Mitaki is perhaps the most beautiful place in Hiroshima. The 9th century Buddhist temple is next to a small wood and is splashed by waterfalls.
Underground is an urn containing the ashes of unknown Jewish victims of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp.
The unusual adventure that brought this urn here comes down to a misunderstanding and ambiguity about the status of the victims of the atomic bomb.
The year was 1962. Four young Japanese pacifists undertook a "Hiroshima-Auschwitz peace march." Their goal was to "unite the victims" of the tragedy of World War II.
"We Japanese, as both aggressors and victims, should have a special duty in calling for world peace," they declared, followed here and there by large and small crowds.
They went to Singapore, but that was at the time when mass graves of victims of the atrocities carried out by Japanese soldiers during the war were discovered. They were not granted a particularly warm welcome.
They went to Israel at the invitation of the ambassador. They got a frosty reception. Their pacifist and anti-nuclear discourse didn't go down very well in a country that felt threatened from all sides, and where we learned a different lesson from the war: A people without military power is at the mercy of murderers. Israel developed its nuclear program without any hang-ups, and the Germans' old allies weren't going to be the ones stopping them.
Then the young pacifists arrived in Poland. This time, their welcome was triumphal. The communist country saw formidable political symbols in these "victims of Anglo-American nuclear imperialism."* They went to the old Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, the German fascists' masterpiece. It was there that the travelers were given the urn. They dreamed of having it installed at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to symbolize the unity of all victims of war. But there were strong protests from all quarters. What right did they have to use the ashes of unknown Jews?
The affair became politically untenable and the mayor of Hiroshima scrapped the idea.
Not knowing what to do with the urn, it was finally buried in Mitaki.
If the victims of the atomic bomb have an ambiguous postwar status, it's because we well remember Japan's wars of aggression and its fanatical army. Among the deaths at Hiroshima are also thousands of Korean "forced laborers" conscripted and enslaved in the country's factories.
The official American version dictates that the atomic bomb was "a lesser evil." Indeed, it was the only way to end the war in the Pacific. Tokyo and almost 70 other cities were bombed, but nothing gave: Japan refused to surrender. A report claimed that a ground invasion would cost the lives of 1 million American soldiers and 250,000 British soldiers. The destruction of the country itself would have been even worse than the ravages of the atomic bomb.
For Robert Jacobs, this version doesn't hold. The 55-year-old American, born in a suburb of Chicago, has been a political scientist at Hiroshima University since 2005.
We meet in a cafe with no distinctive sign, just an old façade made up of a row of carved stones – a rare vestige of Hiroshima from before Aug. 6, 1945.
He willingly describes himself as a "nuclear paranoiac" and focuses his research on the effects of nuclear tests around the world and the fate of workers in the nuclear industry, as in Fukushima. "When you fall to the bottom of the social ladder, the classic refuge for women is sex work, while for men it's in nuclear power.
"I remember the day, when I was eight years old, when we learned to hide under our school desks in the event of a Russian nuclear attack. In that act alone, I realized my own mortality and the risk of disappearing from my city – from everything, in fact. I returned home terrorized.
"I have considered atomic bombings to be war crimes since I was 14. It's very easy to blame the Japanese imperial government, which waged ridiculous wars and refused to give in. It's true; the bomb put an end to the war. But the Americans were pursuing other objectives. Stalin's army was advancing eastward very quickly. It was strategically important to show the Russians that we had the bomb."*
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, like any good soldier, was against dropping the bomb, a decision which was made by President Harry Truman. We know this because negotiations were taking place with a view to Japan's surrender. The death toll has been contested and some historians believe that an invasion probably wouldn't have been necessary.
From Enemies to Allies
How does an American end up being a nuclear specialist in Hiroshima?
"A small minority of people express their anger toward the United States, but in this country of many faces, you shouldn't always judge by appearances. Sometimes, the act of forgiveness is a way of asserting your moral superiority. They say that they're happy we're here."**
From being enemies, the Americans switched to the role of occupiers until 1952. During this period, it was forbidden to mention the bomb in the media or in works of fiction. Stories of "hibakushas," or survivors of the bomb, only appeared some years later, adding to the oddness of their status.
The United States subsequently became allies and protectors of the country against the communist threat of China and the USSR, all within a very short space of time.
"It's interesting to see the reaction of Americans when they visit the memorial. Some feel guilty about the destruction caused to civilians; many are disoriented, as they have heard another version of history."**
A visit to this very understated memorial does not resolve the issue of the bomb.
Put simply, you are suddenly faced with not only the frightening power of nuclear weapons, but also the human disaster that they caused on the only two occasions on which they have ever been used.
*These quoted remarks, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.
**Although not specifically identified in the original article, these remarks are presumed to be attributable to Robert Jacobs. And although accurately translated, the remarks could not be independently verified.