Hiroshima's 70th: As Japan remembers nuclear bomb, rising tensions in region

In Hiroshima, the mayor called for a nuclear-free world as Japanese leader Abe and US Ambassador Kennedy looked on. The bomb killed 70,000 people instantly.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
On the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, a girl prepares to release a paper lantern onto Motoyasu River, where thousands of victims died. In the backdrop is the Atomic Bomb Dome.

Amid tolling bells, the mayor of Hiroshima today called on US President Obama and other world leaders to create a nuclear-free world in a ceremony marking 70 years since the city was destroyed and more than 100,000 killed, contributing to the end of World War II.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy were some of the 100 dignitaries who joined Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui for a commemoration and moment of silence at 8:15 a.m., the moment in 1945 when the first atomic bomb exploded 2,000 feet above the city at a downtown point where two rivers converge. Some 70,000 persons were killed instantly.

Aug. 6 and Aug. 9 are the dates that Allied forces dropped the nicknamed “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Aug. 7, then-President Harry Truman told the world simply that, “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima. It is an atomic bomb."

Mayor Matsui described nuclear weapons as "the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity" and said that the 15,000 atomic weapons still being held by world powers should be abolished, as quoted by the Associated Press.

Fateful shift

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year adds to the solemnity and sensitivity of an occasion that marked the modern world’s fateful shift to the atomic age and the possibility of the technological annihilation of humanity.

The anniversary in Asia this year has been marked by increasing tensions in the region. A rising and more assertive China that is making claims in the Pacific and the South China Sea is rattling its neighbors. Both China and Korea have accused Japan of revisionism concerning its brutal behavior during World War II, and have raised concerns about Prime Minister Abe's push to make the pacifist country a more "normal" nation in terms of its security profile.

In Japan yesterday, as the Diet debated a bill that would allow the country to have a more robust defense posture, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani crossed a usually taboo line, saying that Japan is theoretically capable of supplying nuclear weapons as a form of ammunition if needed. Mr. Nakatani said that under proposed laws, Japan can’t deliver weapons but could deliver ammunition, a classification that includes nuclear weapons. Nakatani then clarified that, “As our country does not possess nuclear weapons, we cannot provide them. It could never happen,” in an account in the Asahi Shimbun.

The comments caused an uproar in the Diet. Japan has been avowedly pacifist for 70 years under US military protection. 

However, Japan may begin to supply Philippines with tactical aircraft to patrol the South China Sea, news sources told Reuters today.

The need to remember

In Japan, a 70th anniversary is revered with poems and pomp since in earlier days it was an achievement to reach that age, as noted in a Huffington Post column today that also decried proliferation and points out that, “Around 1,800 nuclear weapons remain on "hair-trigger alert.”

The New York Times marked the Hiroshima anniversary by describing concerns in Japan that even the epochal Hiroshima event is being forgotten and describing a small program in which a younger Japanese person teams up for three years in close proximity with a survivor of the atomic blast and then acts as a “guardian” of their memory and offers an oral history about why it should not be repeated. 

“Even in Hiroshima, memories are fading,” said Hidemichi Kawanishi, a history professor at Hiroshima University. There has been much hand-wringing, he said, over a survey released this week by NHK, the national public broadcaster, showing that 30 percent of the city’s residents could not name the date the bomb was dropped. (Nationwide, 70 percent could not cite the date.)

It is a trend that many survivors and their denshosha [the designated transmitter of his memories] would like to reverse, or at least slow. Ms. Kinoshita has spent years at Mr. Hasai’s side as he has addressed groups of students, educators and visitors to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, near the skeletal monument of its Atomic Bomb Dome.

There are an estimated 200,000 survivors still living of the two atomic blasts in Japan.

In an in-depth report on the 70th anniversary, The Christian Science Monitor talked with one survivor, Sunao Tsuboi, an engineering student who had been on his way to class when the bomb exploded on the morning of Aug. 6. His account today is reminiscent of those by writer John Hersey in “Hiroshima,” compiled in 1946 and offering the world the first up-close account of the impact of weapons of mass destruction: 

Okinawa had fallen to American troops, but Mr. Tsuboi doubted that Japan’s defeat was imminent. “I firmly believed the emperor was God, and I was ready to die for him,” he says. Suddenly the young man was swept off his feet and hurled 30 feet by a deafening blast – the fury from the first use of an atomic bomb in history.

 “Before I hid my face in my hands I saw a brilliant rosy-silver flash of light,” he recalls. He was briefly knocked out. “Then I found myself lying on the sidewalk, burned from head to toe. I couldn’t see anything except for smoke and dust.”

Tsuboi staggered around in a daze. Nobody helped him, and he finally collapsed. Lying prostrate, he found a small piece of rubble and used it to scrawl a last message in the dust that coated the ground so thickly: “Tsuboi died here.”

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