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Peace museum launched on ex-quarantine island in Hiroshima to pass on horrors of war

Sterilization and disinfection work is undertaken during the Russo-Japanese War. (Photo courtesy of the Ninoshima Peace Museum)

HIROSHIMA -- A peace museum has opened on an island in the city of Hiroshima that used to have the most advanced quarantine stations in Japan, which were later used as a field hospital after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city.

    Following the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, as many as 10,000 injured people were transported to Ninoshima Island, and many died there. Previously, the Japanese Imperial Army's quarantine stations had worked to prevent diseases, such as cholera, from entering the country during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The island was later used as a field hospital. People including residents who were born and raised on the island recently opened the Ninoshima Peace Museum amid the coronavirus pandemic to pass down their ancestors' memories of battling infections, the island's history of quarantine and the horrors of war.

    The Ninoshima Peace Museum is seen on Ninoshima Island in Hiroshima's Minami Ward. (Mainichi/Naomi Yamamoto)

    The museum stands in a plaza to commemorate the deceased, where many remains of those who were killed in the atomic bombing and their belongings were found during post-war excavations. Inside the about 50-square-meter, single-story museum, which the Ninoshima History Volunteer Guide Association consisting of residents took about half a year to build, some 130 objects including documents about the quarantine stations and unearthed relics are on display.

    The association's head, Kazuo Miyazaki, 73, has taken more than 20 years to gather documents and other materials on display. His father Tasuke, a former Japanese Imperial Army sergeant who fought in three wars, had urged the island's residents to compile records on local history. Some of the displayed objects were apparently collected by Tasuke.

    The island has a dark history of being at the mercy of many wars. Let's review the island's past through Miyazaki's story and the local history compiled mainly by him.

    After the Sino-Japanese War erupted in 1894, Hiroshima's importance grew as a military hub to control the Chugoku and Shikoku regions in western Japan. The temporary Imperial General Headquarters was established in Hiroshima and it prospered as a "military city," sending a large number of troops and military equipment from Ujina Port in the city's Minami Ward to the Korean Peninsula and mainland China.

    Kazuo Miyazaki explains Ninoshima Island's history while looking at photos on Feb. 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Naomi Yamamoto)

    However, as the world was engulfed by a cholera pandemic at the time, the Sino-Japanese War also became a battle against the disease. Many returning soldiers in Hiroshima also suffered from cholera, and numerous residents died as a result. To respond to the problem, the Japanese Imperial Army set up the first quarantine station on Ninoshima Island at the end of the war for returning soldiers.

    At the quarantine station, arriving soldiers' clothes, equipment and other things were sterilized in huge high-pressure steam boilers for more than 10 minutes at a maximum temperature above 110 degrees Celsius, and then burned in nearby incinerators. Soldiers were also made to take baths in a tub with disinfectant for about five minutes.

    While quarantine facilities were set up in the Sakurajima district in the city of Osaka and also on Hikoshima Island in the city of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the facility on Ninoshima Island had the most advanced equipment with a reported quarantine capacity of 5,000 people a day -- one of the largest in the world.

    Movement restrictions were so thorough that two piers were built to separate solders' traffic lines: one for those who had not been disinfected, and the other for those who had. Soldiers who were not infected with cholera departed from a different pier from the one they had landed on, then returned home.

    Piers remain at Ninoshima Island's port in Hiroshima's Minami Ward. (Mainichi/Naomi Yamamoto)

    When the Russo-Japanese War began in 1904, a second quarantine station was constructed south of the first one, and an additional pier was built. The second quarantine station had the same equipment as the first one, and a quarantine facility for horses was also set up.

    A prison camp and a munitions depot were added to the military facility and the piers still remain on the island's shore.

    Near the end of the Pacific War, the quarantine stations were almost no longer used because as fighting intensified, the number of returning Japanese soldiers apparently plunged.

    In the summer of 1945, a single atomic bomb changed Hiroshima and the island. Following flag signaling from the opposite shore indicating that injured people would be sent to Ninoshima, large numbers of A-bomb victims continuously arrived on the island. Many of the injured also died on boats during transportation. According to a witness and other sources, bodies were tied to the boats with ropes, and a number of bodies were piled up on the coast.

    An oyster farm in calm seas is seen near Ninoshima Island in Hiroshima's Minami Ward. (Mainichi/Naomi Yamamoto)

    There were too many bodies to cremate in incinerators including one for military horses, and some were buried in the ground without cremation. After the war, the remains of 1,500 people were excavated on the island in 1947, followed by some 2,000 remains in 1955, about 500 in 1971, and repeated excavations continued until 2004, with nearly 90 remains found in the 2004 excavations.

    Following the establishment of a school named Ninoshima Gakuen for Hiroshima Prefecture War Orphans on the site of the first quarantine station in 1946, the former military facility played a role to protect and nurture children.

    In a corner on the grounds of Ninoshima Gakuen, a present-day social welfare corporation, there is a statue of Shimpei Goto, who headed the project to establish and operate the quarantine station under Vice Minister of War Gentaro Kodama during the Sino-Japanese War.

    Reflecting on the local history in which quarantine stations that had played an important role were forced to become a field hospital due to the atomic bombing, Miyazaki commented, "We should not neglect the site as a mere consequence of history, but continue our efforts to make history by acting with anti-nuclear and anti-war awareness, while hoping for peace for the next generation."

    Miyazaki and others intend to train guides who can pass down the island's history in the future while continuing to operate the museum.

    (Japanese original by Naomi Yamamoto, Hiroshima Bureau)

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