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Ex-resident recalls G7 Hiroshima summit site's history as key military location

Sakashi Aoki illustrates and explains how the bodies were disposed of after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in this photo taken in the city's Asakita Ward on April 27, 2023. (Mainichi/Masashi Mimura)

HIROSHIMA -- The Ujina district, the main venue for the G7 summit that opened here on May 19, was once a strategic location for the former Japanese military. A former resident of the area is deeply moved by the fact that political leaders from countries that once engaged in warfare are gathering in a place deeply connected to Japan's wartime history.

    From the Meiji era (1868-1912), the district located in the southern part of the city of Hiroshima developed as a base for sending troops to the Chinese mainland, and immediately after the atomic bombing, many bodies and injured people were transported there.

    Sakashi Aoki, 88, who was born in Ujina in 1935 as the second son of four siblings and grew up there, recounted his childhood memories. "When I was a child, I played around on the beach, catching shellfish, and in the summer, I went fishing and swimming," he said. He described the scenery around his home as idyllic, with people playing shogi on the street and making rice cakes with friends and residents.

    After the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Ujina Port (now Hiroshima Port) developed as a gateway for sending military personnel and supplies to the Korean Peninsula and mainland China. The old army headquarters for ships was located there, and nearby were the "clothing depot," which manufactured military uniforms and boots, and the "provisions depot," which produced and stored food for soldiers and fodder for horses. Aoki's father was an engineer on a military ship and traveled from Ujina Port to Kobe and Yamaguchi by ship.

    Toward the end of World War II, when Aoki was a student at an elementary school, the wartime atmosphere was intensifying. The area behind his house was a place where soldiers would gather before going off to war. Servicemen also visited the store run by his family and bought sweets, soap and other items. Dozens of war horses were tied up in a stable built nearby. Aoki recalled, "The seaside, where we used to play, was off limits to us, and even as a child I felt the shadow of war."

    Around the spring of 1945, his family evacuated to Kamikamagari Island (now part of the city of Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture), where his mother's parents' home was located. the morning of Aug. 6 that year, there was a flash of light in the direction of the city of Hiroshima, about 35 kilometers to the northwest, and then a boom, as if a bolt of lightning had struck.

    Aoki heard that "a bomb hit Hiroshima and the city was entirely wiped out." Concerned about his home in Ujina, he headed there two days later on a fishing boat with his older brother. The home stood about 4 km southeast of the hypocenter. The roofs and roof tiles of houses had been blown off, and many buildings had collapsed. "No. This is not Ujina," he thought.

    There, neighbors asked him to help rip the name tags off the clothing of the many bodies brought in. This was supposedly to preserve clues about the victims. He saw bodies burning on top of oil drums, popped out eyeballs, faces without noses or mouths, torsos with arms torn off. "So this is what war is. This is not right," he thought. As he worked diligently, he gradually came to feel nothing.

    Upon his marriage in 1962, Aoki left Ujina and now lives in the city's Asakita Ward. To this day, he cannot forget the rugged feel of the bones of the bodies he touched when he removed the nameplates, nor the foul smell of the bodies when they were burned.

    Still, for Aoki, Ujina remains an important hometown filled with nostalgic memories. "I never thought the (G7) summit would be held in the place where I used to play. It is strange to see how the times have changed since the war ended -- hotels have been built and heads of state gather there," he said.

    Looking to the future, he said, "What comes after the summit is important. Only after it leads to nuclear abolition will we be able to say that holding the summit in Hiroshima was worthwhile."

    (Japanese original by Chinatsu Ide, Osaka City News Department)

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