Like the Atomic Bomb Dome, the former Bank of Japan Hiroshima Branch is a classical European-style building, and one of the few structures in the area that remained standing after the August 6, 1945, atomic bombing. Located a mere 380 meters from the hypocenter of the explosion, the bank would have been destroyed if not for its sturdy construction--and a bit of luck.
The three-story bank was one of the most modern buildings in the city when it was completed in 1936. It featured a steel frame with reinforced concrete walls, marble interiors, and a large skylight over the main hall. Its facade was designed to look like natural stone, and the entrance was raised as a precaution against flooding--a common problem in Hiroshima at the time. A second-floor catwalk allowed the bank director to easily keep an eye on employees, and the building even had electrically operated metal shutters on the windows.
The 5-centimeter-thick shutters on the first two floors were still closed on the morning of the bombing, which lessened the impact of the shockwave and protected these floors from fire. Unfortunately, employees had already begun working in the financial office that occupied the third floor, so the shutters there were open. The explosion and resulting fire killed 8 of the 18 employees. The fire began to spread downstairs but was quickly contained. Although the skylight was destroyed, the roof remained intact thanks to a meter of sand the manager had added to protect the building from bombs and fire. The bank vault, and the money inside, also escaped harm, so the bank was able to resume its functions just two days later.
In 2000, the building was designated an Important Cultural Property and is maintained by the city of Hiroshima. The third floor has been partially reconstructed, and volunteer guides offer tours of the bank. Additionally, rooms can be leased by local citizens for exhibitions and meetings.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the former Bank of Japan Hiroshima Branch is not that the building survived the atomic bombing, but that the bank began serving customers again on August 8, 1945, a mere two days after the blast. The building's resilience was matched only by that of its employees.
The bank was one of the few in the city that escaped major damage in the bombing and there was still plenty of money in its vault. However, the blast destroyed many crucial records, including customers' personal identification documents. This meant reopening even for basic banking was risky. While the bank manager's superiors in Tokyo debated what to do, the manager made an executive decision: in order to help the people of the city get back on their feet, he would simply trust them, regardless of their documentation.
Moreover, the manager allowed the city's other banks to serve their own customers from the Bank of Japan building using money from its vault. Tellers from every major bank set up along the building's thick marble counter. With all the banks working together, people were able to withdraw money in the aftermath of the tragedy, beginning the city's long road to recovery. Most importantly, there was not a single case of fraud reported during the time the bank did not require identification.
The underground bank vaults, now open to visitors, are one of the building's most impressive features, having survived the atomic bombing almost entirely intact. Located behind the main hall, the vaults sit beneath the courtyard area and were lit by a central skylight. The building's numerous windows--an uncommon feature at the time--were partly meant to filter as much light as possible into the underground vaults.
The bank's two vaults were also the state of the art for the time. The 90-centimeter-thick steel doors and the similarly well protected ventilation shaft beside them appear both imposing and impregnable. However, the security does not stop at the vaults' doors. Surrounding the vaults are four wide corridors, which provided protection from flooding and also ensured no one could simply tunnel straight into the vaults from outside. The carefully placed mirrors where the corridors meet allowed patrolling guards to see around corners without having to move.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the thick steel vaults survived the bombing, but the blast and resulting fires created intense heat around them. The paper money inside the vaults, which would otherwise have burst into flames, was spared because the vaults also contained large pots of water for putting out fires. The water evaporated, cooling the vaults and keeping the money intact. Today, the vaults are used for rotating exhibitions of photographs and artifacts related to the atomic bombing.