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Remembering the past at Hiroshima’s Peace Park

From this once-ravaged city, Japanese paper cranes took flight to become universal symbols of peace

Tourists at the Atomic Bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park in Japan in 2010. Photo: iStockphoto
Tourists at the Atomic Bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park in Japan in 2010. Photo: iStockphoto

Hiroshima: The name is heavy with images of bombs, burns, brutality. But walking through this Japanese city today, it’s the tens of thousands of hand-folded paper cranes that stand out. Skeins of colourful tsuru (cranes) adorn everything from the memorials to those affected by the August 1945 nuclear bombing, to okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) restaurants.

While cranes have always been associated with longevity and luck in Japan, it is because of a young girl, Sadako Sasaki, who survived the explosion but died a decade later of radiation-related leukaemia, that their symbolism has become so potent. A Japanese legend has it that anyone who folds 1,000 paper cranes will have their wishes heard. While lying sick in hospital, young Sadako desperately folded tsuru in hope of a reprieve. She failed, but her cranes took wing nonetheless. In the decades since, tens of millions of cranes have been folded by schoolchildren, world leaders and ordinary citizens from around the world, as an affirmation of the desire for peace and atonement.

Hiroshima is an unusual tourist destination. It is not for fun or beauty that some two million people make the trip to the port city every year, making it one of Japan’s most popular sites. On any given day, thousands of international visitors throng the 120,000 sq. m Peace Memorial Park that is the fulcrum of Hiroshima’s tourist itinerary. Designed by Pritzker Prize winner Kenzō Tange, it is an astonishing architectural achievement, where the space itself is an emotion, a prayer.

Walking through and around its museum, hall of remembrance, bridges, ponds, cenotaph and green spaces aflame with spring flowers is an experience in psychogeography. It provokes complex emotions and allows them to be processed in a communal way. There is scarcely a dry eye; boisterous children turn contemplative. You feel like reaching out to hug the overwhelmed stranger standing next to you. You want to fold a crane.

Exact numbers are debated, but between 60,000-80,000 people were killed instantly by the bombing. The heat generated by the bomb was so intense that some people simply vanished in the explosion. Tens of thousands more died of the long-term effects of radiation and the final death toll is calculated at 120,000-140,000.

At the museum, an array of artefacts speaks louder of the human consequences of war than any words. There are “School Trousers", a wretchedly tattered pair that belonged to Naoki Mikami, a young boy who was attending morning assembly in his schoolyard at the moment of the explosion. He died 4 hours after managing to stagger back home. There is a piece of “White Wall Stained by the Black Rain". The “black rain" was radioactive dust and soot mixed with water vapour that fell on Hiroshima soon after the bomb was detonated. And there are paper cranes donated by Masahiro and Shigeo Sasaki: Sadako’s brother and father.

Wandering the peace memorial and its precincts are dozens of volunteers, dressed in distinctive green shirts. They have maintained the deep links between the local community and the park, distributing maps, answering questions, and offering guided tours of the museum. Mostly elderly, they keep the park meticulously clean, swooping down on stray pieces of trash and errant weeds.

At one end of the park, a large gong, the Peace Bell, invites visitors to strike it. On 6 August, it is sounded at 8.15am, the precise time that the bomb was dropped. But, on other days, passers-by are encouraged to sound it for themselves, in the hope that the reverberations “ring to all corners of the earth", bringing the message of peace and renewal with them. Made from the metal of destroyed firearms, the bell was donated to Hiroshima by the Greek embassy in 1964. It bears inscriptions in Greek and Japanese, but also Sanskrit. I can only make out snatches: “..pravaji naamdheyu kshipra....siya balpraptu loknaath...."

The surface of the bell is covered with a borderless map of the world. Apposite, for Hiroshima reminds us that we are all victims, we are all aggressors, and that we all bear the responsibility for ensuring that we remember so as not to repeat the tragedies of history.

Before leaving, I fold a paper crane and leave it among the colourful mass of origami that a special memorial to children affected by the bomb is draped in.

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