“Hiroshima”, Alexandre Mitchell, 2023 (50 x 65 cm, Indian ink)
On August 6, 1945, Humanity entered the Atomic age. Nothing in history comes close to this staggering display of destructive power and human loss. The yield of the explosion was estimated at 15,000 tons of TNT. Just one kilogram of TNT can obliterate a car. The bomb equated to 15 million kilos of TNT. A few minutes after the blast, almost every inhabitant within 1km of ground zero was dead, nearly every structure within 2km was destroyed and building windows shattered some 20km away. Between the initial blast wave, the heat wave that caused birds to burst into flames in mid-air and paper to ignite 2km away, the firestorm that ravaged the city and later, the radiation sickness and related-cancers, the Hiroshima death toll probably exceeded 150.000 dead.
The bomb that was dropped three days later on Nagasaki carried 40% more destructive power.
In Antiquity, the ultimate example of a man-made destruction was that of Carthage by the Romans in 146 BCE. After several bloody wars at the cry of ‘Delenda est Carthago‘, the Roman Republic finally vanquished its only contender in the Mediterranean and the image of its obliteration crossed the centuries. So much so, that some even went to say that the Romans had ploughed the city and poured salt for they wished for nothing to ever grow again. The destruction followed a long-sought victory. Yet in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the destruction was not punitive, it was a threat. It preceded the Japanese surrender and allied victory.
This may explain, beyond Japan’s capitulation, the incredible choice of that nation to surrender centuries of military tradition in order to embrace a non-violent identity. It did so with the same sense of honour, the same dedication and striving for perfection. This emergence of a new pacifist identity led Japan in later years to become a global peace broker.
‘A-bomb Dome’, the only structure that remained standing near ground zero of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, its distinctive metal frame preserved in its ruined state is a stark reminder for the human species of the devastating impact of nuclear warfare.
One of the many fascinating aspects of Japanese society is how it perceives itself as secular. In fact, most of its population considers itself atheist. This is also visible in the demographics of religious affiliation. No single religion is particularly dominant, and people often follow a combination of practices from multiple religious traditions. But is Japan truly secular?
What of Shinto, ‘The way of the gods’, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people? The Kami, or Shinto gods are elemental beings, sacred spirits that take the shape of natural processes like fertility, but also of elements of nature like mountains, rivers, forests and wind. Shinto practices, shrines and festivals (matsuri) are so inextricably linked to Japanese tradition and social mores, that people do not think twice about them or see them as religious. When Buddhism appeared in Japan in the 6th century it quickly co-existed with Shinto traditions; more recently, in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Shinto was even made Japan’s state religion. It was only after Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II that Shinto and the State were clearly separated in the new constitution.
People still propitiate the old Shinto gods by praying at home altars or by visiting shrines. After all, humans are believed to become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. There are talismans available at shrines for every possible aspect of daily life, from good health to success in business and safe childbirth.
So not so secular after all. Moreover, beyond animist beliefs and ancestor worship rituals, there is some room for the invisible, the unexplained and those elemental beings that lurk in the shadows: I speak of the yōkai (ghost, demon or supernatural phenomenon) and yūrei, which instill fear in and respect at dangerous times or in liminal spaces. There is a wide variety of these supernatural beings in Japanese culture, from the scariest to the most bizarre or zany ones. Originally, these creatures represented the fear of the unknown and unexplained ailments. As time went on, they marked people’s growing interest with the invisible. They are an integral part of Japanese culture, represented in numerous festivals and in the media. Because of their ambiguous status and liminal nature they are also used to teach children the kind of moral values found in Japanese fairy tales.
In my drawing, I imagined how the same yōkai who terrified sailors, villagers and townspeople for centuries flee in terror from the unnatural power of the atom.
In other parts of the world, during times of epidemics or devastating cataclysms, people turn to religion, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu. But the ultimate catastrophe happened in Japan where organised religion is practically non-existent. However, this meant that the true culprit could be pointed out, Man.
To end a horrifying conflict, man altered the seeds of creation. Nothing would ever be the same again. Maybe the absence of a religion with absolute answers is why a true peace memorial can have its place in Hiroshima and be open to all men, regardless of their personal beliefs.