At one point on the road towards the city centre, the traffic had been halted to make way for a procession of around a hundred people. Many of them wore Buddhist robes, and together they were pulling a long metal frame with a wooden trailer at one end. According to the leaflets they were handing out this was Stonewalk Japan, and the trailer contained a seven-hundred-kilogramme memorial stone that was to be placed at a church in Hiroshima. Several of the participants had lost family members in the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, and their pilgrimage was in honour of the many and nameless civilian casualties of war. Having already taken in parts of the USA and the British Isles, this was the final day of a six-hundred-kilometre trek from Nagasaki in western Kyushu, and seeing such selfless dedication to a physical task put my own rather inconsequential summer holiday in its proper perspective.
I was heading for Heiwa-Kinen-Koen, or the Peace Memorial Park, which today was dominated by a newly erected stage, and echoed with voices and music for a sound check before hundreds of empty seats. These would be filled the day after tomorrow with a host of world leaders and dignitaries, although a few hundred metres away stood a more permanent reminder of the events of 6th August 1945, in the Peace Memorial Museum.
As nations, we have all committed barbaric acts in wartime, but in dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima – in using hundreds of thousands of human beings as guinea pigs for what was effectively a scientific experiment in mass murder – the Allies conceded the moral high ground to Japan. From the moment of its destruction, Hiroshima became a symbol not only of the lethal power of nuclear weapons, but of our own barbarism in being the first and only people to use them in anger. No matter that more Japanese were killed through conventional firebombing elsewhere in the country, and no matter that they too had perpetrated all kinds of atrocities on Chinese and Singaporean civilians. In being chosen as the first target for the atomic bomb, Hiroshima came to represent a defining moment in human history: the point at which we crossed over into the nuclear age, and when even if the bomb was never used again, its mere existence had changed the way we looked at the world. A second bomb was indeed dropped on Nagasaki, but there is much less awarness of that city in the public consciousness, something that demonstrates how we grant significance to events based on their symbolism, as opposed to the suffering they entail or the number of lives they claim. In the same way that, for a few years at least, 9/11 put the United States almost beyond reproach, so Hiroshima has meant that whatever the Japanese did in the past or may choose to do in the future, if we criticise, their response will always be, ‘Ah, but what about Hiroshima? At least we didn’t drop the atomic bomb.’
Because my mother was such a committed socialist, I was taken on several CND marches as a child, although political activism was long out of fashion by the time I went to university, and the intervening years were spent feeling powerless in the face of Thatcherism, which seemed to prove that such activism would be ineffective. So despite still agreeing with much of what my mother stood for, I have grown up to be a cynic, and couldn’t help but feel that the more sermonising aspects of the Peace Memorial Museum had a hollow ring to them. After World War Two, Japan renounced its right to form a conventional army and to use military strength to exercise its influence abroad, and as such, its was effectively forced into becoming a peace-loving nation. So when the Japanese speak earnestly of their desire for world peace and nuclear disarmament, although I agree with the sentiment, I can never be entirely convinced by it. And when they are threatened by North Korea, for example, I find it hard to believe that they would not prefer to have nuclear weapons themselves.
Those who witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima first hand, and those who were directly affected by it, are the people we should listen to when we decide whether or not it is a good idea to continue our love affair with – and our spending spree on – such weapons, not the politicians or the people for whom it represents the justification for an opinion, even if they too happen to be Japanese. In keeping with this, the most moving exhibits at the Peace Memorial Museum, and thus the most powerful evidence it presented in the case against nuclear war, were those that resonated on a personal rather than a political level: a wall onto which the silhouette of a human figure had been etched by the blast; a satchel with its contents of charred schoolbooks; a child’s tricycle, its paint blackened and its tyres melted.*
Also in the Peace Memorial Park is the Genbaku Dome – literally ‘Atomic Dome’ – although before the war it had been an exhibition hall. Practically the only building in the city centre to have survived the attack, it remains largely untouched, and like the everyday objects in the museum, its grey façade seemed to reflect back the suffering it had witnessed: behind a perimeter fence the ground beneath the dome is strewn with fallen masonry, its walls with their empty windows have never been redecorated, and its skeletal framework is still exposed to the elements.
