April 21, 2023
The Atomic Bomb Dome, a symbol of peace
It is deeply meaningful that this year’s Group of Seven summit will be held in Hiroshima, a city that symbolizes the anti-nuclear and anti-war movements. Seventy-eight years after participating nations were enemies in World War II, their leaders will gather from May 19 through 21 in the city that suffered the first atomic bombing during the war. Probably the most well-known symbol of peace in Hiroshima is the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome), part of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where a ceremony is held every Aug. 6 to mark the anniversary of the 1945 bombing. This article tells the story of how the park came to be and why the dome, a symbol of sorrow for Hiroshima’s citizens at the time, was left intact.
The park was designed by Kenzo Tange (1913–2005), one of Japan’s most renowned architects, and completed in 1955. When visitors enter the park from Peace Boulevard, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (whose main building also was completed in 1955) comes into view straight ahead. Passing between the museum’s pilotis, the columns on which it stands, visitors see the cenotaph for the victims of the bombing, and beyond that the dome. A single axis runs through the park, connecting the museum, the cenotaph and the dome in a straight line.
Tange spent his early years in Imabari, a city in Ehime Prefecture, and attended high school in Hiroshima, not far away across the Seto Inland Sea. He left the region to attend Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo), but in August 1945 received word that his father was critically ill and set out immediately for his hometown. When he reached the Hiroshima Prefecture city of Onomichi, he learned that an atomic bomb had been dropped on the city of Hiroshima, about 90 kilometers to the east. What awaited him in Imabari was not only his father’s death but his mother’s as well; she had been killed in the Aug. 6 bombing of Imabari. There is no question that in the eyes of the young Tange, the deaths of his parents overlapped with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Following defeat in the war, the government established the War Damage Reconstruction Board, and architects began drawing up reconstruction plans for cities nationwide. But at a time when people believed plants would not grow in Hiroshima for 70 years and a visit to the city would cause death by radiation sickness, no one volunteered to take on planning there. Tange offered to take the lead in the city’s reconstruction. In the summer of 1946, just a year after the bomb was dropped, Tange came to the city with two members of his laboratory at the University of Tokyo. According to Sachio Otani (1924–2013), one of the architects who accompanied him, reconstruction planning typically began by obtaining maps of a city and walking its neighborhoods, but in central Hiroshima the devastation and still-untouched rubble was so extensive, the three were unable to discern the traces of the former city even with maps in hand. Food was scarce, but they managed to find enough supplies on the black market to continue their work. The planning document that Tange poured such emotion into under these difficult circumstances was reflected in the plan that the Hiroshima City Council approved in 1947.
In May 1949, a design competition was announced for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It called for both park landscaping and facilities such as a museum and public hall. The question was how to arrange the facilities within the park. In his entry, Tange proposed drawing a line straight from a road running east to west across the site’s southern end to the dome in the north, and arranging the main structures parallel to the road. The competition received 132 entries from all over Japan, but it was Tange’s entry, symbolically incorporating the dome into the design, that won first place. During the final planning stage, the design was altered to include a cenotaph on the north-south axis.
A debate had arisen after the war concerning whether to leave intact buildings that had been damaged by the bombing, like the dome, which had been the European-style Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, used for exhibitions, and one of the city’s most famous places. Those opposed to it said that preserving such structures would bring back memories that were already difficult for citizens to forget, but the British Commonwealth Occupation Force’s reconstruction adviser in Hiroshima, Maj. S.A. Jarvie, argued that they should be preserved as tourism resources. According to the Aug. 1, 1948, edition of Hiroshima’s Chugoku Shimbun newspaper, the Hiroshima Tourism Association reflected Jarvie’s wishes by announcing a list of 12 “atomic bomb sightseeing destinations,” including the dome. Jarvie was charged with promoting the Hiroshima Peace Park project, and he visited Tange in 1948, before the competition, to discuss the idea of a memorial hall. No record remains of the conversation, but judging from the fact that Tange’s competition entry incorporated the dome, we may surmise that it found favor with him. By May 1949, Jarvie’s term as reconstruction adviser had ended, making it unclear whether he influenced the selection of Tange’s entry.
Although the debate over whether to leave the Atomic Bomb Dome standing has continued, there is no question that it remains a symbol of peace today, 78 years after the bombing, because Tange symbolically incorporated it into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.