Nuclear fallout: The new attack on Hiroshima

Hiroshima's Peace Park stands at the site where, 56 years ago, the first atomic bomb was dropped in wartime. It's a sacred memorial and a reminder to the world of the horrors of nuclear war. Why, then, are people setting out to vandalise it? Richard Lloyd Parry reports
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The Independent Online

In the few seconds that he appears on screen, caught by a security camera, the vandal of Hiroshima appears as little more than a ghostly silhouette. It was late at night when he entered the Peace Park; there was no one about, and only the nearby Flame of Peace provided flickering illumination. The video shows a figure who is clearly male, of average height; he is carrying something as he bends to his task. But the blurred shapes reveal nothing of his clothes or features. Only one thing is distinctive about him: his walk.

In the few seconds that he appears on screen, caught by a security camera, the vandal of Hiroshima appears as little more than a ghostly silhouette. It was late at night when he entered the Peace Park; there was no one about, and only the nearby Flame of Peace provided flickering illumination. The video shows a figure who is clearly male, of average height; he is carrying something as he bends to his task. But the blurred shapes reveal nothing of his clothes or features. Only one thing is distinctive about him: his walk.

"If someone was doing a thing like that, you would expect him to be cautious, and to walk nervously," says Minoru Hataguchi, the director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, who has watched the video over and over again. "But the strangest thing is how relaxed and brazen he is."

Just before 11pm, he stepped over the low fence surrounding the Cenotaph, a few hundred yards from the spot where the world's first A-bomb to be dropped in wartime exploded on 6 August 1945. It is here that the Japanese prime minister lays a wreath in a solemn annual ceremony to mark the anniversary. Every year, millions more from all over the world travel to Hiroshima to pay their respects at the great stone casket in which the names of those killed or exposed to the bomb are recorded, 221,893 of them altogether.

The security video records the intruder leaning briefly over the casket, before he strides calmly away. The whole thing was over in 30 seconds. Half an hour later, a night watchman on his rounds found the Cenotaph dripping with thick, scarlet paint. Word quickly got round, and within hours, people of all ages had congregated at the park, where the job of cleaning up had begun. A group of elderly survivors of the bombing sat in front of the monument as the work was carried out, in silent protest. "For us, the Cenotaph is a grave for all those people who had no grave and no funeral," says 76-year-old Sunao Tsuboi, whose body is still scarred by the burns he suffered as a 20-year-old student. "Someone called to tell me at midnight, and the next morning, 80 of us met there. The paint was bright red, the colour of blood. We don't know what kind of person is doing these terrible things. But deep in my heart, I can never forgive him."

Compared to Japan's other cities, Hiroshima has few ancient temples and shrines, but in many ways it is the holiest place in the country. The various memorials to the bomb – including the Cenotaph and the skeletal Atomic Dome, the only building to survive the explosion – have acquired over the years the aura of holy sites. The annual ceremony is conducted with the solemnity of a religious ritual, and the survivors of the bomb, known as hibakusha, are priests in a secular cult of peace. For 56 years they have travelled around Japan and the world, recounting their terrible stories, and preaching a message of nuclear disarmament. But in the last few months, Hiroshima has suffered a series of what can only be described as desecrations.

Since last autumn, at least 16 separate acts of vandalism have been recorded in and around the Peace Park. They began trivially, when someone smashed up electric lamps along its perimeter. Then graffiti appeared on the park information centre and on the Atomic Dome, a UN World Heritage Site. Nearby is one of the park's most touching monuments, dedicated to the many child victims of the bomb. Every week, young visitors cover it with thousands of painstakingly folded origami cranes, symbols of hope and remembrance. In February, somebody set fire to them.

The splattering of paint on the monument happened on 5 March; since then, more lamps have been smashed. Vandalism is almost unknown anywhere in Japan; to find it here, in the heart of the self-styled City of Peace, is profoundly shocking to local people. "These are not isolated acts," says Yuji Sumida of the city government's peace- promotion division. "This is no ordinary vandalism. We regard these incidents as a challenge to the peace movement."

