Hiroshima Memo: The unidentified souls of the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

All was serene on a raw Friday afternoon in February at the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound. The mound, rising in the northwest of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, was covered with the brittle lawn of winter's cold, dry air.

Modeled on a tomb of the late 16th century, the mound is 10 meters in diameter and 3.5 meters in height, with a small stone pagoda resting on top. Inside the mound are the remains of roughly 70,000 unidentified victims of the atomic bombing as well as 820 victims who were identified but remain unclaimed.

Colorful flowers including chrysanthemums, lilies, and carnations are placed in a large metal vase in front of the mound to soothe the souls of the dead.

Among the remains are whole families that lived near the hypocenter and perished in the bombing; bodies drawn out of the rivers and cremated; the injured who fled to villages or islands around Hiroshima but died within days and were cremated in the chaos after the bombing without being identified, then later exhumed when the mound was established; Koreans who were brought to Japan for forced labor or came for other aims; American prisoners-of-war; and others.

The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound sits apart from the heart of Peace Memorial Park where the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, and Peace Memorial Museum lie from north to south. Some A-bomb survivors refer to the mound as the "A-bomb remains," an allusion that may not be well known but symbolizes the reality of Hiroshima in that thousands of lives were lost indiscriminately in the blast, heat, and radiation produced by the atomic bomb. The mound embodies the regrets of so many who died alone, without family or friends, and perished without fulfilling the potential for their lives.

Some families submitted the death certificates of loved ones to the City of Hiroshima though the remains could not be found. The names were then added to the city's statistical survey of atomic bomb victims. These remains were undoubtedly placed inside the mound as unidentified, though the number of such remains would seem to be relatively small.

One example involves Sarugaku-cho, the former neighborhood located in the area where the Atomic Bomb Dome now stands. In 1997, a colleague, in investigating the true impact of the atomic bombing in this district, engaged in a painstaking search for former residents of the neighborhood who managed to survive the bombing because they happened to be away from the hypocenter area, evacuated to a safer location or mobilized for work. This colleague uncovered the circumstances surrounding the fates of 91 people who had died by the end of 1945.

However, according to a survey carried out by the City of Hiroshima in 1946, intending to establish the extent of damage wrought by the atomic bomb, Sarugaku-cho was comprised of 260 households and 1,055 people before the bombing. Although the number of residents on that day is thought to be fewer since some people had evacuated from the city, another survey conducted in 1995 revealed a death toll of just 240 people from 100 households.

"The devastating power of the atomic bomb is laid bare by the fact that an entire community was annihilated that day, leaving behind few facts regarding the circumstances of how the people of the Sarugaku-cho district actually died. Most of them, as in neighborhoods throughout the city of Hiroshima, simply vanished from the earth," wrote my colleague, who went on to report on the impact of the atomic bombing on neighborhoods in the hypocenter area over the next three years. The Sarugaku-cho district was the first part of this special series.

Hiroshima has reported to the United Nations that the death toll of the atomic bombing, by the end of 1945, is estimated to be 140,000 (+/- 10,000). As of the end of March 2009, the number of dead determined by the Survey of Victims of the Atomic Bombing, an effort that began in 1979 by confirming the name of each A-bomb victim against the record, stands at 89,031. However, this attempt to grasp a more precise picture of the death toll is clearly a difficult task when taking into account the circumstances of the hypocenter area and the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, which holds the remains of many victims who are unidentified to this day.

"For the dignity of each human being, and to avoid repeating the same evil that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the true extent of the A-bomb damage must be established." With this resolve, both A-bombed cities have continued their quest to identify the victims, even 65 years after the bombings. The more time passes, however, the more difficult this effort becomes.

A large number of unidentified victims linger in the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound. It will be difficult to accept, but their remains may never be identified. The mound, dubbed the "A-bomb remains" by A-bomb survivors, has come to symbolize the immense destruction and cruelty wrought by nuclear weapons. The implication for today, with the devastating power of these weapons at a much greater magnitude, is the fact that a nuclear war would result in no survivors at all to collect and care for the dead. In such a scenario, there would only be victims.


140,000 (+/- 10,000)
The estimate of the number of those who had died in Hiroshima by the end of 1945 was originally made in 1976 by the Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damages Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was chaired by Seiji Imabori, then a professor at Hiroshima University. The committee’s estimate for Nagasaki was 70,000 (+/- 10,000). The report was submitted to the secretary-general of the United Nations by the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Minoru Yuzaki, an associate professor at Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, served as a member of the committee. He said his figure was based on the population of the city and its environs as well as estimates of those in the city who were from outside the prefecture, military personnel and Korean forced laborers.

(Originally published on Feb. 22, 2010)

Related articles
Effort to clarify number of A-bomb victims who died by the end of 1945 (Feb. 27, 2010)

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