the atomic attack were on Ninojima, rescue troops ferried as many as 10,000 injured victims from the heart of the city to the island that day and over the following weeks. Many thousands died on the island, and their remains were buried there.

For a remarkable moment, Hiroshima’s place in the history of imperial wars even included the transformation of the city into the virtual imperial capital of the nation. During the First Sino-Japanese War, leaders moved the Meiji Emperor’s imperial command headquarters from Tokyo to Hiroshima to be at the center of the military logistics of this most important city in the war effort. During much of the war, the emperor thus resided in Hiroshima. Even the national parliament pulled up stakes and moved to Hiroshima, convening for a time during the war in a building hastily constructed for the purpose.

When Japan initiated full-scale war with China in 1937, the Fifth Army Division in Hiroshima once again was one of the first to the front. Over the successive years of the China war and then the war in the Pacific, the military appropriated increasing amounts of city land for facilities and military functions. As American forces seemed poised to launch an invasion of the Japanese home islands, the headquarters for the Second General Army, which had the job of defending the entire western part of Japan, was moved in April 1945 from Okinawa to Hiroshima northeast of the central military complex at the castle.

The military nature of the city was not always celebrated by its civilian citizens, however. In the early 1930s those in business complained to city and military authorities that too many city resources were being monopolized by the military. Particularly at issue was the desire of those in trade and manufacturing to have more facilities available for non-military shipping from Ujina port. In 1933 work began on facilities in the harbor to promote trade. Again in 1940, construction began on a new Hiroshima Industrial Port to promote the economic interests of the city. Reflecting the dominance of military concerns by the 1940s, however, part of the reclaimed land for the project ended up being used for an army airfield instead6.

6. Hiroshima as Targeted City
In May 1945, American strategists placed Hiroshima on the short list of Japanese cities targeted for atomic attack. It was at that moment that the history of Hiroshima as a city intersected with the history of the event that would signal the dawn of the nuclear age. At the time that the United States dropped the bomb, Hiroshima was the 7th largest city in Japan (roughly comparable in relative ranking in today’s United States to the instantaneous obliteration of nearly all of San Diego). While estimates vary, the number of people believed to be in the city on the morning of the attack was about 370,000, including permanent civilian residents, commuters who came into the city that morning from surrounding suburbs for their jobs, military personnel stationed in Hiroshima, and Korean forced laborers. An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people were vaporized, carbonized or otherwise killed in the initial heat (the fire-ball reached 300,000 degrees centigrade 1/10,000 of a second after the explosion), blast, and fires. At least that many again died by November of 1945 due to injuries and radiation.

Hiroshima was one of just two very large cities in August 1945 that had not yet been the target of massive B-29 Superfortress air-raids (the other was Kyoto). This was not by logistical accident. American commanders purposely left the city untouched by fire-bomb attacks with the expressed idea that it might serve as a virgin testing ground for measuring the effects of an atomic weapon on a modern city. The city was among the few (including Kokura and Nagasaki) selected as final target choices (from among a much longer list) due to a variety of factors, including the shape of the landscape in which it sat. The bowl created by the hills surrounding the city on all but the harbor side would, planners believed, be especially conducive to achieving maximum destructive effect. Moreover, Hiroshima was a city in which many military troops were stationed and in which the Mitsubishi shipyard was located. In addition, American planners noted its importance as a transportation link.

The making of the atom bomb and the decision to drop it on Japan are the most familiar, though highly controversial aspects of the story of Hiroshima. Debate has raged about the decision to bomb since soon after the war ended. It is not possible here to canvass the massive literature related to the decision to use the bomb. Whether the Hiroshima bombing was morally justified, necessary, fundamentally different from the use of other highly destructive methods for attacking cities, ended the war, saved American lives, averted further deaths at the hands of Japanese aggressors, or unnecessarily initiated a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race with the Soviets are all huge subjects requiring their own separate treatments. The Japan Society has a resource page that can direct interested readers to works related to these questions and help them navigate this thorny terrain. My comments here are intended merely to point outward towards this ever-growing bomb scholarship and to give a sense of the contested nature of memory with respect to the atomic attack.

The orthodox perspective in the United States holds that the bomb brought the war to an early end and saved lives--American lives that would have been lost in any invasion of the main islands of Japan and perhaps Japanese lives, too, that would have been sacrificed in defense of the nation. This view was enunciated by American decision-makers at the time and held strong sway among most in the U.S. after the war. Yet relief that the war had ended was also accompanied by fears even in the U.S. of what the atomic age would bring. Many Americans assumed it was only a matter of time before they themselves would fall victim to bombing by others while others called for idealistic political responses, even a one-world government, as the only means to avoid mutual annihilation.

