Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
More than seven decades have passed since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. When people look back at the history of urban conflict, many see the bomb as a reminder of the cruelty of warfare. Nonetheless, for Hiroshima and its citizens, the atomic bomb was also a milestone and a junction in the city’s urban development. The blast and the subsequent fires devastated most of the city’s built-up area and completely destroyed buildings within a two-kilometer radius of the hypocenter. Despite the widespread destruction, Hiroshima has set its path towards a long reconstruction process and was able to claim the status of a Mecca for world peace.
Today, Hiroshima’s once-destroyed city center is a vibrant area in the city and urban vitality has found its way back to the heart of Hiroshima. The recovery was a long and challenging task that continued for decades after the disaster. The transformation of Hiroshima into a Peace Memorial City was largely steered by memorialism-driven reconstruction, which was a materialization of the Peace Memorial City Construction Act in 1949 and the Peace Memorial City Construction Plan in 1952. Nonetheless, examining the revival of Hiroshima through the lens of the neighborhood instead of a macro view of a masterplan for the whole city gives new perspectives and insights on how each neighborhood has contributed to the recovery of the city. Insights from the case of Hiroshima provide clues to how post-war reconstruction and its following urban development were able to bring the city center back to the daily life of the citizens.
Towards a Memorial Hiroshima
Along with many other Japanese cities devastated by air raids, Hiroshima began its journey towards reconstruction soon after the war. At the national level, the national government issued the Basic Policy for the Reconstruction of War-damaged Areas in December 1945 to provide the general guidelines for reconstruction plans, projects, and execution. However, Hiroshima’s infamous destiny was the catalyst for an image-shift in the city, which also corresponded to the contextual circumstances at that time. While different reconstruction efforts were made in the immediate years after the bombing, the Peace Memorial City Construction Act and Plan were eventually the framework for the city’s new image as a memorial city.
In terms of reconstruction planning, land readjustment plans, transportation network plans, and land-use plans were all prepared for the devastated area. Both Hiroshima city and its prefecture were involved in the execution of the plans in the designated damaged territory by dividing the territory into two sectors: the western sector where plans were carried out by the prefecture, and the eastern sector where they were carried out by the city. While the planning was done in a manner consistent with the pre-war modus operandi, these plans brought some major changes to the urban layout in Hiroshima, such as the Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Boulevard. The planning of the memorial park in the heart of the city was in harmony with the post-war new memorial image of Hiroshima. On the other hand, the Peace Boulevard’s importance comes from a contextual necessity, since it was originally a wartime plan as a firebreak for disaster prevention. Former mayor Shinzo Hamai has described the purpose of the plan in his memoir: “if the central area had an East-West division, the city could be divided into twelve blocks by the rivers and empty land. Even if a major fire takes place, it could be contained within one block.”
The Comeback of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods
While reconstruction plans are usually made on a large, comprehensive level to set the path towards an overall recovery, the stories behind the revival of Hiroshima’s neighborhoods represent episodes of success and struggle in the course of this recovery. Those neighborhood-based episodes in a war-torn city are the unique pieces in the mosaic of the history of reconstruction in the city. In the case of Hiroshima, some neighborhoods went through major transformations or witnessed key highlights in the post-war reconstruction era either related or not to the new memorial image of the city. Hakushima for instance, a residential neighborhood in northern Naka ward, gives an example of transnational urbanism in a time where foreign advisors were contributing to the reconstruction planning of the city. Stanley Archibald Jarvie from the British Commonwealth Forces (BCOF) was assigned as a reconstruction advisor in Hiroshima during the occupation of Japan. He elaborated a plan for Hakushima where he implemented western planning concepts . In the end, his plan was not implemented, but it remains evidence of the flow of cross-cultural planning ideas during that period.
Another well-known example of the post-war transformation during the reconstruction era can be seen in Nakajima neighborhood in the city center. After its devastation by the atomic bombing, the once-vibrant neighborhood in the heart of the city was instantly destroyed due to its proximity to the hypocenter. In an endeavor to memorialize destruction by the disaster, Nakajima neighborhood was turned into a Peace Memorial Park based on the design of Kenzo Tange. Today, the park is a popular tourist destination and the venue for the annual peace memorial ceremony. The peace memorial museum in the park tells the story of the bombing of Hiroshima to its visitors from all over the world.
