Rethinking the Bomb
It was Aug. 6, 1945, and Setsuko Iwamoto had just gotten to school. The morning bell rang, and the 13-year-old girl was running to assemble on the school grounds, when from the corner of her eye she saw a very bright flash-and her world changed forever. When she regained consciousness, she was trapped under a collapsed building and could hear the screams of classmates nearby. She somehow crawled out from the rubble, stood up, and looked around. Her world was dark, the sun blocked by soot and dust whirling in the air. Aside from the weakening screams, the city was eerily silent, and Iwamoto thought for a minute that she might be the last living creature on Earth.
All her life, Iwamoto, now 74, has tried to keep alive the memory of that day. But she is losing confidence that the world still remembers-and understands-the full horror of the atomic bomb. Just under two months ago, North Korea broke into the nuclear weapons club with a test explosion, which, though weak, sent political shock waves throughout the region. In reaction, pacifist Japan is cautiously opening a debate on a subject long taboo: whether to start its own nuclear weapons program. "I strongly believe that nuclear weapons and humans cannot coexist," Iwamoto says. "I'm very concerned about the direction Japan is heading in now."
Ever since its defeat in World War II, which ended with the American atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has been governed by a constitution-written by U.S. occupation forces-that renounces war as a sovereign right and allows for only limited self-defense. Japan's hawkish new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is seeking constitutional revisions expanding the definition of self-defense, in part because of regional threats such as North Korea. Then, too, Japan's potential shift is itself causing unease in a region that remembers brutal Japanese occupation during World War II. Inevitably, some politicians-including Foreign Minister Taro Aso-say Japan also should re-examine its rejection of nuclear weapons. However, at the end of the recent Asian economic summit in Vietnam, Abe vowed to keep Japan nonnuclear and a leading voice for nuclear disarmament. "Japan," he said, "is different from other countries in that it has suffered a nuclear attack."
This week, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, visits Japan to talk about efforts to turn back the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs and to step up international nonproliferation efforts.
Memorials. Some six decades after its nuclear devastation, Hiroshima is a sparkling city, with wide boulevards and the newest department stores. But the past is remembered and marked by the small shrines to the dead that dot the city, built by different work groups, civic organizations, or individuals. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a perky, matter-of-fact narrator tells the story of the B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay and the fireball that exploded roughly 1,900 feet above the city at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, releasing heat of over 1 million degrees Celsius. In the background are images of women and children with skin melting off their bodies, hair standing on end.