Hiroshima Transforms A-Bomb Legacy into Peace Festival

Unlike most of Japan, Hiroshima doesn’t shy from its wartime past.

This bustling port city, the target of the world’s first atomic bomb attack in 1945, made itself the main exhibit this weekend at an annual gathering of Nobel Peace Prize laureates — dedicated this year to abolishing nuclear weapons.

Hiroshima often links events it hosts to its tragic history, such as a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum earlier this year. It is bidding for the 2020 Olympics with Nagasaki — the other Japanese city hit by an atomic bomb — under a “Festival of Peace” theme.

Elsewhere in Japan, discussions of World War II are often tinged by guilt or nationalism. Tokyo’s only major museum on the war is housed within a controversial war shrine. Even Nagasaki typically takes a more subdued approach.

A girl sits working on her painting by the cenotaph in memory of the atomic-bomb victims at the Peace Memorial park. (AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa)

Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba has increasingly circumvented Japan’s national government as a global movement against nuclear arms gains momentum.

He leads “Mayors for Peace,” with 4,300 member cities worldwide, and declared his city part of the “Obamajority” after the U.S. president’s Prague speech last year in favor of denuclearization.

Young tourists snap the A-Bomb Dome. (AP Photo/Junji Kurokawa)

“We are at the position where we can proceed from the city level and galvanize this trend,” he said at the Asia-Pacific forum.

With its A-Bomb Dome, a burned-out building from the attack that has been preserved, and sprawling Peace Park at its center, the city is a symbol of the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Japanese survivors gave heart-rending testimony at the weekend gathering of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the first time the summit was held outside Europe.

“The significance of being in Hiroshima is that we are here, where for the first time in history an atomic bomb was dropped, where hundreds of thousands of people were killed and seriously injured and maimed for life,” said Frederik Willem de Klerk, the former South African president who won a Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for his efforts to end apartheid.

Overseas visitors to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum have roughly doubled over the last 10 years to about 160,000 per year.

The museum’s exhibits were altered in 1991 in part because some were considered too gruesome. Items on display include preserved scar tissue from radiation victims and a set of stone steps with the outline of a man who was incinerated in the blast.

But with the increasing interest, a plan is being considered to make them more vivid again.

“There is a feeling that the exhibits became too clean,” said museum official Shoji Oseto.

Hiroshima’s most powerful message comes from the survivors of the attack, known as “hibakusha” in Japanese. Most don’t discuss their experiences openly, but those that do retell them repeatedly and have been dubbed “special communicators” by the current Japanese Cabinet.

After children gave the Nobel laureates colorful origami cranes at an opening ceremony on Friday, hibakusha Akihiro Takahashi took the stage and told how he watched friends die and made his way home through charred corpses as a schoolboy after the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945.

Some members of the press corps were moved to tears, and the English translators at times choked up and lost the narrative.

As the survivors get older, efforts are being made to introduce them to as many audiences as possible.

“Unfortunately we don’t have much time. If we lose this opportunity, we lose a vital part of the Hiroshima legacy,” said Yoshioka Tatsuya, founder of an organization called Peace Boat that has sailed hibakusha to various ports around the world.

Within the city, memories of the devastation fade with each generation. Authorities are trying to educate children, busing students to the Peace Park each year and sending special teams of educators to schools in the region.

“In Hiroshima we are all educated about peace,” said Maria Inoue, 16, who skipped school to attend the Nobel peace conference. “This is how it should be in all of Japan.”