6 August.  Peace Ceremony, lanterns, and magic tricks


We rose early to attend the annual Peace Ceremony in the Memorial Park.  We left at 7.00 am and wended our way along the throng to the seated area in front of the Memorial itself.  The Hiroshima City government is pretty practised at this event.  As we approached the park, troops of Boy Scouts gave everyone a flower for us eventually to place on the memorial.


The Atomic Bomb Museum is a modernist (like a number of modern Japanese structures, somewhat Stalinist in design) concrete and glass rectangular structure in two parts that bestrides the entrance to the park on stilts.  It stands at one end of the Peace Memorial Park.  Standing in the gap between the two sections of the building, you can look along the park to the Memorial steps, then beyond that an eternal flame, and in the distance, the Atomic Dome known to the Japanese as Genbaku.  This is a ruined building, maintained as a ruin, close to the epicentre of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima in 1945.  It is very atmospheric, although people walk and cycle past it with no particular reverence.  It did not seem as sombre as I was expecting.


Underneath the museum were information booths and supplies of free (warm) green tea, iced water and very welcome frozen damp napkins to wipe away the perspiration in the hot and humid atmosphere.  We availed ourselves of all three supplies and made our way to the seats.  As we were not survivors, families of survivors, families of victims, representatives of other cities and prefectures in Japan, representatives of cities elsewhere in the world, representatives of the Japanese government, representatives of other governments nor of the United nations, press, musicians or choir, we were in the unreserved section towards the rear. Nonetheless we had a good if distant view of the podium.  Before the events started, we tucked in to our breakfast of custard buns (like Danish pastries with crème patissière), “Pocky” biscuit-sticks (thin rods of biscuit coated in chocolate except for a short “hand-grip”) and canned coffee.


As we settled into our seats, the Buddhist group who had been chanting and drumming all night moved away from the Memorial to allow the proceedings to commence.  Just in front of us was a man carrying a briefcase under his arm connected to a microphone, into which he spoke from time to time.  The reason for this became clear when a middle-aged man rose in a nearby seat and started shouting.  The microphone man and two other men immediately tried to force him to remain in his seat.  This proved impossible, so they hustled him away, to the evident satisfaction of a number of Japanese in the vicinity.  We presumed that we had seen the Japanese special branch or MI5-equivalent in action.


Bang on time (the Japanese are the most punctual people I have ever come across) the ceremony started.  The most poignant part of the proceedings was the minute’s silence at 8.15, the time that the bomb detonated in 1945.  This was punctuated by the tolling of a bell.  Japanese bells have a curious muffled ring that dies away quickly, unlike the resonant bells we are used to in England when “the curfew tolls the knell of passing day”.  This was closely followed by the ritual offering of water by relatives of the victims; water – mizu – was not available to the dying victims.


Doves were released and spiralled over the crowd until they flew into the distance.  Speeches were delivered from the great and the good, including Mr Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, and someone substituting for the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Two young schoolchildren gave amazingly confident speeches, and we finally stood for the Peace Anthem, helpfully printed inside our programme, complete with music.  I sang the chorus lustily in Japanese (hooray for Romaji!), without understanding a word of what I sang.


Val, who is very good at anything artistic, made some origami cranes (see story below) to the general amazement of the surrounding Japanese.  They are genuinely – and pleasurably - astounded whenever a gaijin accomplishes something Japanese.


The audience was asked to stand while the Great and the Good walked out, and were then invited to come forward to place flowers on the memorial.  Such were the numbers that we remained in our seats for over an hour before it was appropriate to place our own flowers.


Meanwhile, we were approached by some Japanese sixth-formers who asked us to fill in a questionnaire about our thoughts and feelings concerning the atomic bomb, warfare and what might be done to prevent it, and so forth.  They engaged Val in conversation (the first of many such encounters during our stay).  They were an interesting pair of lads who were very friendly.  We were also approached by an older lady, who brought us chilled flannels to cool us in the (by now) intense heat.  She assumed I was Australian, which I guess was due to my stylish olive green Marks & Spencer jungle hat purchased specially for the holiday.  There were no corks on strings, though.