A different sort of transformation can be seen in the redevelopment of Motomachi neighborhood. The once military-use area in Central Hiroshima was turned into a residential neighborhood. This was made possible since the Peace Memorial City Construction Act facilitated the transfer of ownership of previously military-use lands from the national government to the city. After the bombing, illegal houses were built in Motomachi, and their fire-prone environment was a long-standing challenge for reconstruction in the city. It took reconstruction efforts up to the late 1970s to reintegrate the military lands in Motomachi by turning them into civic facilities, parks, and public housing. After demolishing the illegal housing, the construction of mid-rise public housing continued from 1956 through 1968. Later, a plan for high-rise housing was made by Masato Otaka which showed another example of cross-cultural urbanism manifested by piloti-style design and rooftop gardens. Currently, the once militarized area contains several civic facilities, such as the Hiroshima Central Library, the Hiroshima Museum of Art, and sports facilities. By the end of the reconstruction era, the military character of Motomachi has been abandoned; however, the housing project is currently facing new challenges like deteriorating buildings and ageing residents.
Another revival episode highlights the role of the citizens in rebuilding their neighborhood as seen in Hondori Commercial Street. Hondori’s location close to the center of the explosion led to its large-scale devastation by the bomb. Out of the 160 shops that were open on the day of the bombing, only a few heavily-damaged reinforced concrete buildings remained. Despite this situation, shop owners have played an important role in stimulating the reconstruction process in a time where resources were limited. After one month of the atomic bombing, business owners gathered in Hondori on September 15, 1945 to discuss the reconstruction of the commercial street, forming what they called Kusawake-kai (Pioneers Association). The case of Hondori Commercial Street sheds light on how reconstruction efforts have helped the city center reclaim its vitality despite having to begin again essentially from scratch. In 1954, Hondori was turned into an arcade street, making it one of the largest scale arcades in Western Japan. Shops went back to the commercial street, and so did people. Currently, Hondori is a vital area in the city center, despite its near total destruction in the atomic bombing.
The above-mentioned episodes of revival show that looking back at the history of reconstruction of cities after calamities should not only cover how the city as a whole was rebuilt or planned but also how individual neighborhoods have contributed to this recovery. Histories of reconstruction should examine how the damaged neighborhoods had their unique stories and protagonists, and how all of these stories complement each other to create a larger narrative of the city’s reconstruction.
References and Further Reading
Hiroshima Toshiseikatsu Kenkyuukai, Reconstruction of Hiroshima: Pictorial History of Forty Years since Atomic Bombing, Hiroshima City, (1985): 29.
Shinzo Hamai, Genbaku Shichou – Fukkoku-Ban, Shift Project, (2011): 78.
Hiroshima city, Hiroshima Shinshi: Toshibunkahen, Hiroshima City. (1983):71.
Sensai Fukkou Jigyoushi Henshuu Kenkyuukai and Hiroshima-shi Toshiseibi-kyoku Toshiseibibu Kukakuseiri-ka, Sensai fukkou Jigyou-Shi, Hiroshima city, (1995): 51.
Itsuki Igawa, Hiroshima hondori monogatari – 577 no butai ni ikiduku ninngen moyou, NanNan Publishing, (2013):135.
Hiroshima Hondori Shoutengai Shinkou Kumiai, Hiroshima hondori shoutengai no ayumi, Hiroshima Hondori Shoutengai Shinkou Kumiai. (2000): 57.
Allam Al-Kazei is a member of the Urban Multicultural Planning Laboratory at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. He is pursuing his doctoral studies in Urban Planning with focus on post-conflict reconstruction. His research interests include reconstruction planning, urban renewal, and urban redevelopment in a post warfare context. He approaches these topics by examining previous cities which were rebuilt after the war. Allam is currently carrying out research on the impact of reconstruction planning on post-recovery urban vitality in conflict-affected areas. He has carried out research on cities which were devastated by human warfare such as Beirut and Hiroshima. He is a member of multiple academic communities both inside Japan such as the City Planning Institute of Japan, and overseas such as the International Planning History Society. Allam has given presentations in several international academic conferences, forums, and workshops.
Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:
Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.
Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.
Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.
Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.
Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, 25 September 2019.
Citation: Allam Al-Kazei, Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.10.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19756.