Soon enough after the war, some in the U.S., like the Federal Council of Churches, declared that the dropping of the bomb on innocent civilians was morally wrong. A more surprising evaluation was made in the summer of 1946 by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which had been charged by FDR with assessing wartime air attacks. The Survey concluded that Japanese leaders would certainly have surrendered prior to the end of December 1945 even had the bomb not been used8. By the early 1960s, such scholars in the U.S. as Herbert Feis, began to support the argument that the bomb was not necessary. So-called revisionist scholars expanded on these views and over the following decades became more critical. They argued that the desire to cow the Soviets, racism, and the goal of punishing Japanese for Pearl Harbor and atrocities against POWs were all at work in the decision to use the new weapon. They also maintained that the supposed numbers of American lives saved were exaggerated after the fact by defenders of Truman’s decision. Some also offered a synthesis of these positions, suggesting that intimidating the Soviets was not a necessary consideration in the final decision, but that the possibility of also achieving this effect tended to foreclose any possibility of reconsideration of the decision to use the bomb9.

By the end of the twentieth century, contention over the way the bombing was remembered flared again to the surface. This was most famously true with the National Air and Space Musuem’s planned 50th anniversary exhibition of the Enola Gay, the airship used to drop the “Little Boy” atom bomb. Curators had designed the exhibit to display parts of the Enola Gay, but also to examine the reasons the bomb was used and review the debate that had taken place about the issue up to that time in 1995. These plans were met, however, by a barrage of criticism from veterans’ groups, politicians and others who attacked the planned exhibit as being “politically correct,” unjustifiably critical of American actions, and even unpatriotic. Under withering pressure from Congress and others, the Smithsonian scuttled nearly the entire exhibit. In the end, the forward fuselage of the Enola Gay was displayed, accompanied only by video interviews of the crew that had flown the mission to drop the bomb and text that discussed the development of the B-29 bombers used in air attacks on Japan10. Separate from questions related to the ultimate justification for the bomb, many among the scholarly community believed that the complete retreat of the museum marked a sad day for intellectual openness in the United States and the ways we view the complexities of history.

In the wake of the controversies over the Enola Gay exhibit, debate in the post-1995 years has been characterized by a resurgence of writing that justifies the bombing given the history of the war up to the summer of 1945 and the intractability of Japanese leaders. Defenders of the bombing have published works in recent years that maintain that revisionist critiques have held sway for too long. They claim that revisionists have made inaccurate and politically slanted use of the historical evidence and denounce those who criticize the bombing without consideration of Japanese actions in Asia leading up to that decision, actions that led to the death of millions of Asian soldiers and civilians. Such defenders as Robert P. Newman argue that the bombing did not represent the simple victimization of Japanese, but was justified given the number of lives potentially saved in the rest of East and Southeast Asia in light of the estimated rate of killing in the last days of the war being done by Japanese soldiers11. It should be noted, however, that, while it may not matter in terms of the ex post facto moral calculus being carried out in many of these arguments, saving specifically Asian lives does not ever seem to have figured as one of the expressed motives behind the decision of the Americans to launch the atomic strike.

For their part, Japanese forms of memorializing have themselves been criticized in the past as portraying Japanese as merely victims. Japanese public memories of the event, many pointed out, were presented without historical context, conveniently failing to address the aggression that Japanese had carried out throughout Asia beginning at least since 1931 and the many documented atrocities carried out by members of the Japanese military. Such was certainly true, for example, of the exhibits in the original main building of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The exhibits documented the devastating effects of the bomb on the city and its people, but provided no treatment of the war that led up to the event. The Peace Museum now, however, includes a newer east wing (opened 1994), which includes material on the long history of Japanese empire, the deaths of Koreans in Hiroshima under a slave labor regime, and Hiroshima’s own history as a military city. Such exhibits go some distance toward remedying the limited historical perspectives of the original approach. They are a testament to the fact that there has been at least some widening of perspectives in social memory of the war in Japan in the previous two decades or so.

