Twenty-six years ago, there was a diplomatic row over a postage stamp. In November 1994, the US post office announced plans to issue a series of collectable stamps commemorating key events in the Second World War. One of them depicted the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. The design was simple. Accompanying the familiar tower of dust and smoke were the words: “Atomic bombs hasten war’s end, August 1945”.
Upon seeing it, the Japanese prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, declared the design an “affront to the feelings” of his people. Hitoshi Motoshima, the mayor of Nagasaki, condemned it as a crude celebration of “an indiscriminate massacre”. Alarmed at the row’s potential to destabilise US relations with what was then the world’s second largest economy, Bill Clinton personally intervened. He made a call from the White House, and the postmaster general pulled the plug.
If the controversy took the civvies at the post office by surprise, I don’t blame them. In the years immediately following the Second World War, US officials propagated images of mushroom clouds as symbols of military might and technological prowess, while suppressing photographs of the physical effects of the bombings. The sublime, almost romantic aerial views made their way into comics, advertising, film and news media, inviting abstracted wonder, not reflection on the enormity of the bomb’s implications for humankind. They encouraged distance, a Harry Lime-esque callousness. Do you really feel any pity for those tiny black dots – the remains of some of the 226,000 people killed in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – mixed in with the ash and debris? If some of those postal workers didn’t, that’s because they’d been taught not to.
Yoshiaki Kitagawa almost became a black dot. A garrulous 20-year-old literature student at Kyoto University, he had returned to his home prefecture of Hiroshima to visit a family friend. Accompanying him was his younger sister Aiko, 16, who attended an all-girls’ high school in the city centre. Yoshiaki had short legs that barely supported his weight – he had suffered polio as a child. As a result, he had never served in the army. All of his friends had gone to war and many had died. Yoshiaki, however, was inherently an optimist and dedicated himself to his studies, to his love of music and to his responsibilities as an elder brother.
On the morning of 6 August, Yoshiaki and Aiko were tugging on their shoes in the genkan – the entrance hall – of their friend’s house, when a blinding light pierced through the windows. What felt like a violent, indoor storm tore through the building, toppling everything in its path. The Kitagawas were lucky. They were far enough away from the blast to have suffered no immediate effects of the explosion, beyond a few bruises and cuts from broken glass.
After checking on their host, who was also relatively unscathed, they started walking south towards the harbour, hoping to take a ferry to their family home on the nearby island of Osaki Shimojima. As they approached the epicentre of the atomic explosion, the scale of the disaster became clear: the city was on fire. Charred bodies covered the narrow residential streets and river banks. The wounded called for their mothers from deep in the rubble of demolished buildings. They trudged past Aiko’s school. A girl she knew had been thrown against a wall with such force that her body now clung to it like a swatted fly.
Yoshiaki, who needed crutches to walk, was exhausted, but he and his sister made it to the harbour before dark. There, they found no ferries or boats waiting. Among the dead and dying, they sat down and waited as Hiroshima burned. There was, for now, little else they could do.
On the few occasions I asked him about that journey through jigoku – hell – my grandfather would tell this story as if he were describing a recent trip to the post office or supermarket. He recounted it simply, idly puffing on a charcoal-filtered Mild Seven cigarette that he raised to his mouth with his one good arm. My mother grew up surrounded by these memories. My grandmother had also witnessed the horror of the bombing as a pupil at a school on the outskirts of the city, where the students were drafted in to care for the dying.
That August day, I was told, was colourless. The sky, like the radioactive rain that left my grandfather bedbound for months following the attack, had turned black, and it seemed to stain the city and everyone in it. “It was like someone had smeared ink over Hiroshima,” my grandparents said. When they remembered the bombing, it was in black-and-white images.
My grandfather died two decades ago, at the age of 75. My grandmother is still alive, her sense of self erased by Alzheimer’s disease. Seventy-five years after the bombings, the only two instances of nuclear weapons being deployed on human beings are slipping from living memory.
Few would contest the sentiment inscribed on Hiroshima’s memorial cenotaph: “Rest in peace. The error shall not be repeated.”
Yet the abstraction of nuclear warfare makes the notion of it palatable for too many. The US – a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty – currently plans to spend more than a trillion dollars on updating its arsenal over the coming decades. The RAF pilot Air Commodore, Alastair Mackie, once described the UK’s Trident programme as a “stick-on hairy chest virility symbol”. That’s all nuclear weapons have ever been – in our case, cosplay machismo bought at the cost of £205bn.
Think of that figure and what it means for successive UK governments to have prioritised advanced weapons programmes over, say, pandemic readiness, when pandemics have long been placed on a higher tier of security risk than nuclear warfare. And picture that stick-on hairy chest whenever a willingness to “push the nuclear button” is presented as a mark of seriousness for political leaders. What the cloud on that stamp truly represents isn’t progress or power, but a tragic and horrifying mistake.