While the dual carriageway of Route 2 carved its way directly along the Seno River valley, quieter side roads took me through a succession of small towns and villages. Trucks rumbled past on the slow ascent towards Higashi-Hiroshima (in the same way that Kita-Kyushu means ‘North Kyushu’, Higashi-Hiroshima simply means ‘East Hiroshima’), and at the point where Route 2 veered south-east, a spaghetti junction of newly built flyovers hung in the air like frozen vapour trails. Having reached the centre of Higashi-Hiroshima, I located a sign pointing the way to my next campsite, Ikoi-No-Mori-Koen, or ‘restful forest park’. A caretaker was already closing the front gates to the campsite when I finally arrived, and it took some persuading for him to allow me in. This may have been because he knew how long it would take for me to check in, as I kept him occupied for at least twenty minutes, filling in forms and taking a tour of the site.
The caretaker didn’t know of an onsen nearby, so I braved the coin-operated showers, which with my remaining small change would allow me precisely three minutes’ cleaning time. Particularly in Japan, where hot water is normally so plentiful, I had never before had to think about bathing in terms of speed, and approached the task as if it were a military operation. Not a single second could be wasted, lest I should find myself stranded with shampoo in my hair, soap all over my body and nothing to rinse them off with. Already undressed and with one hand poised over the soap, I leaned out from behind the shower curtain to feed my precious hundred-yen coins into the slot, before racing to wash every part of my body as quickly as possible. A timer whirred away from somewhere within the cubicle walls, but there was no way of telling exactly when it would wind down, and I made it with seconds to spare, the water clunking to a halt as I massaged my knees with the remaining hot water.
My allotted pitch was opposite the shower block on a level area of soft grass, with its own sink, water tap, night-light and mains electricity, and had I driven it would have been necessary to bring provisions, as the site was closed from five in the afternoon and the nearest shop probably thirty minutes away on foot. On the Mariposa, however, I could simply sail past the front gates and back to the town centre, or in this case what appeared to be Higashi-Hiroshima’s red light district.
It is best to be aware before you venture out of an evening that the English-derived words snack, fashion health and soap house signify respectively a hostess club, blow-job bar and brothel. But while Japan’s sex industry is larger than most, many gaijin are unaware of exactly what the phrase ‘sex industry’ signifies. Although it may seem ludicrous to a westerner, who need only go to a pub or a club to meet members of the opposite sex, Japanese men will pay good money for the privilege of simply talking to girls, and in the majority of hostess bars for the majority of the time, talking is all that goes on (recent decades have seen the inception and increasing popularity of host bars, whose female customers pay to be chatted up by handsome young men, and rarely for anything more intimate). For example, I know of a hostess club in London that has banned non-Japanese customers because its British clientele too often assumed there was more on the menu than just booze and bar snacks, and hostess clubs in the more colourful districts of Tokyo will employ plenty of security, as a means of ensuring that matters do not get out of hand when a drunken gaijin realises the pretty girl he is sitting with has no intention of escorting him to a hotel room after closing time. Another consequence of this crossing of cultural wires is that it is all too easy to get ripped off. Hostess clubs will normally look no more exotic than a Western-style bar or a Japanese-style izakaya, and should you wander into one unawares, you could find yourself with a jaw-droppingly expensive bill at the end of the night, when all you have done is talk to a girl and bought her a drink or two. Although the owners of many hostess clubs are considerate enough to warn their more naïve customers of this before they sit down, a friend of mine was on one occasion marched to the nearest cashpoint by two very large men with shaven heads and tattoos, and forced to empty his bank account of several hundred thousand yen, after what he had assumed to be a normal night out.
Not wanting to end up in the same predicament, it was quite a while before I plucked up the courage to enter a restaurant, and even then, I only did so on the recommendation of some rather shady looking characters who were loitering on the street outside. It certainly didn’t feel like a hostess club, as the lighting was rather harsh, and the majority of seats were at wooden tables with menus and cruet sets. There were no female members of staff and no female customers, and neither chef nor waiter was large, shaven headed or tattooed, so after a meal of yakizakana (焼き魚 / grilled fish), my bill came to just two or three thousand yen, and I breathed a sigh of relief for not having been caught out.
* I did not read Alan Booth’s book The Roads to Sata – A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan until I had already written the first draft of Gaijin on a Push Bike, and while his description of the museum and what it means to him is far more eloquent than I could ever hope to achieve, one passage is remarkably similar: ‘It is not the vastness of the destruction that moves you so much as the relics of individual suffering. These speak with the most eloquence: a melted desktop Buddha, a burned watch, the scorched blazer of a thirteen-year-old schoolboy…’