7. Hiroshima as a Destroyed City
Justified, tragic mistake, or war crime, the atomic attack reshaped the history of Hiroshima as an urban place as indelibly as any man-made or natural disaster ever could. A targeted city, Hiroshima became on that August morning also a thoroughly destroyed city. Accounts of the bomb never fail to mention that it packed the power of 15,000 tons of TNT. Yet this figure by itself means little to most of us. The conversion of the destructive force of the atom bomb to an equivalency in conventional explosives seems somehow, as large as the number is, to shrink the awfulness of the thing to something almost “normal.”

It is not until we see the photographs of the city taken the day of the event and soon after that the scale and completeness of the destruction begin dimly to be understood. And photographed the destroyed city was. There were photos of the still climbing mushroom cloud, as seen from nearly directly below and from immensely far away. There were photos of the effects of the impossibly powerful blast--photos of demolished massive granite buildings and of flying shrapnel wedged perfectly under heavy stone objects, lodged there in the moment that the stones had been momentarily tilted up by the blast. There were photos of dazed survivors gathering in small dusty, half-clothed groups. In the days and weeks that followed, there were also panoramic photos of kilometer after kilometer of the once crowded city now quite utterly flattened and blackened. From the hypocenter in nearly all directions stood nothing to impede one’s view from one side of the city to the other. Staring at these photos today, the horrible power of the bomb is frightening, even more so when it is remembered how small that 1945 weapon was by comparison to those in nuclear stockpiles today. 



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Remains of the Museum of Science and Technology following the dropping of the atomic bomb.  Credit: Donated by Corbis-Bettmann

These photographs became just one category of evidence among many gathered after the attack in a massive attempt to catalogue, measure, and analyze just what had been done to the city at what moment of the bomb’s explosion and by which of the three means of destruction that the bomb meted out (heat rays, blast, and radiation). Scientists and medical teams from the United States, aided in the Occupation months that followed by Japanese counterparts, pieced together the details of the explosion and its effects. In essence, Hiroshima was transformed at the moment of its destruction into a city-sized laboratory for discovering the outcomes on structures and people of an atomic attack. The technical dispassion of the American documents ordering the “recording of all of the available data” about the destroyed city betrays the wartime context that underlay the research projects, but also a queasy realization by those at the time that Hiroshima might now represent the new face of warfare. Such research was “of vital importance to our country” declared one such U.S. document, which chillingly went on to explain that such a “unique opportunity may not again be offered until the next world war.”12

Even the survivors, along with their offspring, became scientific specimens as scientists in the U.S. and Japan examined them for decades following the attack to record the exotic disorders that resulted from their exposure to the bombing. For example, medical teams studied the thick “keloid” scarring of heat flash burns. Little was also known about the dangerous effects of radiation exposure, and as surprising as it may seem today, most scientists and medical professionals believed before entering the city that there was “little indication” that much disease and death would be caused by the radiation of the bomb.13 Facts to the contrary were quickly evident, however, as thousands died appalling radiation deaths in the months that followed. Research on the long-term, multi-generational consequences of radiation poisoning is still being studied today among survivors and their progeny.

The destroyed city also soon enough became a mapped city. Researchers eventually translated their findings on the destruction of the city into detailed maps that displayed the geographic distribution of damage. The effects of the blast were further disaggregated on these maps into various categories, color-coded to indicate partial and complete destruction and building loss by blast and later fire. Other maps recorded the geography of radiation. Bulbous swathes of color spreading northwest from the point of explosion at the middle of the city indicated the deadly reach of fall-out plumes and the territory as far as fifteen miles distant from the hypocenter over which black, radioactive rain had fallen as a consequence of the mushroom cloud. With their concentric rings marking the distance in kilometers from the hypocenter of the blast, all of these maps were bleak foreshadows of the similarly scientific maps of New York City, Washington, D.C. or Moscow that would soon enough registered the potential for even greater thermonuclear destruction so familiar during the nuclear arms race of the Cold War.

The extent of destruction that these maps displayed was almost unimaginable. 63% of all buildings within the city were totally destroyed and another 29% severely damaged beyond all repair. At a distance of two kilometers in all directions all wooden buildings were destroyed and burned. Anyone within 500 meters of the explosion would have had no time to feel the thermal flash or hear the blast. The entire area was nearly instantaneously destroyed and burned to ashes. The survivor believed to have been closest to ground zero was a mere 100 meters away, but he was in a basement room at the time and one of the very few to survive anywhere near that close to the point of explosion. Researchers estimate that between 80 to 100% of those who were exposed near the location of the blast died on the day of bombing. Even as far as 1.2 kilometers away, 50% perished that day. All survivors of the initial blast who were within a kilometer of the explosion received a dose of radiation that would be expected to kill half of those exposed to it within a month.

