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Born next door to what became the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome (Pt. 2): Symbol of loss

Filmmaker Masaaki Tanabe shows where he found a hope-inspiring seedling months after the Aug. 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, by the A-Bomb Dome on June 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

In the first half this two-part-story, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter was guided through the Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome by Masaaki Tanabe, who was born and raised next door to the former exhibition hall. The 83-year-old filmmaker's mother and younger brother were caught in the explosion, their remains undiscovered. The tour continues in Part 2, as the man reflects on how the hall bustled with people and flourished with culture.

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    HIROSHIMA -- The Atomic Bomb Dome symbolizes the destruction of a nuclear attack. That said, the Dome provided Masaaki Tanabe a light of hope.

    "In April the year after I was exposed to radiation, I found a green seedling peeking from the pitch-black rubble. People who appeared uninjured were dropping dead, and being a 'hibakusha' who entered Hiroshima right after the attack, I too was worried about when I would die. The moment I saw the seedling, I realized I might live through all this."

    This housing map shows the vicinity of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall before the atomic bombing with Masaaki Tanabe's home next to it. This map, with its top as the south, is exhibited near the A-Bomb Dome in the city of Hiroshima, and was photographed on May 22, 2020.

    The survivors and citizens of this city chose to preserve the A-Bomb Dome as a symbol of peace despite its ugly appearance. Half a century after the blast, the Dome was listed as a World Heritage site. It took the same span for Tanabe to be able to face the site as a filmmaker. Once decided, though, he dove into research on the original building, the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, and this confirmed his memories of the hall he had known so well as a child.

    While partially built with reinforced concrete, the building was mostly brick, and on top of that had large windows in the outer wall. The structure apparently made it prone to large shocks such as earthquakes. But being so close to the hypocenter, the blast came from above, and the building did not collapse entirely.

    The Hiroshima City Council passed a resolution in 1966 to preserve the site permanently, and the municipality has done 5 major repair projects since then. The basic policy of preservation is to leave the building as close as possible to how it looked immediately after the bomb.

    Tanabe took the opposite tack, seeking to create computer imagery of the former hall at its lively height. Today's A-Bomb Dome is a drab gray, but witness interviews revived the hall in vivid colors.

    This image shows the remains of a European-style garden next to the Atomic Bomb Dome in the city of Hiroshima on Sept. 12, 2021. The upright pillars had been installed in a pond with fountains. (Mainichi/Noboru Ujo)

    Tanabe pointed out the specific spots that he clearly remembered.

    This image shows the round tiles over the former entrance of the building now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome, in the city of Hiroshima on Sept. 12, 2021. (Mainichi/ Noboru Ujo)

    First was the south corner of the property, where a European-style garden used to be. Stone pillars still stand there, the tallest and thickest encircled by six others. My guide explained, "There was a pond here and sculpted faces on the pillars were spitting water. Carp swam in it, and in one of my interviews, a person testified to having eaten them as sashimi when food was scarce." Two of the demon-like water-spitting sculptures are now displayed at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum close by.

    Pointing to light brown tiles lined up left to right on the upper left side of the main entrance vestibule, Tanabe said, "This is the best-preserved section." Tanabe's research found this to be proof of a European trend that the Czech architect, Jan Letzel, had applied to his design. "This northeast corner was partly hidden from the explosion, so we can still see precious traces of the original color and workmanship."

    Inside the entrance was a cylindrical tower with open space reaching higher floors. "Two broad columns clad in marble stood to the right and left respectively," he remembers. In this hallway, Tanabe and his boyhood friends would race on tricycles, slide down the staircase's handrails, or launch paper planes from the upper floors. The washroom walls were tiled and the toilets were flushable, a modern technology back then. The children could read manga printed in magazines stored in the attic. "We played hide-and-seek, and that's why I remember things so well," he says with a smile.

    The hall had its glory days, and perhaps the most famous episode is the one that led to the founding of Juchheim Co. Inc., a Japanese confectionery giant. In 1919, four years after its inauguration as the "Hiroshima Prefectural Product Exhibition Hall", the building hosted a commercial fair showcasing products made by German prisoners captured on Ninoshima island in Hiroshima Bay during World War I. Karl Juchheim's Baumkuchen cakes were received so well, he later opened a shop in Kobe.

    World War II intensified during Tanabe's childhood. Paintings depicting a victorious Japanese military were frequently exhibited. He says, "I was convinced of Japan's victory."

    Gazing inside from the former entrance, I could confirm traces of destruction half-hidden by steel beams added during post-war reinforcement; a column snapped at its foundation, a hole in the wall that supported a beam for a collapsed staircase, and the remains of a reception counter. During the war, the building had lost its function as an exhibition hall, and housed governmental offices such as a regional branch of the Interior Ministry and government-controlled companies. People had been commuting to and working at the building right up to that final flash on Aug. 6, 1945.

    We had to maneuver around rubble scattered on the ground, and stumbled on a ruined and rusted iron frame. Tanabe turned his gaze above to where he says a terrace used to be. "All of this debris fell due to damage. It shows that iron was used to strengthen important parts." He also found a decorative stone slab which he surmised to be a product of the influence of Czechoslovakia's stone architecture, a remnant of the culture that Letzel had introduced.

    A pillar stands upright at what was once the north gate. My guide told me he assumed that if a Japanese architect had designed the hall, the main entrance may have faced north -- toward the military ground with the army's divisional headquarters, Hiroshima Castle, and Gokoku Jinja shrine. Contrary to Letzel's choice to face the building out onto the Motoyasu River, these facilities were considered essential by the state.

    A map of present-day Hiroshima shows filmmaker Masaaki Tanabe's home and military ground before the atomic bombing.

    Our tour around the ruined hall eventually led us to its northeast corner. Tanabe pointed to the spot where his family's kitchen had been and said, "My mom and little brother rest here." Half-buried rubble is all that is left of his home, an area he will never be allowed to excavate. "It was a magnificent mansion with a corridor-like porch, a pond and fireproof storehouse."

    Today, the onetime exhibition hall's about 25-meter-high domed tower is eclipsed by taller, modern buildings. A street stretching through the high-rises was the main avenue of the former Sarugaku-cho district, with its rows of elegant Japanese-style buildings, all lost to the blast.

    Tanabe says the hall's north side, where he had found the seedling some months after the bombing, was where a store house and guards once stood. Young plants were now growing from a gap in the debris piled up behind the gray wall. "This is the same spot I saw the seedling."

    Tanabe faced the Atomic Bomb Dome and the area of his vanished home. With eyes closed, hands pressed together, the hibakusha bowed and gave another silent prayer.

    (Japanese original by Noboru Ujo, Hiroshima Bureau Chief)

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