Hiroshima: the very word stirs images of the horror of war, the city where the first atomic bomb was dropped on 6 August, 1945, bringing in its wake unimaginable misery and suffering. The bomb created a heatwave that reached 3,000-4,000 degrees Centigrade on the ground and winds of up to 440 meters per second. The blast instantly killed 80,000 people, and within a year nearly double that number had succumbed to injuries or radiation sickness.

By the standards of Tokyo or Osaka, Hiroshima is not a large city. Its population of about 1.2 million doesn’t even put it in the top ten largest cities in Japan. If Tokyo and Osaka roar, Hiroshima hums. Nearly three-quarters of a century after the bomb destroyed 90% of the city centre, Hiroshima has reinvented itself as a city of peace, a city symbolizing the sincere pursuit of genuine and lasting peace throughout the world. While another world war seems, at least for the present, only a remote possibility, numerous wars on a lesser scale continue to plague the planet, and dangerously unstable countries are constantly jockeying for possession of nuclear weapons. The message – and plea – from Hiroshima is for an end to all wars. In 2015, with a view towards the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the city of Hiroshima embarked on a five-year plan to send to the world its urgent message of peace through the international language of music. Together with Warsaw, another city that suffered frightfully in World War 2, they have embarked on a joint musical effort, the Music for Peace Project 2016-2020, to present concerts promoting peace.

Martha Argerich and Kazuyoshi Akiyama
© Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra Archive Team

At the core of this project is the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1963 as the Hiroshima Civic Symphony Orchestra. It acquired its present name in 1970, and the HSO now presents about 150 concerts a year, many of them under the leadership of Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Honorary Conductor for Life. When pianist Martha Argerich learned of the HSO’s venture in 2014, she came on board, and the following year she was designated Peace and Music Ambassador of the Hiroshima Symphony. In August 2015, Argerich and the HSO joined forces for concerts in Hiroshima and Tokyo commemorating the 70th anniversary of the A-bomb attack and the end of World War 2. At the pianist’s request, these concerts included narrations about the horrors of Auschwitz in Poland and of the bombing in Hiroshima. “Our mission is to keep the memory of tragedy alive,” said Argerich, “and I believe that music can be a powerful inspiration and support to achieve this. The crime of using nuclear weapons and the crime for using racism and ethnocentrism to solve disputes should never happen. I believe Hiroshima will play an important role in terminating such crimes in the future.” 

The Music for Peace Project organised a series of concerts from 2017 to 2020, mostly in Hiroshima but also one each in Fukuoka, Warsaw, and Tokyo. The first of these was given on 16 February 2017, and set the pattern and tone for those yet to come. Musicians from foreign orchestras – the Sinfonia Varsovia in Warsaw and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (Montreal being one of Hiroshima’s six sister cities) – were invited to join the HSO in a program of music by Chopin (Piano Concerto no. 2) Beethoven (Symphony no. 5), and a Japanese composer, Dai Fujikura. Beethoven and Japanese composers are represented on nearly every subsequent Music for Peace program as well. Critics from six countries in Europe and North America attended. The presence of Chopin on the program underscored Music for Peace’s Polish connection, both as the country’s most famous composer and as its renowned International Chopin Piano Competition, whose second-prize winner in 2015, Canadian Charles Richard-Hamelin, was the guest soloist.

Peter Serkin and Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra
© Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra Archive Team

The year of the Tokyo Olympics, 2020, will also mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 75th of the end of the war, the 250th of Beethoven’s birth, and the next Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. For this landmark year, and as an essential element of the Olympics’ cultural program, an International Peace Orchestra consisting of the HSO plus about twenty musicians from various foreign countries will perform concerts on 5 and 6 August (the very dates the bomb was dropped – the 6th in Japan, still the 5th in the US). Tatsuya Shimono, General Music Director of the HSO, will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth with a lineup of soloists from four countries: Japan (mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura), Poland (tenor Arnold Rutkowski), Germany (baritone Thomas E. Bauer) and the US (soprano Nicole Cabell). Preceding Beethoven’s resounding plea for the brotherhood of all mankind will be the world premiere of Fujikura’s Piano Concerto no. 4 with Martha Argerich as soloist.

For this concerto, two pianos will be used. Argerich will play a modern Steinway for most of it, but the cadenza will be performed on a very special instrument, a Baldwin upright manufactured in Cincinnati in 1926 which has become known as “Akiko’s piano.”  