Hiroshima destroyed also became a city of relics and reminders. Much like Americans’ current desire to remember the September 11th attacks by displaying large chunks of the broken steel of the World Trade Center, citizens of Hiroshima, on a larger scale, dismantled and saved parts of the broken city--twisted iron and steel; the chemically altered surfaces of marble blocks; radioactive “black rain”-streaked walls; the shadows on stone of persons instantly incinerated. They did so to record what had occurred, to warn against the violence of the past, and simply to remember. Many of these monuments to the experience of the bombed city can be seen on display at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (official site).

The destroyed city was obviously a space of great death and suffering, but also of survival. A number of accounts by survivors have become well-known around the world, translated into many languages and a variety of media. Barefoot Gen, a “comic” (what today would be called a graphic novel) written and drawn by Nakazawa Keiji beginning in 1973, is based on Nakazawa’s own boyhood experience as a bomb victim, but also includes a critical portrayal of the jingoistic militarism of wartime Japanese society. Later repackaged in multi-volume book form, Barefoot Gen has sold millions of copies around the world and been adapted several times for film and television.

Several writers already of some renown at the time of the bombing attempted immediately to put their experiences of survival into first-person forms. One was Ôta Yôkô, whose City of Corpses features a documentary style of description of her experiences and reactions to the bombing, but is also often didactic in tone. Hara Tamiki was another such professional writer. He produced an autobiographical short story, “Summer Flowers,” that is an elegiac yet also hauntingly simple account, in slightly fictionalized form, of his experiences in the destroyed city. As in the laconic mode with which the narrator describes his being in the toilet at the moment of the bombing, Hara’s restrained story records the frequent happenstances determining life and death during the attack. Although he first jotted the notes for “Summer Flowers” in the immediate midst of great death, Hara was accompanied by others like himself whom pure accident had put relatively out of harm’s way on the day of the bomb and who managed to survive in the improbable circumstances of the burned out city.

In an essay to follow, I will consider the survival of Hiroshima after its destruction. The essay will discuss the city in four of its interconnected postwar guises: reconstructed city, peace city, memorial city, and global city.

1In Japanese, there are “prefectural histories” in which large capital cities like Hiroshima are featured. These are wonderfully detailed, but they tend to be written in survey style and rarely reflect particular arguments or thematic explorations.

UNESCO, “Advisory Body Evaluation, World Heritage List #776: Itsukushima Shinto Shrine.” Accessed through http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/776/documents/ on October 10, 2009.

Yoshiteru Kosakai, Hiroshima Peace Reader. Translated by Akira and Michiko Tashiro and Robert and Alice Ruth Ramseyer. 12th ed. (Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, 2002), 11.

For size rankings of cities by population and a discussion of urban transitions, see Hachiro Nakamura, “Urban Growth in Prewar Japan,” in Kuniko Fujita and Richard Child Hill, eds., Japanese Cities in the World Economy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, The Spirit of Hiroshima (Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, 1999), 14.

See Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, East Wing exhibition on the history of Hiroshima; also Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, The Spirit of Hiroshima, 15.

Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon, 1985).

Robert P. Newman, Enola Gay and the Court of History (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 28-29.

Barton J. Bernstein, “Understanding the Atomic Bomb and the Japanese Surrender: Missed Opportunities, Little-Known Near Disasters, and Modern Memory,” in Michael J. Hogan, ed., Hiroshima in History and Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19960, 40-41.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website, “Past Exhibitions” section, “Enola Gay” page. http://www.nasm.si.edu/exhibitions/gal103/enolagay/. Viewed October 10, 2009.

Newman, Enola Gay and the Court of History, 134-152.

For quotations on data gathering, Averill A. Lebow, Encounter With Disaster: A Medical Diary of Hiroshima, 1945 (1965) (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985), 36.

Lebow, Encounter With Disaster, 37.

Scott O'Bryan is Associate Professor at Indiana University in the Department of History and the Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures.



Type,Article; Theme,History; Topic,History-Modern; Topic,Imperialism; Topic,International Relations; Topic,Literature; Topic,Military; Topic,Politics; Topic,Popular Culture; Topic,War & Conflict;
Hiroshima, World War II, Nuclear Armament, Atomic Bomb, Japan, History, Scott O'Bryan, Soviet Union, Tokugawa,,Hiroshima