Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima
Has the ground zero of the nuclear age become too "normal"?
And it's true that after 60 or so years, one 16-kiloton blast can be virtually erased, physically at least. But not metaphysically, since it represented the moment the bright line that separated war from nuclear war had been crossed for the first time.
That's why the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, set in the middle of an otherwise "normalized" city, on the very site of the blast, seems strained at times. It bears a disproportionate responsibility: to the memory of the victims and to legions of potential victims that stretch into the nuclear future.
No nuclear weapons have been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is it because Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so horrific? Some will even say many more "devices" would have been used by now or millions more people would have died in conventional wars had not Hiroshima and Nagasaki been savagely sacrificed in a way that showed the world a glimpse of the horror that awaits us if we don't remember what happened to those two cities.
At the time of Hiroshima, one nation had nuclear weapons. Now there are upward of nine, not counting "nonstate actors" who may or may not possess some kind of nuclear device, stolen or purchased from the notorious A.Q. Khan's nuclear bazaar. And nuclear threats have once again become common currency, as have the terms "World War III" and "Third World War."
The resurgence of nuclear-war talk and nuclear-war threat has been preoccupying me lately in various forms. And so when another obligation brought me to Tokyo, it was impossible to resist the temptation to visit the place where the bright line was crossed, a place that has shadowed my life but long been subsumed in mythology ever since Hersey's matter-of-fact immediate postwar reportage was eclipsed—in some respects, anyway—by the estheticizing atmospherics of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a film in which a Japanese architect and a French woman fall in love in postwar Hiroshima. (Mass nuclear death can really cause problems in a relationship.) The film gave us Hiroshima as a metaphor of romanticized doom. I wanted to see it as a city.
Indeed, I admit my surprise when the first thing that happened as I entered the lobby of the Hotel Hiroshima was that I blundered into a bridal party: It turns out the Hotel Hiroshima is a big bridal center featuring banquet rooms, photo studios, and wedding chapels. The bride was beautiful in a dark blue dress—life goes on and all that. But the city is cursed with irony: I couldn't resist the words of '50s horror-movie lingo intruding themselves into my consciousness: "Bride of Hiroshima!"
It's the unfortunate truth that no matter how big and bustling and modern this city has become, it will always be Hiroshima. When I reached my SMOKING CITY room in the Hotel Hiroshima and found myself hungry for a snack before proceeding to the Peace Memorial Park, I found the room service menu listing an entree described thusly: "Hiroshima's famous fried vegetable and meat pancakes." Oh, so that's what the city is famous for—the pancakes.
But seriously, being here in Hiroshima in the 21st century in what you might call the Second Nuclear Age (the First ended when the Cold War did) raises or exacerbates questions I've been thinking about. How much did what happened here (and three days later in Nagasaki) shape our age? It did once, certainly, but does Hiroshima as a metaphoric city of nuclear death still reign over the age in the same way? Do we still think of it as the future the way it was/is in all those bad Beat poems of the '50s and '60s? Or did Hiroshima's fallout, so to speak, turn out to have a shorter half-life than we imagined? Does it only half-live in memory now, unlike the way it did in the age of Hiroshima, Mon Amour? Or have recent events restored its power to disturb?
The city still raises questions about the nature of the nuclear age. What made the bright line between nuclear mass slaughter and non-nuclear mass slaughter so bright? Was it the radiation, in its invisible insidiousness and—more importantly—in the longevity of its deadliness?
Why are the civilian wartime deaths in Hiroshima different from all other civilian wartime deaths—if they are? How does one compare them with the deaths in the firebombing of Tokyo, where just as many or more died immediately. To Dresden? To Auschwitz, too? Has it numbed us to civilian casualties in places like Vietnam and Iraq? Was Hiroshima a logical outcome of wartime exigency or a war crime? It's the ground zero of ground zeroes for such questions. It's a site of mourning that has lessons for subsequent sites of mourning.
Consider 9/11 in that light. Seven and a half years and two wars ago and nothing! Not a single memorial, because the obscene vanity of celebrity architects and developers and the obscene self-promotion of credit-seeking politicians has combined with the conflicting demands of "survivor groups" to utterly paralyze the process of agreeing on anything. (I've long argued that the best memorial would be the raw gaping hole in the earth at Ground Zero—no need for words!)
At Hiroshima, they have the opposite problem. Over the years, Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park seems unable to say no to any memorial tchotchke someone wants to implant on its acres of rolling grass. The map I picked up at the Peace Memorial Park Museum lists no fewer than 74 individual monuments, memorials, cairns, and crypts in the park.
The first thing you notice when you glance over the list of memorials are the number that use the word peace. Like an incantation. One can find the "Peace Clock Tower," the "Peace Bell" (one of two Peace bells—I rang them both), the "Stone Lantern of Peace," the "Figure of the Merciful Goddess of Peace," the "Peace Cairn," the "Children's Peace Monument," the "Flame of Peace," (which "won't be extinguished until all the nuclear weapons are abolished from the earth"—good luck with that). Then there's the Pond of Peace, the Fountain of Peace, the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall, the Peace Tower, the Peace Memorial Post, the Statue of Peace, the Camphor Tree planted to Commemorate the First Peace Festival, the Prayer Monument for Peace, the Prayer Haiku Monument for Peace.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Hiroshima by Charles Voogd. Photograph of nuclear bomb on Slate's home page courtesy AP Photo/U.S. Air Force.