Who is behind them, nobody knows. The police have made no arrests and no public statements about the violations and, in the absence of official suspects, numerous theories are in circulation. Some point the finger at disgruntled Koreans. Others suspect Japanese right-wingers, or teenage members of motorbike gangs. One theory blames a single group of vandals; another, a number of unconnected individuals, copy-cats drawn by media coverage of the early incidents. Whoever is responsible, the desecrations have revealed a dark side to Hiroshima that outsiders never see. "Our city is famous all over the world as a place of peace," says Mr Sumida. "Unfortunately, it is also a city of crime and violence."

The truth is that, since the nationwide commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombs, there and in Nagasaki, Hiroshima's status as an international city of peace has been eroding. To some extent, this is inevitable. After nearly six decades, memories of Hiroshima – and of Nagasaki, three days later – are literally dying out. In 1995, 148,000 hibakusha lived in Hiroshima prefecture; five years later, 15,000 fewer were left alive. Those who remain grow weaker and sicker; many of the kataribe – "storytellers" who travel the country recounting their personal experiences of the bomb in schools – have given up.

And not only because of old age. More and more, the kataribe report indifference and downright rudeness on the part of their young audiences. Stories are common of schoolchildren chattering during the narrations; a few years ago in Nagasaki, one unruly class pelted a kataribe with boiled sweets. "If I'm addressing a big hall of kids, by the end, a third of them will be asleep," says one of the few kataribe still active, 71-year-old Hiroshi Hara. "It's not just the pupils who don't take it seriously these days, it's the teachers, too." Once Mr Hara's story was interrupted when a schoolboy hurled a chair through a plate-glass window.

Visitor figures are in long-term decline as tourists and schools opt for glamorous holidays to Hawaii or the tropical island of Okinawa, rather than in Hiroshima. In 1995, the Peace Memorial Museum had 1.55 million visitors; five years later, it was down to a million. Surveys show that fewer and fewer Japanese schoolchildren know when, or even where, the bombs were dropped, let alone why. "If you ask me who burned the origami cranes, it was someone with a resentment about school," says Mr Hataguchi, the museum's director.

But cynical impiety is not confined to the young. Few will talk openly about it, but to many Hiroshimans, the cult of peace is regarded as a positive nuisance. These days, when the city administration closes down for the annual ceremony on 6 August, the city inevitably receives complaints – about rubbish not being collected, and government offices being closed. "How long will you continue with this?" one caller asked. "More than 50 years is long enough."

There is a deeper and darker resentment about the people who used to be regarded as the heroes of Hiroshima – the hibakusha. Because of the mysterious long-term effects of radiation, the definition of a hibakusha is surprisingly broad. Anyone who was in the centre of the city when the bomb dropped, or who visited it during the two weeks afterwards, qualifies, as does anyone who was in the womb of such a person. The problem is that not all have been uniformly affected. At one end of the scale are men like Sunao Tsuboi, who was caught in the open 1,200 yards from the centre of the bomb, and whose life has been dominated by the physical suffering inflicted by it. His ears are shrivelled and torn, he is scarred all over his face and body, and he is constantly in and out of hospital. He has suffered from anaemia, angina and colon cancer, all caused by radiation.

At the other end there are people like Minoru Hataguchi. His father was killed by the blast, and his mother was exposed to it two months after he was conceived. He was born in May 1946 and is, so far, unaffected, although many others like him died through miscarriage or suffered birth defects. Both men, however, are hibakusha, and both are entitled to the considerable financial benefits that the status brings.

Almost three million people live in Hiroshima prefecture, but only the 133,000 hibakusha are entitled to free medical care throughout their lives and to a monthly pension of between 48,000 and 140,000 yen (£260 and £800) a month. In an ageing population, the potential this creates for jealousy and resentment is obvious. "There are hibakusha who show no ill effects," says Mitsuo Okamoto, a professor of Peace Studies at Hiroshima's Shudo University. "Sometimes their neighbours look at them and feel jealous, and call them hypocrites."

