Glass columns remind reluctant Hiroshima of its past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am

Every August 6, the Japanese city of Hiroshima commemorates the dropping of Little Boy, the most powerful bomb ever used. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima with many hibakusha - survivors of the blast - now in their mid-70s. Due to their ill health and age, the opportunities for understanding their experiences at first-hand are rapidly diminishing.

However, to many young Japanese, the devastation of Hiroshima is already a historical event with little relevance to modern life.

'I'm not really interested in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, it happened so long ago,' says 23-year-old Tokyo hairdresser Kenji Takashima. 'That happened to my grandparents' generation and we have different things to think about.'

Mr Takashima is not alone in this thinking. Seiko Kawasaki, a 32-year-old teacher from Kyoto, explains: 'Things are so different now, and we all want to look and dress like Americans. Hiroshima is part of our history, but it is not important for us now. We should stop talking about it.'

But the mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba, disagrees. He and his post-war predecessors have dedicated themselves to ensuring that the lessons learned from the atomic bomb are remembered by all.

He explains the significance of this year's anniversary: 'The number 60 has a special meaning in Japanese and Chinese cultures, signifying the beginning of a new cycle of rhythms in the interwoven fabric that binds humankind and nature.

'Thus, it is appropriate to return to our point of departure, the unprecedented A-bomb experience.'

Mr Akiba and other city officials recognise the need to involve younger Japanese in their peace work, and stress the importance of implementing new commemorative projects to 'improve the city for future generations'.

This year, the 60th anniversary is set to be commemorated with a visually stunning and architecturally significant project intended to capture the interest of all ages: Hiroshima's Gates of Peace.

Inaugurated on July 30, the Gates of Peace were designed by creative artist Clara Halter and architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, whose previous works include the temporary Wall for Peace (2000) on Paris' Champs de Mars, which faced the Eiffel Tower, and the Peace Tower (2004) in St Petersburg, commemorating the city's 300th anniversary.

The first impression of the Gates of Peace is their sheer size. Ten separate, nine-metre-high arches of transparent glass rise over a 93-metre engraved stone base. Highly visible, it is well used by pedestrians along Hiroshima's Peace Promenade opposite the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a 122,100-square-metre landscape designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange at the site immediately below where the atomic bomb exploded. The park includes several monuments, the Peace Memorial Museum, and the International Conference Centre Hiroshima. Ms Halter and Mr Wilmotte drew their inspiration from the building pattern of the Peace Memorial Museum, also created by Mr Tange in the aftermath of the atomic bomb.

Mr Wilmotte says the number, height and positioning of the gates 'establishes a dialogue between the two monuments and creates a tension between the two sides of Hiroshima city's main road, in line with the dome that stigmatises the power of the bomb'.

Closer examination of the intriguing promenade-monument reveals the word 'peace' inscribed on the arches in 49 languages and 18 alphabets including Greek, Arabic and Braille, to reflect the desire for peace across all cultures and societies. The inscription is negative on the outer facades of the arches and positive on the inner framework, providing a unique tactile experience. Each gate is also illuminated at night by powerful light projectors built into the base of the structure.

'The graphism created by the repetition of the word 'peace' in 49 languages and 18 alphabets adds to the notion of continuity,' says Mr Wilmotte. 'The endless lines round the pillars of the arches reinforce this image. On the ground, the huge, almost illegible words give a dimension of timelessness, of infinity to the monument.'

It is hoped the Gates of Peace will 'communicate a powerful tribute to the tireless effort of this city to fulfil its mission of lasting world peace to the many people from around the world who will visit Hiroshima', says a city official, explaining the role Hiroshima has played since 1949, when it was rebuilt almost from scratch as a 'peace memorial city'.

In addition to its issue of written protests when nuclear tests are undertaken, Hiroshima holds a Peace Memorial Ceremony in the park every August 6, to pray for the peaceful repose of the victims, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and reaffirm its year-long commitment to lasting world peace.

The city's inhabitants are uniquely positioned to understand the importance of peace. Before the atomic bomb was dropped at precisely 8.15am on that historic day in 1945, the full impact of nuclear warfare on humans had never been experienced.

Little Boy exploded 580 metres over Nakajima, an urban district of about 3,500 inhabitants close to the city centre. At the instant of detonation, an enormous fireball - described by survivors as kinoko gumo (the mushroom cloud) - was created in the air, and within seconds, grew to a diameter of 280 metres.

The bomb also generated a massive shockwave that travelled 11 km within 30 seconds, flattening everything in its wake. Temperatures at the hypocentre reached 5,000 degrees Celsius, instantly vaporising people and leaving nothing but the image of their shadows scorched on the concrete where they had once stood.

The exact number of deaths from the atomic bombing is still unknown because all records were lost in the attack, but the City of Hiroshima's post-war archives say the number of dead at the end of December 1945, when the acute effects of radiation poisoning had largely subsided, was about 140,000 from a population of about 350,000.

About 50 per cent of people within 1.2km of the hypocentre are estimated to have died that day. In the area approaching the hypocentre, 80 to 100 per cent died instantly.

Many more would continue to die over the following years from radiation sickness while others committed suicide rather than become an A-bomb statistic.