Akiko Kawamoto was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents. In 1933 at the age of six, she and her family moved to Hiroshima, bringing with them the piano her father had purchased. Akiko derived great pleasure from her piano studies in Japan. She was nineteen when the bomb destroyed Hiroshima, and she became a casualty the next day, succumbing to radiation sickness. The piano survived, though it was embedded with glass shards from the blast, and remained untouched for sixty years. In 2005 it came into the possession of a family friend, who brought it to a piano technician, Hiroshi Sakaibara, for restoration. When Peter Serkin happened to be in Hiroshima for performances of a concerto with the HSO in 2017, he was introduced to this piano, immediately fell in love with its sound and made a recording of it with music by Bach, Mozart and Chopin, entitled Music for Peace

Serkin finds in this piano “a poignant connection to the girl herself and to all the so many others who died and suffered from the dropping of that horrible bomb. […] [It] has a voice of its own, reminiscent of the tone of some lovely old 18th- and 19th-century pianos, with its warm and human voice, which wants to sing! Its singing consoles us, and can also express a gratitude for life itself.”

The concerts on 5 and 6 August 2020 will mark the culmination of Hiroshima’s Music for Peace project, but five others are scheduled to precede it in 2019 and 2020. Of immediate interest is the event next month, 24 February, in Hiroshima. Christian Arming, Principal Guest Conductor of the HSO, will lead the orchestra and guest musicians from the Orchestre de Paris and Sinfonia Varsovia in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Japan’s supervirtuoso, pianist Makoto Ozone, will be soloist in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1, and timpanist Mathias Müller from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra will be featured in a sinfonia by Graupner

Further concerts will be held in Hiroshima on 20 June 2019 with Krzysztof Penderecki conducting his Prelude for Peace, Second Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s Eighth; 5 August 2019 with Arming conducting Toshio Hosokawa, Shostakovich and Mahler; 17 and 18 August 2019 in Warsaw, and 12 March 2020 in Tokyo, with Arming conducting Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Ninth Symphony.

Inside the Cenotaph are inscribed nearly 300,000 names of those who lost their lives to the bomb
© Paul Muenzner

Beyond attending Music for Peace concerts, the visitor to Hiroshima can reflect on the city’s past at the Peace Memorial Park. Here are located the sobering Peace Museum, which hosts more than one million visitors every year; the Peace Bell, a symbol that resounds for a world free from bombs and wars; the Flame of Peace, which will be extinguished only when the planet is finally free of nuclear weapons; and the Cenotaph, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Kenzo Tange and inside whose central stone arch are inscribed nearly 300,000 names of those who lost their lives to the bomb. Nearby is the Atomic Bomb Dome, the most symbolic building in all of Hiroshima. It stands just meters away from the hypocenter of the atomic bomb blast and has become an icon for the world’s prayers for peace and nuclear disarmament.

In addition to the Peace Museum, Hiroshima boasts several more notable museums: the Hiroshima Museum of Art, which has a large collection of French renaissance art; the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum, located next to Shukkei-en Garden. The 16-century Rijo Castle (demolished by the bomb but rebuilt after the war) houses a museum devoted to life during the Edo period. 

Itsukushima (also known as Miyajima) is an easy day trip from Hiroshima
© Jordy Meow

A popular, easy day trip from Hiroshima is a visit to Itsukushima (also known as Miyajima), a sacred island famed for its striking vermillion gateway leading to one of the nation’s holiest Shinto shrines: here one can view one of the three most famous scenic spots in all Japan.

On a lighter note, Hiroshima is famed as a destination for oyster-lovers. Another local specialty not to be missed is okonomiyaki – savoury pancakes generously filled with cabbage, other vegetables and seafood or meat, cooked on a griddle. In addition, Hiroshima is a center for the sake trade (the equivalent of California’s Napa Valley for wine), with more than fifty brewers and countless sake bars scattered throughout the city.

Hiroshima today looks pretty much like any other Japanese city of comparable size, with its broad streets, office towers, apartment blocks, convenience stores, coffee shops, and copious parks and gardens. But to Kazumi Matsui, the current mayor of Hiroshima and son of a hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor), the city is “a holy site – somewhere people can come to compare the horrors of the past with the city Hiroshima has become today.”


This article was sponsored by the Hiroshima Symphony Association.