History of Hiroshima

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Hiroshima's past is rooted in Japans medieval times. Like many pastoral settlements, the five fishing villages then known collectively as Gokamura entered the history books through military action. They became the regional base for a local warlords--largely successful--grab for local power in the 12th century. In order to establish a trade port with China on the only coastline available to him, Kiyomori--head of the Taira clan--started what would become a long succession of engineering projects to dredge the shallow bay and otherwise develop the river delta. To appease the local gods, Kiyomori commissioned Itsukushima Shrine, which, though reconstructed many times, still hovers over the mirror waters of the Bay at high tide. By the time of Kiyomoris not so heroic death, naked and feverish in a palace apartment, he had taken part in one of Japans most infamous legacies, the age of the shogun, or military strongman.

Nearly 400 shogunate years passed before the region again made news. Although the Taira clans power had long since waned, warlords continued to rule the Hiroshima area. In a series of campaigns in the mid-1500s, Mori Motonari defeated neighboring rivals and unified their domains under his own clan in the area known today as Chugoku. Then, in 1589, Motanaris grandson, Terumoto, relocated the Mori headquarters and commissioned a castle to be built near Hiroshima Bay. This so-called "Carp Castle" was occupied by Terumoto in 1593.

With a new castle and lord, the settlement was renamed Hiroshima, or "Wide Island," and began to acquire accruements befitting its status as a castle town. Artisans and traders, and in later years scholars and teachers, turned Hiroshima into a center for Confucian schooling. Bridges helped connect the towns islands into a single entity, which started to resemble todays layout. Canals and wharves provided routes from markets to the Seto Inland Sea and attracted commerce from the countryside. The towns strategic position at the confluence of the Sanyo Highway, Ogawa River, and Seto Inland Sea also earned it recognition as a military base.

Hiroshimas Renaissance continued under the administration of the Asano clan until the Meiji Restoration. The castle town was incorporated as a city in 1889. Five years later, during the Sino-Japanese War, Hiroshimas strategic importance was such that Imperial Headquarters were temporarily relocated there, and the city hosted a special session of the Imperial Diet. If only briefly, Hiroshima had become Japans de facto capital.

In the decades that followed, Hiroshima grew to become the countrys sixth largest city. But at 8.15am on August 6, 1945, the citys growth as a leading military and commercial center came to an abrupt halt. 'Little Boy,' the US atomic bomb carried by the Enola Gay, exploded some 590 meters above the bustling entertainment district near the heart of present-day Hiroshima. The horrific effects of that bomb are well documented and presented at Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Memorial Museum, a must-see lesson in modern history.

Numbers are hard to verify--one mass grave in the Park contains the burned remains of some 10,000 unidentified victims--but roughly 80,000 people are believed to have perished as the bombs immediate after-effect. Another 60,000 died from burns, radiation and other horrors associated with atomic weapons. Even today, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, based in Hijiyama Park, continues to study the after-effects of the bomb among survivors and their families.

Precious little history--monumental or otherwise--survived the devastation. The city has been rebuilt in the modernist, international style of glass, steel and concrete, of which the Pacela Shopping Arcade may be the best example. What few pre-World War II sites remain tend to be scattered outside the city center, in the surrounding hills and vertiginous islands in Hiroshima Bay. Temples, shrines, and cemeteries continue to hold on in the regions lush countryside. Within the city itself monuments stand in for the original, preserved and labeled for posterity, though often seemingly ignored in the bustle of this commercial city.

Speculation was that nothing would grow in Hiroshimas soil for at least 75 years after the bomb, but soon after the blast oleanders--now the citys official flower--started to bloom. Today, oleanders are planted along the citys streets to commemorate the citys post-bomb rebirth. Hiroshima now bills itself as an international "City of Peace." August 6, the commemoration of the atomic blast, has been declared a day for international peace and a nuclear weapons-free world, in hopes that similar tragedy can be avoided.