Editorial: A-bomb Dome marks 100th birthday and should be preserved forever

Today the A-bomb Dome, a World Heritage site, marks its 100th birthday since it was originally constructed as the former Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall. Why did our predecessors construct this building, and why did they decide to preserve it after it was badly damaged in the atomic bombing? On this occasion we will ponder such points once again.

When we look at the history of this structure over the past 100 years, it is important to consider its earlier history prior to the atomic bombing. Designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel, the Commercial Exhibition Hall, a Western-style building, created a singular urban view on the river bank of the Hiroshima delta. There are stories that Baumkuchen, a German cake, was sold for the first time in Japan at this building and that it set a new trend for art exhibitions. Those were successful early years for the building, the period when “Taisho Modern” culture was flourishing.

The special exhibition titled “Story of the Atomic Bomb Dome and Hiroshima City: From Hiroshima to Hiroshima,” which was held at the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum five years ago, sought to connect the dome’s pre-war history, the atomic bombing, and the present day. To begin with, what is the significance of the dome building, with its European air?

According to Toshimasa Sugimoto, an expert on architectural history who served as the planning advisor for the exhibition, the dome once symbolized a spirit of urban community or urban peace. In fact, the devastated building makes one instantly imagine the attack on the city and the scores of people that became victims.

The dome building, which had been renamed the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall prior to the atomic bombing, was able to avoid complete collapse even though the bomb exploded right overhead, leaving behind its outer shell with the steel framework and bricks exposed. It seems a miracle that the building was able to survive in this way.

The dome went through many twists and turns until the decision to preserve it permanently was finally made. Understandably, some A-bomb survivors remained strongly opposed to its preservation, in the midst of the city’s reconstruction, arguing that the dome would remind them of the atomic bombing, which they didn’t want to recall.

But the public was moved by a diary left by Hiroko Kajiyama, a high school student who died of A-bomb-induced leukemia. She wrote, “Only that pitiful Industrial Promotion Hall will continue to convey the horror of the atomic bombing to the world for ever and ever.”

The groups involved in efforts to oppose atomic and hydrogen bombs agreed on the goal of preserving the dome, and research findings concluded that this was possible if the structure was properly reinforced. Shinso Hamai, then mayor of Hiroshima, was also persuaded to put his support behind the idea of preserving the dome. That one girl’s wish was able to fuel the passion of our predecessors toward this end is a very admirable fact.

The dome was registered as a World Heritage Site in 1996. In this way, the inhumane crime of the atomic bombing, committed by the United States, was explicitly added to the history of humanity. The dome is also a tangible object that serves to convey the memories of the ruined city.

At the time this registration was made, film director Kaneto Sindo wrote, “The A-bomb Dome well remembers who committed that crime against it. It also knows the reason and the meaning behind why the atomic bomb was dropped.” (Excerpted from the book UNESCO World Heritage A-bomb Dome, edited by the Chugoku Shimbun.) The presence of the dome affirms that those who dropped the atomic bomb will never forget about the bombing, and stirs one to imagine that terrible ending to the nuclear arms race.

The A-bomb Dome is not merely a tourist draw for Hiroshima. Next year the dome will mark the 20th anniversary since it was added to the World Heritage List. We must now recall the many wishes and hopes that people attached to this goal.

Technical experts have brought together their know-how for preserving the dome, and put this knowledge into practice. Starting this summer, the City of Hiroshima will initiate its first retrofitting to make the dome quake-proof. In addition, there are many challenges involved in preserving the scenery around the dome, too. The World Heritage designation comes with certain responsibilities.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, is on permanent display with no description of the death toll that this attack caused. This fact was reported by a staff writer from the Chugoku Shimbun earlier this year. But we hear some Americans have begun to doubt the myth that justified the atomic bombings with the reason that such attacks could help avoid a U.S. invasion of the Japanese homeland.

We hope that people around the world will remember both the Enola Gay and the A-bomb Dome. To achieve this, we must continue to make efforts to hand down the dome to future generations.

(Originally published on April 5, 2015)