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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Pride of Hiroshima

Fumio Kanda

Sep. 3, 2015

Seventy years ago, on August 6th, an atomic bomb turned Hiroshima into a burning wasteland. There was a rumor that radioactivity would stop any grass or flowers from growing there for 75 years. Today, over one-million people call Hiroshima home. The city has shown the world how it came back from almost total devastation.

The recovery is due largely to the efforts of the Hiroshima people -- and a little vehicle the workmen drove that played a big part in getting things moving again.

The simple car was a three-wheeler -- little more than a motorcycle with a small truck bed on top. It was sturdy, and its ease of assembly made it affordable. The vehicle became an important means of transport for people and goods.

"The three-wheeled trucks were everywhere around the market," says city resident Hidetoshi Nekoshima. "They used to carry fresh produce, and they really enlivened the city."

Another resident Rokuro Kubosaki, said, "Those trucks could carry a lot in one go. That made them such valuable vehicles to have."

The three-wheeler was created by a local manufacturer from Hiroshima, named Toyo Kogyo. It would later become known as Mazda.

The company stands on the far side of a mountain, five kilometers from the hypo-center of the explosion. The mountain saved it from being destroyed by the atomic bomb.

After the war, the city was nothing but burnt-out ruins. But the auto firm was determined to stay there. Employees vowed to resume production of the three-wheeler.

Hiroshi Masaoka was an engineer at the firm. He says there was a good reason to start up again with the vehicle.

"The entire city was reduced to rubble. This needed to be cleaned up before we could build new homes," he says. "But to do that, the wreckage had to be cleared. This made the three-wheeled truck invaluable."

The company had difficultly gearing up for production. It faced a lack of essential materials. For some of these items, such as steel sheeting, they scoured the factory’s grounds, ripping steel from water tanks. One crucial component that was lacking was tires. Hundreds of vehicles were left idle, unable to move. So staff combed the country looking for tires.

Former employee Tsuneyoshi Hayama remembers how everyone tried to make things happen.

"We needed tires to sell the vehicles, so we went across Japan looking for them, by train," he says. "As we came home, we carried the tires on our shoulders."

Four months after the war, the company was finally able to ship its prized truck.

Engineer Masaoka says, "I was proud to see the three-wheelers driving through town. When I saw them, I felt proud about the engine I had developed. I was over the moon."

In August 1949, the company decided to try exporting its vehicles to the US -- then the world's wealthiest country and of course, the one that dropped the bomb.

A sales brochure from the time used the catch-copy, “Pride of Hiroshima.” It featured a photo of the three-wheeler parked in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome.

Masaoka says this was the proudest moment for not just his company, but for everybody in Hiroshima.

"We sent a message to the giant automobile companies in the US telling them we are from Hiroshima," he says. "We wanted to highlight our strong push to recovery."

Images of the Dome continued to be used in all subsequent adverts for new models of the truck.

The three-wheeler went on to sell over 800-thousand units before production ended in 1974. The vehicle became a potent symbol, of local hopes and dreams of recovery.

"I believed that if the vehicles were on the road and goods were moving, the economy would eventually recover," says Masaoka. "And I think that’s what we helped do with our trucks. Hiroshima suffered badly. It’s amazing how it rebuilt itself.”

Professor Hideaki Shinoda joined NRT's Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio. Shinoda specializes in post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding policy at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

Shibuya: The three-wheeled vehicle was regarded as a symbol of the rebuilding of Hiroshima. How did this come about?

Shinoda: The report showed people's strong will for reconstruction. The three-wheeler was symbolic proof of this. The company we now know as Mazda actually started production of the vehicle before the war. But when Japan went to war with the US, they had to halt because the military ordered them to produce weapons. As you know, Hiroshima was a military industrial city. So I assume that after the war, the truck was a symbol of peace for the company. The transformation of military industries into peaceful ones was one of the most important tasks after the war for a city like Hiroshima.

Beppu: I was surprised to learn the company decided to export the vehicle to the US so soon after the bomb was dropped.

Shinoda: What's important is they decided to export their products to the US. Such an action cannot be done with hatred and a sense of loss. It shows that people in Hiroshima overcame those feelings and tried to communicate with the Americans. And that's a very important element of rebuilding a society after such turmoil.

Shibuya: People of Hiroshima have rebuilt their city and created a peace memorial. And some people around the world consider it a symbol of world peace and the need to abolish nuclear weapons. So I assume it was not just the company but the people of Hiroshima who worked so hard.

Shinoda: Reconstruction of Hiroshima did not come instantly -- it took a long time. People had to work hard without seeing any immediate drastic improvement in their lives. There was of course no substantial foreign assistance for the city either. The first mission of political leaders was to create a vision. They need to help citizens of Hiroshima imagine the city’s future. Hiroshima was lucky. They had their mayor, Mayor Hamai, who created the concept of Hiroshima as the "Peace Memorial City". Creating a grand goal like this was crucial to motivating citizens toward reconstruction.

Beppu: Professor, you have been dealing with peace building and reconstruction work in war-torn countries in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. What kind of lessons can we draw from Hiroshima's reconstruction and peace building process?

Shinoda: Peacebuilding is a key concept for post-conflict societies in the contemporary world. The most important factor for successful peacebuilding after armed conflict is to develop local indigenous leaders who can talk about a visionary goal from the perspective of ordinary people struggling to establish their normal lives. People will be suffering feelings of hatred and a sense of loss. They must overcome these to move forward.

As I said before, the people of Hiroshima did overcome those feelings and tried to communicate with the outside world. We mustn't forget that peacebuilding requires something that revitalizes ordinary people's sense of pride and self-confidence as they struggle to regain their normal lives. That's a lesson we should not just learn, but spread around the world. There are many places that are surely waiting for this idea.