Our attention was drawn by the spectacle of the man who had been chucked out by the secret police, marching up the centre path towards the memorial.  He was wearing a headband with a “rising sun” on it and was carrying an enormous Japanese flag.  His shouts apparently indicated that he was an extreme right-winger, calling for the restoration of the Japanese empire and of the emperor as a divinity.  The students we were with were clearly embarrassed by him, and pointed out, rightly, that Japan is a democracy and everyone has the right to express his views, however out of kilter they may be.  After placing our flowers with the many thousands of others, we walked back to the shade of the museum (and had more iced water and chilled flannels).  More schoolchildren asked us to fill in different but similar questionnaires and shyly practised their English on Val.  It must be a gift she’s got.


Eventually we parted company.  I went into the museum, while Val and Stephen, who’ve been there before, went off for lunch and Hiroshima Castle.


I paid my entrance fee to the museum and went in.  The museum sets out to explain the events leading up to the dropping of the bomb, and its consequences (both long- and short-term), physical, psychological and political.  There was interesting information on Hiroshima itself.  It had been a garrison town and naval port since the beginning of the Meiji period and had a heavy economic dependence on the military.


There was much, too, about the militarism that pervaded Japan from the 1890s onwards.  The Russo-Japanese war, the invasion of Manchuria and occupation of Korea and Taiwan were spoken of, but with little sense of culpability for their aggressive imperial ambitions.  I raised my eyebrows at the explanation of the start of the 2nd world war as far as Japan was concerned.  The caption says that the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 catapulted Japan into the war that ended with the dropping of the Atomic Bomb.  This struck me as an evasion of responsibility, as if an unprovoked act of aggression on a hitherto non-belligerent nation was of equal moral significance to the act of warfare that ended the conflict (and arguably saved millions of lives – but that is a speculative argument I shall not go down).  Hirohito and his cohort of military leaders were the real persons responsible for the events of the war, and ultimately of the deaths by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


The rest of the museum was interesting if rather worthy.  Scientific analysis of the bomb’s effects is interesting, but the most striking and affecting exhibit is a few blocks of granite, the transplanted entrance to a bank.  There, dark upon the seared surface of the granite, is the shadowy shape of a human being who blocked the heat and blast and radiation.  Other sombre exhibits of charred clothing, half-burned school exercise books, and even a burnt-out child’s lunchbox bear distressing testimony to the ordinary and mainly blameless people who immediately suffered from that explosion.  There is a plaintive note that 20,000 Koreans died in the blast as well as the 140,000 Japanese.  The point that the museum fails to make here is that these were slave labourers imported to work under harsh conditions to further the Japanese war effort.  If they had not illegally been enslaved, they would not have been in the line of fire.


Hirohito and gang should have been there on 6 August 1945.


Leaving the museum after about 2 and a half hours, I made my way into the shopping district and got a coffee and a cake for lunch.  I window-shopped for a while (it was very pleasant standing in shop doorways with the blast of chilled conditioned air cooling me down!) and returned to the hotel via the Peace Park.


I passed by the Children’s memorial which we had noticed the previous night.  It was bedecked with thousands of ribbons of tiny vividly-coloured origami cranes (the bird).  The story behind this memorial is very touching.


Sadako Sasaki was just two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, more than a mile from where she lived.  She grew to become a promising athlete but collapsed during a relay race at the age of 12.  She was found to have leukaemia, “the atomic bomb disease”. While she was in the hospital, her closest friend reminded her of the old Japanese legend that if she folded a thousand paper cranes (senbazuru), the gods might grant her wish to be well again. With courage and faith, Sadako began folding.  She completed just 644 before her death.  Sadako’s story had a profound impact on her friends and classmates. They completed her thousand cranes, which they buried with her, and raised money from school children all over Japan to build a statue to honour Sadako and all the children affected by the bomb.  And that is the memorial we saw in the Peace Park in Hiroshima.  It is a statue of Sadako standing on top of a granite pedestal holding a golden crane in her outstretched arms. At its base a plaque reads:

This is our cry.

This is our prayer.

Peace in the world.

