HIROSHIMA, Japan — In a poignant ceremony, Japan marked the apocalyptic advent of the nuclear age 50 years ago today with doves, song and silent prayer for the victims of Hiroshima.
At exactly 8:15 a.m.--the historic moment when an American B-29 dropped the world's first atomic bomb over this western Japanese city--Hiroshima became hushed, as heads bowed amid a silence broken only by the striking of the city peace bell and the incessant drone of cicadas.
For one full minute, all debate over the nuclear attack, war and peace, guilt and blame stopped as thousands of people here united in a prayer of solace for those who suffered--and a wish that no one should ever again be subjected to a similar fate.
"On the day of the atomic bombing, people died in an instant. They died while seeking help, while suffering agony," Hiroshima sixth-grader Kenji Yamaguchi read from a children's declaration under hazy skies before a crowd estimated at 60,000 at the city's Peace Memorial Park. The gathering included Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, bereaved families, citizen activists and visitors from around the world.
"We have come to feel ever more strongly that the tragedy of Hiroshima must never be repeated," the declaration said.
The "Little Boy" bomb brought an end to the bloodiest war in history, perhaps saved many lives and paved the way for the transformation of a militaristic Japan into a democratic nation boasting the world's second-richest economy and a national constitution renouncing war.
But the bomb also caused ghastly deaths not only of soldiers but also of tens of thousands of schoolchildren, mothers, the elderly and other civilians. They were rocked by the bomb's tremendous blast, seared by a scorching heat and exposed to the largest single dose of radiation ever unleashed on humans.
Although casualty estimates vary, the city recently said 87,833 had perished by December, 1945, and that 192,020 have died of bomb-related causes as of today.
People clogged the city's rivers and died whimpering for water. They died as their charred skin came off, "like peeling a banana," one survivor recalled. Others--who survived the blast and the heat--died when their weakened bodies, punctured by glass and other flying debris, succumbed to the insidious effects of radiation on their blood and tissue.
"I cannot but repeat in the strongest possible terms that the development and possession of nuclear weapons constitutes a crime against humanity," Hiroshima Mayor Takashi Hiraoka declared in a statement at the 64-minute peace ceremony.
Mindful of the need to acknowledge Japan as aggressor as well as victim, however, Hiraoka also said, "The suffering of all the war's victims indelibly etched in our hearts, we want to apologize for the unbearable suffering that Japanese colonial domination and war inflicted on so many people." The statement was broader than previous ones, in which he offered regrets only to Japan's Asian war victims.
Prime Minister Murayama reiterated Japan's firm intent never to own, develop or use nuclear weapons and to work for global disarmament "as the only nation in the history of humankind to experience the devastation of atomic bombing." He also urged China and France to halt nuclear testing.
Visitors began camping out Saturday at the peace park, a green expanse of monuments, a museum and an eternal flame. Wearing everything from backpacks to Buddhist robes, they lighted incense and burned candles, offered prayers and placed colored wreaths of paper cranes at the memorial sites.
The cranes are a famous symbol of Sadako Sasaki, a schoolgirl who was told she would recover from her debilitating radiation disease if she folded 1,000 cranes. But she died at age 11 after folding 964.
By 6 a.m. today, small groups had gathered to commemorate the day in their own ways. Strumming guitars, about two dozen Hiroshima high school students sang "We Are the World" and other songs before the children's memorial monument.
"We have no power but song, which can express our hopes and wishes," the group leader told the early morning crowd. "They say songs have no national boundaries and can remain in people's hearts."
The first ceremony began at 6:15 a.m., an ecumenical gathering to commemorate the tens of thousands of unidentified victims whose ashes are buried at the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound. Stepping up to an altar laden with flowers, fruit and drinks, Shinto priests performed purification rites, while Christian ministers sang hymns and offered prayers and Buddhist monks chanted.
For Nobuko Kioka, 60, the ceremony stirred anguished memories of two sisters and a brother who died in the atomic attack but whose bodies were never recovered. Kioka, a fifth-grader at the time who escaped unscathed, said she usually mourns in the privacy of her own home.