Photo/Illutration A building of the former Hiroshima Army Clothing Depot (Haruna Ishikawa)

What should be done to ensure that memories of the horrors that occurred under the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago will be passed down through future generations?

With the ranks of the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of these cities shrinking year after year, buildings and facilities that survived the devastation are valuable witnesses that help keep memories about people who lived at that time remembered as part of history. 

Preserving and making good use of them is a duty of Japan as the only country that has ever suffered nuclear attacks in war.

In Hiroshima, debate is raging on the prefectural government’s plan to partially demolish an old garment depot that survived the atomic bombing of the city.

The four buildings of the former Hiroshima Army Clothing Depot were built in 1913 from concrete reinforced with steel bars and have brick outer walls. The depot was used to make military uniforms and shoes.

The facility symbolized Hiroshima’s role as a hub of military operations during Japan’s military expansion abroad but also provided temporary shelter to victims immediately after the bomb was dropped on the city. Many people died within the facility.

Late last year, the Hiroshima prefectural government, which owns three of the four buildings of the former clothing depot, proposed to repair one of them and demolish the remaining two. There are concerns about the quake resistance of the buildings, located close to a residential area, while it would cost more than 8 billion yen ($75.5 million) to renovate all the three, according to the local government.

But a chorus of calls for preserving all the buildings has arisen among atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha, and citizen groups since the proposal was made.

The prefectural government has put off making the final decision but the site’s future remains uncertain.

Chieko Kiriake, a 90-year-old hibakusha, was mobilized for work at the depot while she was a student. In the final days of World War II, she recalls washing many used military uniforms with apparent bullet holes and blood on them.

The buildings should “stay alive as silent witnesses that express opposition to war even after all people with first-hand memories of those days are gone,” Kiriake says.

These words reflect her strong feelings toward buildings left standing after the atomic bombing.

The former clothing depot is not the only remnant from the destruction by the atomic bombings that could disappear in the near future.

Nagasaki is facing the question of where and how to preserve the former No. 3 annex to the Nagasaki prefectural government’s main buildings, which was a police station at the time of the atomic bombing. Many such buildings that survived the atomic bombing have already been demolished because of dilapidation or urban development projects.

Pope Francis visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima last year and in his speech at the blast hypocenter in Nagasaki, he said, “This place reminds us that we human beings can make mistakes,” stressing the importance of handing down memories of the nuclear devastation to future generations.

The central government has designated the Genbaku Dome, or the Atomic Bomb Dome, in Hiroshima and ruins in Nagasaki as national historic sites. But it should step up its efforts to preserve and make effective use of these buildings and facilities that were damaged but not totally destroyed by the bombs.

One acid test of the central government’s commitment to the cause is how it will deal with one of the four buildings of the former clothing depot in Hiroshima it owns.

These buildings have been used by citizen groups for such events as inspection tours and public readings of poems about the atomic bombing and against war as attempts to make meaningful use of what they stand for.

The central government should work with the local administrations to promote such efforts and consider providing financial support for them.

The Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki features a map reproducing the townscape in areas around ground zero before the bombing. The late Tsukasa Uchida, who led a citizens' group dedicated to preserving and publishing testimonies about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and died in April at the age of 90, spent many years creating the map.

On the map, all houses bear the names of the residents at that time.

These buildings and their sites tell stories about the lives of people who once lived there and the injustice of how they were lost. We all need to listen to the silent voices of these witnesses of history.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 24