At risk of getting whiplash, we turned around and headed much further west for Hiroshima, a city I’d visited years ago, before I paid too much attention to cities.
Hiroshima, 1.1 million people, Japan’s number eleven. Hiroshima has a history dating back to the end of the 16th century. Like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, Hiroshima has been roughly where it is as a Japanese city since the Tokugawa age- around the lower end of the top ten. That is to say, not one of the country’s titanic cities, but still among its major population centers and definitely the biggest city on the main island west of Kansai, by far.
Unlike Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, though, Hiroshima was not controlled by the ruling house of Tokugawa. It was originally founded by Mori Mitsunari, a powerful ally of Toyotomi Hideyoshi who more or less ran the main island west of Kansai. Toyotomi’s loyalists lost out when Hideyoshi’s general Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to seize the country after his master’s death. The Mori clan was not eliminated, but they lost Hiroshima and their fiefdom was reduced to roughly modern day Yamaguchi Prefecture. Hiroshima, its fortress, and its lands, were parcelled out to other loyal vassals of the shogun.
Incidentally, it would be the the domain of Choshu, ruled by the old Mori clan, that played a prominent role in the abdication of the house Tokugawa. Some might say, a slow-burning grudge come to fruition…
After the end of the feudal era, Hiroshima rapidly modernised as an industrial and maritime city with a certain military connection. It was in the neighboring city of Kure just around the bay, after all, that the Empire’s Yamato class battleships were built. This was one of the pretexts for the nuclear attack on the city. Hiroshima, though, recovered quite fast from such a lingering blow. The city had already surpassed its prewar record population by 1955. Through growth and merger the city expanded and passed a million people for the first time in the early 1980s- making it one of Japan’s newest megacities.
The most famous symbol of the bombing is a 1910s expo center and office building that survived the explosion occurring nearly above it.
There was apparently a good deal of controversy about what to do with the husk of the building in the 1960s, a time when all war-torn Japanese cities were furiously building over again, even at the cost of their own heritage. Some expressed the opinion that the wreck should have been demolished and paved over as a sign of reconstruction, but with time the approach of keeping it as a monument has become much more widely embraced.
So what’s Hiroshima actually like as a city, anyway?
I’ll start by comparing it to other major regional centers I’ve visited. Tokyo, center of Kanto, capital of Japan, and greatest metropolitan center in the world, has great pride in its global power and relevance as a world city. Osaka, largest city of Kansai, Japan’s “Second City”, has perhaps even greater pride in its pure Osaka-ness, its local spirit. Nagoya, largest city of the region in between the two, Japan’s “third city” and “Central Capital,” seems to have none of that. Tokyoites and Osakans (that’s what I’m calling them) tend to be pretty proud of their cities and talk them up at least a little. Nagoyans tend to say they’re from the prefecture of Aichi, rather than specify Nagoya. There’s plenty in Nagoya, and it’s on the rise the same way Tokyo and Osaka are now (though to a lesser degree).
Still, Nagoya carries a rarely-mentioned “uncool” vibe in Japanese circles. My family, upon visiting it, immediately compared it to Milwaukee. Not in a physical way (Nagoya is far more populous, dense, and well-off), but in its atmosphere of aloofness, to an almost “indie” level. Nagoya keeps to itself, saving its secrets for the initiated and the truly curious, and leaving outsiders to wonder what’s so special about it, anyway.
Hiroshima, though, falls into the Osaka category. It’s a regional center with a hell of a lot of local pride, a baseball team beloved no matter their win/loss record, a freewheeling and uninhibited nightlife, and more than Osaka, remnants of the past.
It really makes you think about the strength of people and communities. This was a city that truly endured what some writers might call the “post-apocalypse”, and has not only thrived, but kept more of its heritage than many other places after the world war.