How Hiroshima Rose From the Ashes

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Sunao Tsuboi thought he was one of the lucky ones. In 1945, he was 20 years old and an engineering student in Hiroshima. Two of his brothers had been killed in the war. But Tsuboi got to stay home, helping design war planes for the government. "If you studied literature," he says today, "you went to war. If you studied science and engineering, the government postponed your draft in order to have you make weapons." Tsuboi was on the way to his university on Aug. 6 when the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy over Hiroshima. He was less than a mile from ground zero, near a place to this day marked by the domed skeleton of what had been a government office building in the center of town. It was 8:15 on a bright, hot, brilliantly clear morning, and hell had arrived on earth.

He was lucky at that instant too. Had Tsuboi been any closer, he would have been incinerated, as roughly 100,000 other residents of the city were that day. No one within a half a mile of the blast survived; in the immediate vicinity, just the shells of two buildings were left standing. So shocking was the destruction that U.S. occupation authorities, who would run Japan for the next 61/2 years, seized the film of some 30 Japanese newsreel photographers who had arrived some days after the bombing to record the destruction. The Americans, fearful of inciting rebellion even after formal surrender, had no intention of letting the rest of Japan know what Hiroshima looked like.

Tsuboi, his clothes burned off and his body covered with severe burns, ran until he collapsed near an emergency treatment center on the outskirts of town. There were badly injured people all around, he recalls, "in the river, on the ground, everywhere." Many of the people who weren't killed instantly staggered aimlessly through the fires that raged throughout the wreckage. Tsuboi recalls one man with a chest wound so deep, you could see his lungs expand and contract with every breath he took.

It is hard to comprehend what the immediate aftermath must have been like in Hiroshima. There were the grim tasks of collecting the bodies and burning them, of clearing the rubble and debris. In all, 2.4 million sq. mi. had to be cleared and surveyed—a painstaking process that took four years. But after the most destructive event in the history of warfare, normalcy did return—slowly, fitfully but, eventually, resoundingly. Hiroshima today is a pleasant, prosperous city of 1.1 million people, with everyday concerns that are mostly no different from those of any other city in the developed world. One day in mid-July, Hiroshima's mayor, the M.I.T.-educated, English-speaking Tadatoshi Akiba, confesses that he is consumed at the moment with efforts to build a new baseball stadium for the city's baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. But the Bomb is the backdrop for everything that has been built here in the past six decades, from stadiums to automobile factories to shipyards. A city wiped off the map had to be rebuilt in every sense—not just physically but emotionally and psychologically as well.

Its ascent to such normalcy was never guaranteed. In the war's immediate aftermath, survivors' thoughts tended to be more about vengeance than peace. But coolers heads prevailed. The city desperately needed money, and Japan's occupation government, after repeated pleas from Hiroshima, finally agreed to permit special national subsidies to badly damaged cities as long as they had a reasonable reconstruction plan. Hiroshima International University planning professor Norioki Ishimaru says parliamentarians from Hiroshima were smart enough to know that their request could not come "with an accusing tone," lest they be turned down by General Douglas MacArthur's occupation headquarters in Tokyo.

Hiroshima officials struck on the idea of reinventing the city. They proposed the construction of a large peace memorial as the city's new anchor. The memorial eventually became the Peace Memorial Park, a graceful 30-acre site not far from ground zero, designed by the late famed Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and completed in 1954. The park's emotional centerpiece became the Peace Museum, dedicated to recalling the horror of nuclear war. Over the next two years, the occupation government gave Hiroshima the extra aid, which helped the city begin to recover--both psychologically and economically. Akiba, the current mayor, says this was one of the critical turning points in Hiroshima's recovery. The assistance created jobs and provided the city with an emotional core, something meaningful to build on ground zero.

But Japan's response to the war—and its apparent denial of its role—is still frequently criticized. To some, Hiroshima's adoption of peace as its mantra is seen as an example of the nation's unwillingness to come to grips with its history. Critics say it has allowed the aggressor in World War II to pose as the victim. That is less a problem with the U.S. than it is with Japan's neighbors, particularly China and South Korea. Relations with both are at a perilously low point and could conceivably get worse; some Japanese officials have said that a nuclear North Korea and an expanding Chinese military means Japan may someday have to consider arming itself with nuclear weapons. Nothing would infuriate its neighbors more or be a greater violation of the spirit of modern Hiroshima.

Yet even in such a contentious climate, the museum at the Peace Memorial Park—which displays grim photos of the aftermath, remnants of clothes worn by victims, a twisted tricycle ridden by a little boy when the blast hit him —presents a persuasive warning to any leader who would consider returning the world to the nuclear brink. Compared with 10 years ago, these days the museum also provides far more context about what Japan did to its neighbors during the war. It's a sign of progress, even if Japan doesn't get much credit for it. There is a trace of optimism in it—a hope that Japan can eventually reconcile its sense of history with those of its neighbors while still grieving for the people who died on Aug. 6, 1945.

Renewal and redemption, after all, are at the core of what Hiroshima, 60 years on, represents. Sunao Tsuboi, at 80, knows that better than most. Four or five years after the end of the war, he fell in love with a woman whose parents refused to let her marry him because he was a victim of the A-bomb and who knew how long he would live? In despair, the lovers tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills but failed. Eventually they got married, once it became apparent to her parents that he wasn't going to die young. They had three children and seven grandchildren. "I experienced so much pain, but I am happy now," Tsuboi says. "I can say that I am filled with happiness." — With reporting by Donald Macintyre/Seoul, Yuki Oda/Hiroshima and Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo