Growing Up in Post-war Hiroshima

That summer, we decided to make a thousand origami paper cranes. It was a collective project involving a few families: me (about six at the time), my brother, my mother, my friends, their parents—whoever had time made cranes, as many as possible. A thousand cranes was a lot: it would take about 20 man-hours.

Every child in Hiroshima knew how to make an origami crane. It was made popular by the story of a little girl who was an A-bomb victim. Making a thousand paper cranes was her prayer; it would cure her disease caused by the bomb. Despite her wish she died, but the prayer stayed.

Every child in Hiroshima knew how the city was affected by the A-bomb:

August 6, 1945, a hot summer Monday morning. People were hurrying to work. It would be another ordinary day, they thought, until they saw a US plane dropping a ‘parachute’, followed by a blinding flash then a loud explosion.

Tens of thousands of people were instantly killed, some of whom were said to become ‘shadows’, evaporating into the air with no trace of their existence except their ‘shadow’. Many who survived lost their human shapes – unrecognisable by their closest family – only to die within a few hours. A lot of people suffered from permanent disease caused by radioactivity.

By the time we went to school, we were already very familiar with the story. In school, we would listen to the survivors telling their personal stories. They often arranged such opportunities. A typical story goes like this:

…and then on August 6, it was a morning without a cloud in the sky. My factory was closed because of the electricity shortage, but we went to work anyway because we were going to extend the building using some wood from abandoned buildings. Some first graders in junior high school had already gone to the city centre to get the wood, but we were still at the factory waiting for our lunchboxes to arrive.

We heard a siren at around 8:00 so we moved to the shelter, but we went back to the factory because the siren was soon cancelled. It was hot. We were chatting inside the building, taking off our protective hoods when we heard someone shouting outside, ‘There’s a parachute coming down!’ No sooner had I looked back toward the window than the bare light bulb on the wall caught fire, and I saw a huge fireball that was orange or pink spreading over the next building, covering the entire sky. A strong light flashed and I was temporarily blinded. It was like thousands of camera flashes going off at the same time.

About an hour passed I think. I was shocked when we went outside: although I thought that it was just our building that had fallen down, it was actually all the factory buildings. Those who had managed to get out from the debris were trying very hard to rescue the people who were still buried inside. We joined them. They told me that those who were outside at the time of the bombing were severely burned and had already been evacuated to a nearby mountain.

I couldn’t believe what I saw on the road. It was full of people escaping from the city. The scene was horrifying: everybody was almost completely destroyed. Their clothes were torn like a feather duster and burned skin hung from their bodies; they looked like walking rags. I said ‘burned’ but I can’t possibly describe it with words. Their faces were black and swollen, so bad that I couldn’t tell where their eyes and noses were. Their arms were burned, skin falling off their hands like gloves. They were burned beyond recognition. They couldn’t possibly walk – but they were walking from the city.

I think it was around noon when the ‘black rain’ began to fall. ‘They are burning fuel oil to kill us all’, somebody said. We were panicking, but eventually the rain stopped and we became calmer. I was curious and climbed to the mountain top, hoping to see the city. I couldn’t see the Mitsubishi buildings across the river. I looked harder and they turned out to be completely demolished. I looked at the city centre and saw a lot of fires. It was only then I thought ‘Something has gone horribly wrong. The bomb could be something completely unheard of.’ I had never heard of such a thing as an atomic bomb.

Eventually, the entire city was on fire, and the sky was covered with dark smoke. A friend of mine began to cry, ‘My mum! My mum!’ He was living in the city with his mother because his father had died in the war. My other friends were extremely worried too but there were more and more people escaping from the city, so we didn’t say anything. People around me were dying. Some of the dead were carried away by their family members who came from the city to find them. I think they were luckier than most people because at least their family were able to find them.

We were too busy taking care of other people to think about our families. I told myself that my family should be all right because our home was close to Miyajima. The sun was setting and the fire was getting worse, colouring the sky red. I spent the night there among the dead bodies and the wounded. I couldn’t sleep at all but I wasn’t able to help people either.

(The next day, she walked home.) I reached home after a long walk. The roof had been ripped off and the windows blown away, but my house had retained its shape despite its horrible appearance. My mum seemed to have been worried about me and had been going outside and coming back into the house over and over again. When she saw me, she looked at me from top to bottom then bottom to top again as if she was seeing a ghost, and said, ‘Ah, you are alive’, then she hugged me. I think she had been thinking I was either dead or burned beyond recognition because all the people she had seen escaping from the city were severely injured or burned. I will never forget the taste of the suiton she made me that night.

