Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Tourists flock there to see “the most destructive force ever created by humankind.” But the Japanese city wants people to look beyond the bomb.
This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.
The skeletal ruins of the Genbaku Dome still look just as they did after an atomic bomb leveled virtually everything else around them. The crumbling walls, preserved now for more than seven decades, serve as part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a reminder of how “the most destructive force ever created by humankind” devastated Japan in World War II.
That devastation is often the full extent of what tourists take away from a visit to Hiroshima. Few who come to the memorial see images of the so-called A-Bomb Dome from before August 6, 1945—the day the bomb was dropped. The same goes for other remnants of the destruction, including the Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum and the old Bank of Japan Hiroshima. Even less is learned about their significance to daily life back then.
As Hiroshima maintains its status as a popular destination for “dark tourism,” (think Auschwitz, the 9/11 Memorial, and Chernobyl) the city wants to do more to promote itself as a symbol of peace, rather than devastation.
Part of what draws people to the Genbaku Dome is its eerie, dilapidated appearance—an empty shell of what was once a bustling industrial hall for traders—that is symbolic of the more than 100,000 men, women, and children who died. A popular dark tourism website advises visitors that “a quick look won't take more than a few minutes,” before doling out suggestions about how to photograph it.
But the city wants the dome, and the memorial park just across the Ota River, to be more than just a look-see kind of destination. “We'd like visitors to deeply learn the realities of damage caused by the atomic bombing and stay in Hiroshima longer to do sightseeing," one official told local news site The Mainichi. In the city’s latest effort do this, it’s dedicating $85,000 to develop an educational mobile app, to be released on the bombing’s 72nd anniversary in August. Something like a reference guide, the app will serve up pre- and post-war photos of the sites along Hiroshima’s peace trails, along with detailed explanations in English, The Mainichi reports.
From wasteland to peace symbol
The atomic bomb destroyed some 92 percent of the city’s 76,000 buildings, flattening much of the city and leaving the ground covered in ashes, rubble, and bodies. Anything left standing—trees, telephone poles, buses, and streetcars—were charred beyond recognition. It was a scene that surviving reporters at the local Chugoku Shimbum (whose headquarters went up in flames) could only describe as “truly a living hell.”
Much of the city government had been killed, including the mayor, and the few alive were scrambling to restore basic services, care for the wounded, and find shelters for survivors. The hypocenter where the bomb was dropped, according to The Guardian, basically became a shanty town lined with 10,000 wooden shacks.
But even as the city was coming to terms with the damage, it was attracting visitors. The first American soldiers landed in September 1945, just weeks after the bombing, and while they were initially dressed in full battle gear—unsure of what hostility they were going to encounter—troops eventually began arriving with cameras instead of guns.
“The first narrative promoted by America in military tourism was that it was a city and a sight of ruin, where you come and see the awesome, mighty power of the bomb,” says Ran Zwigenberg, a historian at Penn State University and the author of Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture.
In an essay looking at old tourist guides for the American Quarterly, he points to a 1946 booklet by the U.S. Army that dubbed Hiroshima as “The Atomic City” and trumpeted panoramic views of what it essentially described as a nuclear wasteland:
The guidebook pointed visitors to “freakish phenomena” and the “unique effects of radiation” on materials (which, significantly, the guidebook does not present as potentially dangerous to visitors). Visitors were told to look for “pieces of roofing tiles blistered by the ash,” which, it explained, was “in excess of 3,000 degrees Celsius,” the fusion point of clay. At another point, the guidebook suggests that tourists viewing a marble statue exposed to the bomb stop and “touch and feel how smooth the finish effected by the heat,” as if they were walking through a science museum.
Meanwhile, as reconstruction efforts began, Hiroshima officials were trying to carve out a more positive identity. In envisioning a new city, the local poet Sankichi Tōge proposed that the city build a memorial park, filled with memorials, a museum, a library, and plenty of green space. The city was to be reborn as the center of world peace. Attractions would emphasize how Hiroshima overcame the atomic bombing and how its experience can benefit the greater world.
“There was a genuine enthusiasm for pacifism in Japan as a whole and in Hiroshima,” says Zwigenberg, who traveled to and from Hiroshima for 10 years to do his research. “The idea that something good must come out of it, for people in Hiroshima—a lot of survivors, even—it gave them meaning.”
Yet with a budget of just under 1 million yen in 1946, city officials didn’t have enough to rebuild basic infrastructure. Roads alone would cost nearly 1 billion yen. Relief eventually came in 1949, when Japan signed the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Reconstruction Law, which allocated special funding and military land to fast-track the efforts. (Even so, construction of the park didn’t go smoothly: the city displaced thousands of residents in the process.)
But Zwigenberg says the government, despite all its efforts to promote peace at Hiroshima, acknowledged that what continues to draw visitors to Hiroshima is the appeal of dark tourism. Even as some survivors voiced their objection back in the early post-war years, the city chose to preserve some of its ruins—but spoke of them as if the bombing happened in a distant past. Official guidebooks from that time included candid references to the horrors of the bombing, and featured images of the “Atomic Cloud” at the site where the bomb was dropped. And in a 1956 essay defending the preservation, a member of the Hiroshima Tourism Association admitted that the “miracles” that people came to see were merely artifacts like “the bricks that were melted by the heat”—an observation that holds true even now.
Peace tourism, driven by tech
The “peace tourism” initiative lives on today, spearheaded by governor Hidehiko Yuzaki of the Hiroshima prefecture. He hopes to use the popular tourist destination to advocate against nuclear warfare. “The basic danger of nuclear weapons is on the humanitarian impact, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only two places where you can actually feel it, so the venue or place is very important,” Yuzaki told Huffington Post last year.
The initiative, which includes the latest app development, comes at a time when the peace memorial is gaining a record number of foreign visitors. The latest statistics show that nearly a million and a half people visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2015, roughly 340,000 of whom are international tourists. Officials are expecting even more this year, after Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the site last May.
It also comes at a time, however, when that call for peace feels increasingly threatened. Globally, there’s heightened anxiety over the post-war world order as the European Union teeters, the new U.S. president questions the value of NATO and the United Nations, and an emboldened Russia flexes its muscles. At home, the policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are often at odds with Hiroshima’s call for nuclear disarmament—what some worry is a fading stance as survivors of the bomb dwindle in population.
“In a couple years there aren't going to be any survivors left,” says Zwigenberg. “So this is also a crucial time for talking and thinking about what happened.”
For Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was also bombed in the war, technology serves as a solution—even if it turns out to be temporary one. While Hiroshima’s app is focused on tourists, Nagasaki researchers last year released a virtual reality project that lets primary school students walk amongst the rubble of the bomb’s hypocenter. As students stroll through modern-day Nagasaki, 3D modeling and archival photos provide a chance to relate today’s streets to the devastation that occurred decades ago.
In 2016, Tokyo Metropolitan University hosted several U.S.-Japan peace conferences that brought together high school students from Tokyo, New York City, and Boston to study the bombings using digital mapping technology. Students in Tokyo pored over Hiroshima and Nagasaki Archive and with survivors to create an interactive map that detailed the aftermath of the war.
In fact, mapping projects that document where people lived and what shops existed go back to the 1950s and ‘60s, Zwigenberg says. “From what I know talking to people last year in Japan, the survivors are more concerned about the city that they lost,” he says. “That's something that gets lost in conversations, because we’re so focused on the destruction.”
The aim in these project is to create a digital memory that can be shared across the globe. The hope: to remember that while the bombing itself may be "pretty quick"—as President Donald Trump once put it—the impacts are long lasting.