About this time ten years ago I travelled for a week in Japan. Towards the end of my stay, I took a shinkansen south from Tokyo to Hiroshima. On the way I passed the time memorising the kanji of the cities the train passed through. I hadn’t really appreciated before the trip just how Japanese writing worked, with each character taking a specific syllable sound, and once memorised, I began to see them repeated in other words.
I was travelling to Hiroshima in order to see the peace park that had been constructed after it was bombed in 1945. I had been told the story of Sadako (貞子) and the one thousand paper cranes when I was in grade 6, and learned how to fold an origami crane. Some time later while at university, I wrote a philosophy of science piece about the Little Boy bomb in the moment it was suspended above Hiroshima and below the Enola Gay, using actor-network theory to explore the stories that rolled from it.
When I told people that I was going to/had been to visit Hiroshima, the first thing they ask was “Isn’t it radioactive?” I’ve always thought that it was the bombing of the city that changed the way we approached the word “radioactive.” Before this, radioactive material were seen as wonder stuff, with health spas advertising their health-giving waters that contained traces of radium. After the bomb, and when Time magazine sent in a photographer to record the destruction, the world saw effect the demon touch of high density gamma rays could have on concrete, wood, and flesh.
The residual radioactive material in and around Hiroshima today is very minimal. The mass of uranium used in the Little Boy was 64kg, which would amount to a volume a bit less than a soccer ball (enriched uranium is very dense stuff). When the bomb exploded, a little of it was converted to energy, while the rest was scatter over the city and surrounding country. When I was there, this radioactive fallout that killed many of the survivors with strange varieties of cancers had long since been diluted by 60 years worth of time.
I had spent the afternoon in the peace park, visiting the museum, reading and seeing stories of individual survivors of the blast, with word rolling around my mind like searing, flesh, hanging, rags, heat, blast, crying, wreckage, rubble, burning, fire, blaze, melting. I went and stood on the hypo-centre of the bomb, and looked up, imagining a human-made sun blooming above my head. I made a paper crane and left it in the park.
To clear my mind I walked a block away into a mall, and into Japanese normality. Teenagers were hanging in groups laughing and talking to each other. Shoppers hurried between stores, carrying bags home in the evening peak hour. Music played. It was a summer night in a city.
Having reached my cultural threshold, I bought McDonald’s, and a bottle of saki. Walking back to my hotel, I walked over a bridge where guitar players were singing covers of Elvis. That night, I got drunk, ate maccas, and fell asleep watching a Korean horror movie.
Some time later, in London, I bought a folio of atomic test explosion photos by Michael Light off a remainders table for two pounds.