Processing Hiroshima: How Memorials Can Heal

Remembering the Peace Memorial Park on the 75th anniversary of the bombing.

Posted Aug 06, 2020

Jean Kim
Children's Memorial
Source: Jean Kim

Sometimes the only way for the human mind to process something overwhelming is to focus on tiny details, even absurdly miniscule relative to the uncanny. As a teenager visiting an Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, all I could focus on was a display of the small metal plug removed from the original Little Boy, not unlike a grenade pin. A finger-sized painted metal loop that was pulled out to activate the most devastating weapon in human history. Even then, the contrast reverberated in my young mind in disturbing ways—that something so banal could unleash the unspeakable.

Decades later, when I decided to visit Japan in November 2016, mainly to witness the luminously chromatic fall foliage around historic temples, I felt a solemn duty to add on Hiroshima as a stop. I had recently read John Hersey’s stunning account of the tragedy in a class. I wanted to process the contrasts that fragment around the human consciousness when contemplating a massive trauma, the ways we as people both bury, hide, and heal the site of the heart of darkness.

And arriving at the Hiroshima train station, one is completely unaware that this city was such a site. The pleasantly modern, user-friendly station; the placidly rebuilt downtown with a cubic, circa-80s shopping arcade feel; the red painted free tourist buses circulating regularly. The city feels less congested or overwhelming than the bustling metropolises of Tokyo or Osaka. It has the vibe of a liveable mid-sized European edge city.

The day is suitably overcast, mournfully grey with a light drizzle. I decide to walk towards the Peace Memorial Park via the serenely spacious Peace Boulevard, periodically lined with elegant monuments and exhibits of varying sizes. Again, the first one I encounter is almost unnoticeably small. A small rectangular stand, almost shaped like a covered bus stop or a carnival booth, with numerous strands of multicolored ribbons hanging from its roof. I read a small plaque which punches me in the gut. This is the site of a girls’ school, where all the young girls and their teachers were annihilated in the bombing.

The realization threatens to drown me for a moment. That everything around me is actually a glittering, modernist façade overtop a city-sized graveyard. I nearly burst into tears but quickly regroup as I walk by chirpy hotel lobbies and 7-Elevens. But my legs feel unsteady as the boulevard reaches the bridge at the river, with the famous memorial dome visible to the right. I walk up the river bank to the ruins of the Genbaku Dome. It is both smaller than expected and yet still a powerful testament to the ineffable forces that marled and mangled it into a skeletal shell, stones scattered at its base.

It is time for dinner, and I walk back as the sun sets through one of the oversized indoor shopping arcades in Japan, scintillating with commercial vitality. I eat at a charming storefront bistro specializing in the freshest oysters gathered from all over Japan. A couple from Spain chats with the chef, bragging about their own seafood dishes like paella.

The next day, the weather has become crisp and sunny. I venture to the Peace Memorial Park. It has an almost airy, ethereal vibe, with its monuments spread out with a clean architectural symmetry across the mid-river islet where they are located, around a giant central concrete saddle arch. The park lives up to its namesake, conveying placidity, while solemnly demarking key centerpieces of respect and contemplation. The Children’s Peace Monument is arguably the most memorable one, with the statue of a young girl and a paper crane, dedicated to Sadako Sasaki who folded 1000 paper cranes while dying from radiation poisoning after the bombing. Beside her statue is one of the Peace Bells, where people are lined up to ring the bell for world peace.

The main museum also follows the same mental track of how to process the unfathomable, focusing on small, mangled human objects, in a somewhat dated, aging exhibit. A bicycle, shoes, etc.

A large grassy knoll outside contains the cremated remains of over 70,000 unidentified victims. Tucked away in a quiet edge of the park is the Korean Victims’ memorial (after some controversy and years of being placed in another park outside the city), a small statue of a turtle, with a plaque mentioning the story of Prince Wu, a member of the Korean Royal Family who was enlisted into the Japanese Army but secretly continued to sponsor movements for Korean independence from colonial rule. He and over 45,000 forcibly conscripted Koreans working in military factories in Hiroshima perished in the blast.

The park strikes a helpful balance. It clearly denotes and memorializes, through the power of art and symbolism, the scope of the tragedy without letting it tear the heart to shreds, but leaving it with a mournful, mature understanding of the human folly of war. It doesn’t erase or ignore what happened, but it also points towards the greater promise of mutual beneficence and graded acceptance, with the focus on peace. It helps steer one’s mind towards a future tinged with guarded wisdom, progress measured with sober awareness: the way to bridge the monstrous with the everyday that constitutes our human history.