Hiroshima Atomic Bomb: A Simple Toll Of A Bell Signals The Moment 80,000 Died

The silence was broken only by the toll of a single temple bell and the chirping of cicadas in their mid-summer prime.

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In sight of the scarred A-bomb dome and the river where thousands had sought sanctuary from the heat and flames, the people of Hiroshima stood as one on Thursday morning to remember the moment a explosion like no other levelled their city and triggered a new and uncertain nuclear age.

At 8.15am, the exact time the US B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped Little Boy, a 16-kiloton atomic bomb, on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, an estimated 40,000 people bowed their heads in a silent tribute to the 140,000 people who died, more than half of them in an instant.

This was chiefly a time for personal reflection for the many survivors and their relatives who had been arriving at the Peace Memorial Park since dawn; but there were fears too, about the world’s seemingly unbreakable addiction to nuclear deterrence, and about Japan’s own commitment to its postwar pacifism.

The conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was greeted with polite applause after he vowed that Japan, as the only country to have been targeted by an atomic weapon, had an “important mission” to promote nuclear disarmament, even as the global club of nuclear states threatens to grow.

Addressing an audience that included the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, and US under-secretary for arms control Rose Gottemoeller, Abe said Japan would take the disarmament campaign to the United Nations general assembly this autumn and put it on the agenda for G7 meetings to be held in Japan, including Hiroshima, next year.

A tolling bell marks the 70th anniversary on Thursday of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

Japan would, he said, “encourage world leaders to get first-hand accounts of the tragic reality of atomic bombings”.

But the most emphatic call for action on nonproliferation came from Hiroshima’s mayor, Kazumi Matsui, who made a direct appeal to Barack Obama to make good on a promise to rid the world of nuclear weapons during a 2009 speech in Prague.

The world “bristles” with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons that represent the “absolute inhumanity and the absolute evil”, Matsui said.

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“President Obama and other policymakers, please come to the A-bombed cities, hear the survivors with your own ears, and encounter the reality of the atomic bombings. You will be impelled to start discussing a legal framework, including a nuclear weapons convention.”

Matsui had an equally stark message for Abe, whose ongoing campaign to reinterpret Japan’s postwar “pacifist” constitution to allow troops to fight alongside allies overseas made for an uneasy political backdrop to Thursday’s ceremony.

On Wednesday, the defence minister, Gen Nakatani, conceded the new security laws could – in theory – allow Japan to transport nuclear weapons to its allies, although he immediately dismissed the idea as “unlikely”.

Most voters oppose the new security legislation – now being debated in the upper house of parliament – but the public attachment to Japan’s strictly defensive postwar military credo perhaps runs deepest in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Children perform a die-in in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on the 70th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing. Children perform a die-in in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on the 70th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bombing. Photograph: Kyodo/Reuters

As police kept a small group of protesters a safe distance from the ceremony, Matsui said: “We must establish a broad national security framework that does not rely on use of force but is based on trust,” adding that the Abe administration must retain “the pacifism of the Japanese constitution”.

Akira Nishimatsu, a Hiroshima resident who attended the ceremony, said the memorial should have given Abe pause for thought.

“Now that he’s here he should take the time to take a good look, talk to survivors and then maybe he will think twice about turning Japan into a country that could go to war again,” he said.

Concern that the horrors of the bombing, and of a second nuclear attack on the city of Nagasaki three days later, resonate less with every passing year was underlined with the addition to the peace park cenotaph of the names of A-bomb survivors – or hibakusha – who died in the past 12 months.

The names of an additional 5,359 people were added, bringing the total death toll in Hiroshima to 297,684.

The average age of remaining witnesses to the attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki rose to just over 80 for the first time earlier this year, prompting some campaigners to encourage young Japanese with no family ties to the attacks to become A-bomb “storytellers”.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, sent a message in which he thanked the people of Hiroshima for “reminding all people of the need for urgent action” to eliminate nuclear weapons.

“In the months after the bombing, it was said that trees and other plants would not grow for 75 years,” he said.

“Now, seven decades later, this vibrant city is proof of the resilience of its people and a monument to the indomitable spirit of humanity.

“You are an inspiration to the world, which has a responsibility to honour your experience by ensuring a world free of nuclear weapons.”

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