The experience of growing up in Hiroshima was different from in any of the other places I spent my childhood. My family moved a lot; we lived in three different cities until we settled in the Tokyo area. No other cities had such intense stories of World War II. In Hiroshima, the memory of the atomic bomb was still vivid. Many survivors were still alive. Some of them were living in a hospital which specialised in A-bomb victims. We would watch documentaries in the classroom and at home on the TV. Every year on August 6, we observed a minute’s silence at 8:15 – the time the bomb was dropped.

Going into the city wasn’t possible without thinking of the war. Every time we went to the Memorial Park, a favourite local hangout spot, I would see the Atomic Bomb Dome, the famous building that retained its shape despite being fairly close to ground zero. I liked to see the half-destroyed A-bomb Dome. In my eyes as a child it looked very mysterious and stirred my imagination. The broken walls seemed to remember the day as if it had happened just a couple of years ago.

I still remember the lyrics of a song we would sing in school. It was my favourite song:

Because I wanted to be reassured that I am still alive
I’ve been walking all along from Hiroshima city
My suffering is my word, my sorrow is my rage
I walked here, dragging my wounded body

When I cover my ears, there are voices I still hear
When I close my heart, there’s love I still feel

Fly paper crane, from me to you
Fly paper crane, from you to the world

I often imagined what it would have been like to be in the city at the time the bomb was dropped. Orange lights, explosion, suffering people – the scene I was projecting in my mind was vague but sufficiently disquieting. I would carefully put myself in the situation and think of how I would have reacted, what I could have done to maximise my chance of survival, and various scenarios of what could have happened to me.

I would imagine how the city looked after the bombing. This often left me puzzled. How was it possible that I was living in a city that was supposedly destroyed not very long ago? Why were my grandparents still alive? How did people survive after they had been affected by the bomb?

My questions were endless, but, looking back, some important questions were missing: why it happened and what we can learn from it.

I was barely six at the time and might not have been ready to understand the complexity of war, but as far as I remember, these questions were never really asked throughout my whole school education in Japan. People in Hiroshima told story after story, but they failed to provide the context necessary to understand the significance of the event.

The way they teach history in Japan can partially explain the lack of understanding of modern history. Both Japanese and world history were taught in chronological order and we would always run out of time at the end of the year; we never really had time to discuss modern history in detail. This system gets criticised a lot. Even my very basic knowledge of modern history comes from the books I read after leaving school.

Later in my life, I came to realise that Japan has a lot to think about World War II. Obviously, it was a very important turning point in Japanese history but, apart from its historical significance, the whole process of the war can be seen as a good case study of Japan’s opportunistic decision-making process. This may or may not be partially responsible for the catastrophe of World War II and it hasn’t changed much since the war.

People were telling stories in Hiroshima, but they were not reflecting upon the chain of events that led to the bombing. They were sending anti-war messages, but they didn’t seem to be interested in how they could actually prevent war from happening. People in Japan are by and large anti-war, but few seem to try to understand the complexity of war.

When we finished our bundle of a thousand origami cranes, we offered it to the Memorial Park where quite literally tons of contributed origami cranes were displayed. It took us a long time to finish them. I liked origami and would do it for fun but making hundreds of the same crane felt like real work. Would I do it again? I don’t think so. It’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t do unless someone else took the initiative. But there was something memorable about it – I remember it clearly after more than 25 years – and it represents my childhood in Hiroshima.

I still know how to make an origami crane; it’s like riding a bike – I can do it without thinking. I don’t think I will ever forget it.

But knowing how to make cranes isn’t really enough.

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5 thoughts on “Growing Up in Post-war Hiroshima

  1. Ken Seeroi

    That's very moving. It's interesting to hear from someone who grew up in Hiroshima. I've been there myself a couple of times, and it's something I'll never forget. Thank you for writing this.

    Reply
    1. yuta Post author

      Thanks! It's quite interesting that Hiroshima is one of the major tourist destinations in Japan and Memorial Park is certainly part of the reason. Oddly enough, I've never been to the museum when I was living there and when I asked my mother why, she said that it was because she couldn't stand all these atrocious photos (she is the kind of person who covers her eyes whenever there's blood on TV).

      Reply
  2. Defender

    Your description of history studies in public school mimics my experience in America. We never did seem to get around to talking about Korea and Vietnam.
    Also, I just wanted to comment that this post is very Japanese. You're vaguely critical about how people think about war and the war, without actually coming out and concretely giving your own opinion. 😉

    Reply
  3. Alice

    Thanks for writing this Yuta. It's good to hear a personal side to the history.

    Teaching at school can often be about the details only and the human aspect is missing. I heard that the inventer of the atom bomb, when he had seen how it was used and the damage it had caused, was horrified and quit working as a scientist for evermore.

    There should be more humility from the American side in my opinion (but I am from Britain and I guess it is easy for me to say that).

    Regards

    Reply

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