SYNOPSIS:  About the obligatory visit to the Peace Museum and Peace Park in Hiroshima.  A few comparative thoughts about Hiroshima and Dresden. 

Hiroshima conjures up one single thing:  The A-Bomb.  Yet, when you arrive here, there is a modern, striving town and if you would not know where you are, you would never think of the disaster that struck here on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 AM.  Coming from Dresden, another town that was erased in one single night, February 13, 1945, I have always had an affinity for Hiroshima.  I felt that it would be like a sister city.

There are similarities indeed.  But there are also significant differences.  Especially when I lived in Dresden during the early 1980’s, the scars of that event in 1945 where still everywhere.  Because of the financial limitations and the ideological bent imposed by the East German government, rebuilding was slow and focused on housing rather than churches or historic monuments with the exception of the Zwinger, rebuilt shortly after the war with Russian support (so we were told).  When in the 1980’s the Opera was reconstructed at great expense that seemed almost out of character and was a welcome surprise.  Now, after unification, the rebuilding of Dresden has taken unprecedented dimensions exemplified by the completion of the iconic Frauenkirche in 2005 following historic principles and the rebuilding of the entire historic centre of Dresden and the Palace, based on paintings by the famous Italian painter Canaletto.  I have serious reservations about this approach as it pretends in architectural terms, that nothing ever happened.  But each time I see the progress around the Frauenkirche I am in awe as well.  I guess I am of two minds on this issue.

Hiroshima seems to have been able to rebuild almost immediately.  But rebuilding here did not mean to revive historic buildings, but to replace the old town with a new, independent, and modern one.  History was erased here along with human lives.  I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t a distinct cultural difference in the attitude towards the old between Europe and Japan.  In Europe we value the old.  In Japan, old temples dating back centuries have repeatedly been rebuilt as a sign of honour, or castles have just been repoured out of concrete, the one in Hiroshima a prime example!  New wood for the deities seems to be the motto.  Old or concrete — who cares?, seems to be another one.  Now is that better than the Dresden approach?

The most striking visible symbol of the attack is the Atomic Bomb Dome.  There was a municipal building designed in 1915 by a Chech architect;  it was situated in the epicentre of the attack.  By some miracle it was one of the few buildings within miles that had any walls left standing.  In 1996, it became part of the UNESCO cultural heritage site of Hiroshima.  It has a striking skeletal iron dome and a ghostly shell of its former self.  Embedded in the modern skyline of Hiroshima it forms a striking contrast.

Both Dresden and Hiroshima are cities in which citizens understandably feel strongly about world peace.  During my East German years in Dresden, I was always impressed by the ritual of lighting candles at the ruins of the Frauenkirche during the night of February 13. This was not a government-sponsored activity; in fact, the officials looked at the citizens with great suspicion as it was clear that the lighting of the candles was as much a memorial to the past as it was a criticism of the present hostilities and militarization during the Cold War; a direct poke at the powers to be.

Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Hall is a museum dedicated as much if not more to nuclear world disarmament as it is to the memory of August 6th.  That aspect was a surprise to me.  Many other parts of the museum were moving, yet also predictable:  artifacts surviving the attack, horrifying pictures of survivors, statistics, a recreation of a small portion of town, etc.  In fact, the recently opened Museum at Ground Zero in New York commemorating the victims of the 9/11 attack seems to employ a similar approach.  But I have not seen it yet, so I can’t be sure.

Peace Park is filled with other small symbolic icons:  the children’s monument, an eternal flame, the peace gates, a sculpture of a mother fleeing with her two children; a memorial dedicated to the Korean forced labourers present at the city; a peace bell that is struck by visitors; a memorial commemorating the unidentified victims, etc.  It is a spacious and tranquil place with many benches always within sight of the A-Bomb Dome.

Critics of the memorial and the Japanese attitude have pointed out that the responsibility of the Japanese in WWII is not stressed enough.   I can’t fully judge this.  That the Japanese were involved in the war on the aggressor’s side is mentioned here and there.  Is it stressed enough?  I know from my Dresden experience that I never met any survivor or anyone living Dresden who blamed the British-American forces for this attack.  Germans were fully aware of their role and their guilt in WWII.  It did not have to be stressed any further.  Germans were not the victims, but the aggressors even though the actual victims in Dresden were women and children, the elderly and prisoners of war.  Interestingly, in Tokyo I had a brief talk about this issue with a young woman of about 25.  She did mention that the Japanese have to embrace their role as aggressors a lot more and stop looking at themselves as victims.

But in both cases, I was surprised to see that right-wing Japanese as well as Neo-Nazis  in Germany, are seizing opportunities in each of these towns to attempt to reverse course:  In Hiroshima, part of the Memorial Cenotaph which states “to never repeat the error” was once covered with pro-Japan graffiti.  In Dresden, even worse, Neo-Nazis from all over the country congregate now annually at a parade in Dresden to proclaim the innocence of the victims and implicitly (yet not overtly) the greatness of the Hitler regime.  Unfortunately, the 500 Neo-Nazis who descend on Dresden get all the press whereas the 5000 Dresden citizens who now organize annually in counter-demonstrations are hardly mentioned internationally …  Hiroshima on the other hand, seems to have managed to become a magnet for peace talks and peace demonstrations at the annual commemoration of the A-Bomb attack.

But one difference as small as it seems struck me: above that Memorial Cenotaph — conceived in the form of an ancient Japanese Haniwa Shrine — there, proudly displayed, is the Japanese flag.  That would be inconceivable in Germany.  For better or worse, German nationalism has been “beaten out” of many of us, especially on the East German side, especially in the older generation down to mine, the third one.

And so, with more questions and observations than answers, I will say good night.

P.S.  I was grateful that most of my day was spent on even pavement.  Every time I had to go down as much as a normal step my legs were screetching!  The price to pay for yesterday’s downward mountain hike.  Perhaps, I will actually build some muscle during this trip?