As the last generation of hibakusha, literally, the “explosion-affected people,” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki pass on their stories, silent witnesses—the hibaku jumoku or “a-bombed trees”—stand hidden in plain view. Living in school yards, temple grounds, gardens and city squares, these trees, like countless non-combatant humans and animals, were subjected to the devastating impacts of the atomic bombs. First, intense heat from the nuclear reaction created a fireball over one million degrees—and set off an instantaneous flash exposing those below to temperatures up to 4000˚ Celsius causing instant combustion, flash burns and melting the surfaces of ceramic roof tiles. Second, the bombs created tremendous blasts with pressures roughly equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, initially exerting extreme downward pressures, crushing buildings and breaking branches, stripping clothing from people and leaves from trees; this was accompanied by a shock wave shattering and hurling broken glass, ceramics and all manner of loose objects, flattening walls, pushing over trees, and destroying temples, homes, and municipal buildings. Accompanying this catastrophic physical damage were deadly doses of invisible (and at that time, little understood) radiation, with alpha, beta and gamma rays impacting human, animal and plant life down to their very DNA and contaminating water, soil and air. Following the blast, thousands of household fires erupted throughout the cities, creating a massive firestorm in Hiroshima similar to a tornado, devastating what was left standing and burning countless victims trapped in their toppled homes. In other parts of the cities, a radioactive oily black rain fell, further exposing the populace to dangerous levels of radioactivity.
Among the smoking ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stood thousands of dead and broken trees. As days and weeks passed, people who appeared unscathed by the bomb began to die in waves; rumors spread of an atomic plague where nothing would grow for 70 years. To the relief of survivours and returnees, by mid-September, fireweed, morning glory, day lily’s and other fast-growing species bloomed with vigor. As John Hershey records in Hiroshima, “Over everything—up through the wreckage of the city, in gutters, along the riverbanks, tangled among tiles and tin roofing, climbing on charred tree trunks—was a blanket of fresh, vivid, lush, optimistic green.”1 Trees, which had been burned and broken, also sprouted new growth, sometimes one or two years later, bringing hope to those rebuilding the rubble-strewn cities.
Lovingly tended and often supported with wooden poles, these trees stand as living witnesses to cataclysmic events. Bearing the scars of heat, blast and fire, and forever altered by exposure to radiation, they signify the persistence of life in the face of total destruction. For survivors, they are living links to a history hidden in plain sight. In Hiroshima, a registry has been created by the municipal government; currently some 160 trees are counted and inscribed and labeled with their common names and distances from the hypocenter. Some, like the Plane trees at Tenma Elementary School, serve as touchstones in the children’s peace education programs, spanning first through sixth grades. Often, elderly hibakusha gather children around the a-bombed trees and speak to them about those dark times—and the hope brought by the trees in the face of so much death and destruction.
In the wake of nuclear holocausts, the hibaku jumoku returned from blackened stumps, giving survivors hope for a second chance; today they continue to signify the tenacity of life over death, giving hope for a post-nuclear weapons future. The hibaku jumoku take on new meaning in an era of threatened alliances and the rush to modernize nuclear arsenals with “usable” low-yield weapons. In the face of broken nuclear arms control treaties, these trees remind us of the fragility of life and the horror of nuclear war. With the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, thus far ratified by 19 of the 50 countries needed to make it international law, there is movement to ban the weapons, holding the promise that the a-bombed trees may yet be appreciated by generations to come.
1 John Hershey, Hiroshima, (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 69. The full text was originally published in The New Yorker Magazine, August, 1946.