This week marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Today marks the anniversary of an even more grotesque event – the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Three days later the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. These remain the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare.
Some 12 km² of Hiroshima were destroyed, as were around 69% of the city’s buildings. The images above, which were taken by the US military on the day, show Hiroshima before and after the bombing. Some 66,000 people are thought to have died in Hiroshima on the day; probably a similar number again died over the next four months as a result of their injuries or from radiation sickness. So fierce was the heat that people were vaporised but their shadows left upon the walls.
In the years since the dropping of the bombs, there has developed a revisionist history claiming that the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to bring about a swift end to the war. That was not how US military leaders saw it at the time. Dwight D Eisenhower, then the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, opposed the bombings on ‘two counts’: ‘First the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.’ According to the official US Strategic Bombing Survey ‘Japan would have surrendered if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated’.
Yasuhiko Shigemoto is a hibakusha, a survivor of the attack. He is also a poet. Almost all his work takes as its starting point that terrible day in August 1945. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, I interviewed Yasuhiko Shigemoto for the Independent. I am republishing here a slightly edited version of that interview, interwoven with Shigemoto’s haiku.
coming again and flying
not forgetting Hiroshima
The poetry of Yasuhiko Shigemoto is blessed with a wonderful lightness and delicacy of touch. Yet it tells also of a darkness and a terror that few of us can comprehend. Shigemoto is a hibakusha, a survivor of the A-bomb attack on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. All his poetry is an exploration of that singular event.
Shigemoto was 14 when the bomb fell. Like many other survivors, he can recall with startling clarity the exact moment it happened. ‘I was standing under a bridge over the Yamate river. I was just taking off my undershirt, to get into my working clothes. Half of my belly was exposed. Suddenly I saw a flash to the south and I felt a violent heat. My belly was covered in blisters. I was blown down by the blast. When I raised my head, all I could see was bicycles scattered around me.’
The sunset glow ―
as if still burning
Shigemoto was lucky. Hiroshima schoolchildren had been divided into work details to help preparations for a possible Allied invasion. One group was demolishing houses in the city centre to create firebreaks in case of incendiary bomb attacks. All were killed in the A-bomb blast. Shigemoto was in the second group, working in the hills at the edge of the city, digging underground caverns to relocate Hiroshima’s factories. ‘I suppose I am fortunate to have been where I was that day’, he says. ‘But sometimes I ask myself why I am still living 50 years later, when my friends have died. I still see them in my dreams.’
Still being alive
seems to be a sin for me
Within an hour of the explosion there was what Shigemoto calls ‘a procession of ghosts’ as many grievously injured people started appearing from the city centre. ‘Their skin was hanging off their bodies like tissue paper. But most horrible was the way they walked, so slowly and with their arms stretched out so that their skin would not stick together, walking with no purpose and with nowhere to go.’ The bodies of the injured piled up everywhere. ‘They were crawling with maggots’, Shigemoto remembers. ‘The flies laid their eggs in the living bodies.’
The person’s shadow
still on the stone stair
Five days after the blast he finally walked back into the city centre with a friend. ‘We walked along the river and all we could see were dead bodies, countless dead bodies on the river banks and floating in the river. The fish were still swimming but the people were dead.’ Hiroshima was famous for its clear water, so clear that the best sake in Japan was said to come from the city. The contrast between the purity of the water and the stench of death is a motif that still haunts his poetry.
Post-war Japan, says Shigemoto, was a world of crime, disorder and anarchy. Encouraged by his father, he eventually resumed his schoolwork, went on to study languages at university and became an English teacher. ‘My father had been very critical of the military government during the war. He told me to learn English, which had been banned by the authorities because it was the language of the enemy, so I would know better what was going on in the world.’
How they could bear witness to such unspeakable horror – if they could,indeed, if they should – became a central concern of twentieth century artists and writers and poets. ‘There can be no poetry after Auschwitz’, Theodor Adorno wrote. But for many others it was only through poetry that one was able to make sense of tragedy that seemed beyond the ken of reason.
Writing, for Shigemoto, became a means of coming to terms with his experience. ‘Writing is a kind of healing’, he says. Eventually he came to write poetry, in haiku.
A winter crow
caws and leaves
the A-bomb Dome
Haiku is a traditional Japanese form, usually in three parts and with 17 syllables. Its power and beauty arises from the evocation in each brief verse of a single riveting image. In the 1980s, the British poet James Kirkup came across Shigemoto’s work and encouraged him to publish it. The result is his book, My Haiku of Hiroshima. The images here are angry and sorrowful, sometimes even humorous, but always moving.
Shigemoto fears that, 50 years on, the memories, and with them the lessons, of Hiroshima are fading. ‘Even in Japan’, he says, ‘many people do not understand about Hiroshima. There is much prosperity in Japan today but many people have forgotten the past. It is important never to forget the past, so we can build the future differently.’
floating lit paper lanterns
not knowing Hiroshima