There are muted complaints that the peace movement is a financial liability and that Hiroshima is peddling its idealist message at the expense of more profitable kinds of self-promotion. The famous ruin of the Atomic Dome, for example, has become Hiroshima's emblem, reproduced on a thousand posters, postcards and badges, but in the natural course of events it would have crumbled away long ago. Its preservation, in the blasted state in which it was left by the bomb, requires constant maintenance and buttressing. This year, it will cost the city 146 million yen (£800,000).

"There's a cynical view that Hiroshima should have a different economic policy, that being a city of peace, it has no industrial future," says Professor Okamoto. "There's a saying you hear sometimes: 'You can't eat peace.' By which they mean, of course, that you can't make money out of it. But there are people in Hiroshima who feel isolated from the image of the city as a symbol of peace. It's a taboo to say so publicly, but there's a suspicion that these incidents at the Peace Park might be carried out by people who have that kind of grudge."

There are other suspects to add to the list. Bizarrely, in a country of such orderly politeness, Hiroshima has a terrible problem with motorbike gangs, which can be heard every night roaring around its quiet boulevards. Two years ago, they were engaged in a pitched battle with police; at the beginning of last month, tough laws were introduced to clamp down on the teenage bikers. Among the graffiti sprayed in the park were what appeared to be gang logos.

Others in the frame include right-wing ultranationalists, who demonstrate daily outside the Peace Museum and City Hall, broadcasting their anti-communist message from black sound trucks and calling for the resignation of the left-wing mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba. Or the Korean survivors of the bomb, who are engaged in a long-running legal battle with the Japanese government about their entitlement to hibakusha compensation. Recently, the dispute has come close to resolution, and most locals doubt that Koreans are responsible – although the graffiti on the Atomic Dome, in misspelled English, read "NO MORE RACIZM".

There are even mutterings that the culprits could be deranged and disaffected members of the peace movement itself. Since the 1960s, it has been split between two rival factions, both calling themselves the Hiroshima Council Against A and H Bombs – the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of peace politics. One is backed by the Communist Party, the other by moderate socialists. Their platforms are virtually indistinguishable, the two groups are divided solely by personality clashes, and the only thing they hate more than nuclear weapons is one another.

In fact, the biggest question provoked by the vandalism is not who has done this to the peace movement, but what good has the movement done for the world? Every year, on 6 August, the mayor of Hiroshima dutifully reads out his Peace Declaration; every time a nuclear test is carried out anywhere in the world, the city and its private citizens' groups bombard embassies and governments with letters of protest. And yet the tests go on and the nuclear warheads endure, each one so powerful as to make the Hiroshima bomb look like a firework.

Even within Japan, the commitment to pacifism is weakening. During the Gulf War, a furious debate was conducted about whether it was right to dispatch Japanese troops overseas – in the end, there was no agreement and the government simply made a contribution of one billion dollars. But after 11 September, the new prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, managed to get his own way without much opposition. As a result, Japanese naval ships are serving in the Indian Ocean in support of the anti-terrorism coalition, the first such mission since the Second World War and a cause of anxiety to many in Hiroshima. "Japan is less pacifist than it used to be," says Hiroshi Hara. "We no longer have a vision of the kind of nation we want to be. But as long as Japan stays under the American nuclear umbrella, why should anyone else take seriously what we say against nuclear weapons?"

The phrase that you hear again and again is heiwa boke, which literally means "peace senility" and suggests also silliness and complacency. "Japan has been at peace for so long that young people have no idea what it means to be at war," says Mr Hataguchi.

Today at the Cenotaph, all that is left of the paint attack are a few flecks of red. A new, bigger security camera scans the scene; guards patrol 24 hours a day. But no one believes the attacks are over. "I hope they catch them, but even if they do, that is not the answer," says old Mr Tsuboi. "The answer is education: to get across the message of Hiroshima to the new generation."

In the meantime, Hiroshima feels less like a city of peace, and more like a place of violence, resentment and forgetfulness.