This was the most emotional sight in the whole of our visit to Hiroshima.  Forgetting the culpability of the Japanese military regime, forgetting about the inevitability of “collateral damage” in warfare, forgetting that the atomic bomb arguably hastened the end of the war and saved countless Allied and Japanese lives, I wept for the children – undeniably the innocent -  who died and suffered.


I returned to the hotel and had a shower.  It had been a hot and sweaty day so far, and my T-shirt was more than damp.  I eschewed a hot tub on the grounds that I was too hot already, and opted for a brief but invigorating cold (well, cool) drenching to finish off.  Val and Stephen came back after their trip round Hiroshima Castle.  After lazing around for a while, we set off to watch the culmination of the day’s ceremonies.


This one was a little different, since it was originally not an official part of the proceedings at all, but a spontaneous event staged by a few local residents.  A couple of societies have sprung up to ensure that everything happens smoothly.


As dusk fell around 6.30 or a little later, people released little wooden rafts onto the river, each bearing a candle within a coloured paper cover.  We started off watching at one side of the park, standing on a bridge so that we could see what was happening. .  The whole scene was anything but solemn, and there were a couple of jazz bands playing as the event unfolded.  It started to rain, and a Japanese couple standing next to us insisted on lending us one of their umbrellas.  People were buying the lanterns and writing inscriptions on the cover before launching them into the river.  The inscriptions were prayers for peace, and commemorations of people who had died.


The river seemed to be rather sluggish, so the lanterns took a while to move downstream.  Some of them were caught up in unmoving by-waters, and others seemed to be caught in eddies, forever circling the same spot.  But eventually sheer weight of numbers dislodged most of them and we watched them slowly floating seawards.


Passing by the NHK television truck and watching the “talents” making their live broadcast of the scene, we moved to a new vantage point by the “T”-shaped bridge that joined an island to a bridge spanning the river nearby.  This had been the distinctive aiming point for the bombing mission that destroyed most of the immediate area in 1945.  Once again, Val struck up a conversation with a charming Japanese lady who took our photos.


After a while, we discovered that there was another launching point further downstream.  We walked down there and were offered the opportunity to launch our own lantern.  Paying our 500 Yen, we chose the least popular colour of lantern (white) and wrote a brief prayer for world peace – addressed in our case to the Prince of Peace.  Val launched it from the very muddy riverside it but it shortly grounded on a sandbank.  Stephen eventually dislodged it, and we watched its guttering flame join the thousands of others on their journey to the Pacific Ocean.


We walked into town and went into the “Pacora” retail complex.  The restaurant where Stephen and Val had lunched was closed, but we eventually found a very pleasant hotel restaurant that would remain open long enough for us to eat.  Val eventually elected to go back to the hotel alone while Stephen and I looked for a bar to have a late-night drink in.


We walked around the bright, neon-lit entertainment quarter, which was thronged with semi-drunken salarymen.  Although there were many bars whose signs proclaimed their presence, they all seemed to be inside dimly-lit corridors and staircases.  There was no way of knowing exactly what sort of bar we would find.  We had no wish to end up in a gambling den or a hostess bar, so we hesitated about entering any of them.  Eventually, Stephen found a bar that he had found on a previous trip to Hiroshima.  It was the bar eponymously run by “Mr. One”.  We went in.


It was a tiny place.  The bar had six seats, and there were two tables with four seats each.  Apparently, many bars are run as a paying hobby by their owners, who had other sources of income.  Mr One turned out to be a professional close-up magician.  His system was that you had to buy gaming chips for 2000 Yen each (about £11.50).  This entitled you to four drinks or snacks.  Stephen and I got through 3 chips’-worth of drinks and snacks between us.  Towards the end of sojourn there, Mr One did some tricks.  He was very good indeed.  His finale involved a banknote he borrowed from me.  Having pushed a pencil thorough the signed note and restored it unblemished, he folded it up and placed it on his hand.  It unfolded itself completely flat and then rose 10 cm into the air.  I passed my hand beneath, around and above it and I swear it was genuinely floating!  (I’m probably too easily taken in!)


And so to bed replete, tomorrow being an island-day.



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