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'Rediscovering' pre-atomic bomb Hiroshima through photos, records, and witness accounts (1)

The castle tower of the Hiroshima Castle, rebuilt after World War II, is seen in this photo taken in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on April 27, 2020. (Mainichi/Noboru Ujo)

HIROSHIMA -- What was Hiroshima like, before the United States dropped the atomic bomb and burned the heart out of the western Japan city 75 years ago? Through photos held by the Mainichi Shimbun combined with eyewitness accounts, we can try to answer this question, to rediscover pre-A-bomb Hiroshima.

The T-shaped Aioi Bridge, stretching across the Ota River near where it forks in two on its course down from the Chugoku Mountains, was completed in December 1932. To the south of the bridge is the Nakajima district, a prosperous area since Hiroshima was a castle town. To the east stood the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, built in 1915 and now commonly referred to as the Atomic Bomb Dome.

This photo shows the inside of Hiroshima Castle before the U.S. atomic bombing of the city. A car is seen driving across the Aioi Bridge pictured to the center-left.

A 1935 newspaper article introducing famous spots in Hiroshima stated "the three-layer structure of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall blends in well (with the bridge) and it brings out the color of the scenery, this city of waterways."

Movie theaters, restaurants, kimono shops, general stores and various other businesses lined the streets of the Nakajima district during the early years of the Showa era (1926-1989). It's in this bustling streetscape that Suzu, the protagonist of the Japanese animated wartime drama "In This Corner of the World," walks through at the beginning of the film.

But the area began emptying out during World War II due to supply shortages. Goro Shikoku (1924-2014), an artist known for his picture book "Okori Jizo," visited the area before going to war in the fall of 1944. In one book, he wrote that he thought it was his "last chance" to see the Hiroshima streetscape.

In the book, Shikoku says that he bumped into a friend, and went to a cafe with a sign saying they served coffee. "The idea of having actual coffee was just earthshaking. But what I got was very sketchy. It looked like burnt, milled soy beans stirred in a cup of hot water," he wrote.

Eucalyptus trees that survived the U.S. atomic bombing are seen in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on April 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Noboru Ujo)

The municipal government-edited "Hiroshima Genbaku Sensaishi" (record of the Hiroshima A-bomb disaster) states that 4,400 people had been living in the Nakajima District before the nuclear bomb was dropped on the city at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. The air crew on the "Enola Gay" B-29 bomber carrying the A-bomb aimed at the distinctively-shaped Aioi Bridge, and central Hiroshima disappeared in a searing flash.

Architect Kenzo Tange (1913-2005) who designed Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, arranged the cenotaph for A-bomb victims and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum so they would run in a straight north-south line from the Atomic Bomb Dome. Tange, formerly a student at Hiroshima High School under the prewar Japanese education system, volunteered to help the city recover and also pronounced the park and its monuments a "peace factory."

Kimi Koishi, a famous comedian in the western Japan Kinki area tradition who passed away in 2011 at age 83, rarely spoke of his experiences in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. But in 2008, he told the Mainichi his story.

Then a new recruit in the Imperial Japanese Army, Kimi was having breakfast in the second floor of a barracks building near Hiroshima Castle when the bomb detonated. He was knocked out by the flash, and was later rescued from beneath a beam of the collapsed building.

A postcard photo from around 1934 showing the street in front of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now the Atomic Bomb Dome, and Motoyasu Bridge, completed in 1926.

Construction of Hiroshima Castle began in 1589 under "Sengoku" warring states period commander Mori Terumoto. Later lords of the castle included the Fukushima and Asano clans. The castle was used as a major military reservation in the Meiji era (1868-1912), and remained a military center in the heart of the city. During the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Imperial general headquarters was stationed in the castle keep, which also hosted extraordinary meetings of the Imperial Diet.

At the time of the bombing, the castle keep was home to the Chugoku Regional Military Headquarters. Reserve forces including infantry units and signalers as well as an army hospital surrounded the headquarters. The castle tower collapsed in the atomic blast, and the military installations around it were destroyed.

The initial report of the nuclear bombing is believed to have come from a female student mobilized for duty in the headquarters' underground communication room. Yoshie Oka, a third-year student of the then Hijiyama Girl's Senior High School, was hit by the flash and the blast wave. She scrambled to try each of the telephones scattered on the ground, and finally got in touch with a unit in Fukuyama, in eastern Hiroshima Prefecture.

According to the Hiroshima Genbaku Sensaishi, she said, "We have a problem. Hiroshima has been hit with a new type of bomb," and described that the attack had almost completely destroyed the city. Until her last years before passing away in 2017 at age 86, Oka continued to share her stories as an A-bomb survivor.

Eucalyptus trees that survived the U.S. atomic bombing are seen on the right, among the ruins of the outer citadel of Hiroshima Castle, about 750 meters away from the hypocenter, in this photo taken around Sept. 11, 1945. (Mainichi)

The castle tower was rebuilt in 1958, when the Hiroshima Restoration Exposition was held. Public facilities including libraries and gymnasiums were built one after another, and the area once packed with military installations became the center of an international city of peace and culture.

The eucalyptus trees growing in the ruins of the outer citadel survived the atomic bombing. Manga artist Keiji Nakazawa, who authored the series "Barefoot Gen" about the bombing and its aftermath and who died in 2012 at age 73, based his comic "Under the Eucalyptus Trees" on these trees, which have recovered after once withering.

The Mainichi asked Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Hiroshima City Museum of History and Traditional Crafts to verify the photos used for this article.

(Japanese original by Noboru Ujo, Hiroshima Bureau)

This is part-one of a two-part feature.

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