Has Hiroshima become too "normal"?

Scrutinizing culture.
March 25 2008 1:46 PM

Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima

Has the ground zero of the nuclear age become too "normal"?

Hiroshima at night. Click image to expand.
Modern-day Hiroshima

Welcome to the Hotel Hiroshima. That's what my AmEx travel itinerary called it: "Hotel Hiroshima." I don't know whether this was the official name of the hotel I was booked in to. It may, more mundanely, have been shorthand for "Hotel in Hiroshima." Or it may have been the name before it was changed to what it calls itself now: "The Crowne Plaza Hiroshima," part of the global chain that has joined other American chains in this shiny rebuilt city.

There's a Hiroshima KFC, a Hiroshima Mickey D's (perfect place for a Happy Meal, right?), a Hiroshima Starbucks, and a Hiroshima FedEx-Kinko's.

Advertisement

There is a special kind of bleakness in the fluorescent hell of the all-night Hiroshima Kinko's, believe me. I spent a sleepless predawn hour there beginning to write this column.

Just try saying it—"The all-night Kinko's of Hiroshima"—and you'll see what I mean. Unfortunately, you can't read what I wrote there, because when I tried to save a draft of my lede on this dual-language keyboard, I discovered you can't save in English, and this is all I found:

h‚"‚"‚ˆ‚…‚'‚…?@‚??@‚‚‚Œ‚…‚‹‚?‚…‚'?@‚?‚Œ‚?‚ƒ‚…?@‚?‚Ž?@‚…‚?‚'‚"‚ˆ?@‚"‚ˆ‚?‚Ž?@‚"‚ˆ‚…?@‚?‚Œ‚Œ‚Ž‚‰‚‡‚ˆ‚"?@‚j‚‰‚Ž‚‹‚?‚"?@‚‰‚Ž?@‚g‚‰‚'‚?‚"‚ˆ‚‰‚?‚??H‚h?@‚ˆ‚?‚?‚…?@‚Ž‚?‚"?D?@

I was never able to recapture the original lede, which is perhaps best for all concerned since I believe it sought to evoke the doomed romanticism of the 1960 Alain Resnais new-wave classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour,and Hiroshima no longer seems to have the hold on our imagination it did back then, during the Cold War balance of terror. Not in the Beckett-like bleakness of the Hiroshima FedEx-Kinko's. Still, the name (Hiroshima, not Kinko's) has a disturbing numinous power.

My Amex itinerary listed my room in the Hotel Hiroshima this way: "1 KING BED SMOKING CITY." SMOKING CITY! Turns out "CITY" was shorthand for "city view." But do I need to spell out why I find the name Hotel Hiroshima so resonant? Sure, you hate the Eagles. It's practically a cultural requirement that you do (sometimes I think everybody but me does, but then again, the Eagles seem to sell a lot of music). Still—admit it—there are some lines that will last. Like the one from "Hotel California": "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

So it is with the Hotel Hiroshima. We checked in to a metaphoric Hotel Hiroshima—"we" as a culture—on Aug. 6, 1945, when the 16-kiloton atomic weapon detonated about 800 meters over a hospital here. (The hospital wasn't the ostensible target; a nearby bridge was, but needless to say, the hospital and all those in it were vaporized.) Nearly 100,000 people died instantly or within hours from the original blast and the firestorms that followed (by the end of 1945, 140,000 were dead). Estimates of those who died over a longer period from radiation sicknesses, from radiation-induced cancers, and other disease sequela range far upward.

We checked in to the First Nuclear Age that day in 1945, and yes, sometimes we check out, in the sense of repressed memory, willed or unconscious denial, cultural amnesia. It's happened for prolonged periods after the end of the Cold War. That all-too-brief "holiday from history" some called it.

So yes, we've checked out, but it doesn't look like we're ever going to leave: The nuclear weapons are still there—thousands of them under the badlands of the Dakotas and the trans-Ural steppes and the sands of the Middle East, all still armed and ready. As they say in "Hotel California," in a phrase that never made sense to me until now, "We are all just prisoners here/ of our own device."

And Hiroshima is still here to remind us of what happened when we first unleashed our "device" and how it can never happen again—supposedly.

That's what everyone says after visiting Hiroshima, the statesmen and citizens who sign the guest book at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. We will never forget. But maybe we will. The very fact that Hiroshima is thriving with its KFC and Starbucks, with the carefully manicured lawns of its "Peace Memorial Park"—the only evidence that hell was unleashed here—may have the opposite, anodyne effect. This is not John Hersey's Hiroshima, the Hiroshima of the horrific immediate aftermath, but is to a certain extent a Hiroshima that says a nuclear detonation is a transient thing, something that's eminently recoverable from with a little time and some good landscaping.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.