August 1, 2011 Kyoto: Cloudy with a chance of nausea.
Despite my late night fear that I would sleep through my alarm, I find myself wide awake and staring at the bunk above me at 5am. I toss and turn a bit longer before I admit that I am officially awake and explore the showers. By 7am, I’m dressed and looking for something to do and apparently so is Natalie, one of my roommates. We decide to explore the neighborhood around Seminar house and try to find something for breakfast. Natalie is on her honeymoon. A pretty woman with dark, curly hair, she married Dr. Vinny Intondi a little over a week ago. Traveling to Japan sounds like a great honeymoon…but sleeping in a dorm room with two people other than your husband…not so great. But she’s very friendly and seems to be willing to go with the flow for this trip as we traipse through the winding streets around campus. It takes only a few minutes before we run into another student in the groups that I didn’t get a chance to meet the night before. Her name is Elisa, and she is one of the undergrad students that Dr. Intondi brought from Seminole College in Florida. The three of us soon find a tiny bakery that looks promising. I’m immediately charmed by a basket of panda-shaped cookies, but since I still don’t entirely trust my stomach, I settle for a soft sugared pastry that is delicious. We wander a bit more, we lose Elisa who bounces off on her own and gain a group of other AU students; Allen, Tom, Mike, and LaTonya. We eventually find a convenience store with more food options and our growing group manages to eventually find its way back to seminar house. As we walk, I take a moment to examine my surroundings. This part of Kyoto is a mix of modern and traditional. Little shrines and temples are tucked away next to convenience stores and phone booths in a way that is unexpected and entirely charming.
At 10am, the AU group gathered on the ground floor conference room in Seminar House and we are joined by a group of Japanese students. At the meeting, we are all given itineraries and name tags, much to my relief. I had met most of the American students the night before but had forgotten most of their names and I had been worried about remembering and pronouncing the names of the Japanese students. We all went around and introduced ourselves and I find that the Asian students are not all Japanese. Several come from China and Korea as well. While introductions are made, Satoko translates for each student, and I learn that this will be her role for the duration of our trip. After, a small group of ‘student coordinators’ divide the students into six ‘peace families.’ These are groups that we will be in for the entire trip and I am excited for a chance to get to know the AU and Asian students better. My group consists of Kyon, who is from China; Yuki, who is Japanese; Christian, who I became Facebook friends with before I left the states and has been on this trip twice before; and Thom, who is an MA student at American. I think we have one other family member, but he or she may be one of the students missing because of finals. Everyone is very friendly, but the girls seem a bit shy and uncomfortable with their English skills.
Kyoto Seminar 1
After the families had been formed, the group is led to the Ritsumeikan University campus by Atsushi Fujioka. Atsushi is a slight, spry man who always seems to have a smile on his face. He corralled our group with a wave of his tall, clear umbrella and led us to the university cafeteria, or COOP, where I managed a few bites of a noodle bowl ordered by one of my ‘peace family’ sisters. Once everyone has eaten, we filed into a classroom in the building adjacent to the COOP. We began our first seminar by watching the 1953 film, “Hiroshima.” I was surprised by the date of the film, especially after I learned that that United States had censored the Japanese media and restricted any mention of the Atomic bombs. What struck me about the film was the frankness in which the film described the effects of radiation, particularly the causes and symptoms of leukemia. It seems as though the purpose of the film was to educate the Japanese public and dispel rumors about A-bomb victims. If this is the case, I wonder how many people had access to this film and how the public responded to it.
Following the film, the class listened to the testimony of two ‘Hibakusha.’ This is the name the Japanese have given to atomic bomb survivors. This is what I had been looking forward to all day. But I also felt rather uncomfortable as a small, elderly Japanese man stepped to the front of the room. I don’t know if I felt sadness, guilt, or a combination of the two. Satoko was called upon to serve as translator.
Mr. Tetsushi Yonezawa was eleven years old, and he had been standing in a streetcar with his mother 170 meters from the hypocenter in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. He described scenes similar to the one’s I’ve read in Hersey’s Hiroshima. He described seeing young boys that had been taken out of school to demolish buildings. Their bodies were severely swollen and burned, with skin just hanging down off their bodies. Soldiers who had been at drill at the military training ground were reduced to ‘walking ghosts.’ These people would make their way to the river for water and would collapse and die. Yonezawa and his mother escaped by crossing the river where they watched the city burn. He remembered being evacuated on a medic truck, and falling ill with a terrible fever, vomiting and headaches. On August 15, when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces, his mother wept because she hoped that it meant that her husband would finally come home. But on September 1, she died. One month later, Yonezawa’s baby sister died as well. When asked about his feelings toward the United States, Yonezawa admits that he had been taught that Japan had committed many crimes in the war, but he was angry that the United States continued to wage war in Korea and Vietnam after using the Atomic bomb. Ultimately, he said, nuclear technology and humanity cannot coexist.
Our second visitor was Koko Kondo. She is the daughter of Reverend Tanimoto, who was one of the six survivors interviewed in John Hersey’s work. Koko had not been able to ask her parents about the bomb for many years because she didn’t want to force her parents to relive it. She gathered information little by little, and when she was older her mother finally decided that she ought to know what had transpired on August 6, 1945. Koko had been only eight months old and had been lying in her mother’s arms only 1.1 kilometers from the hypocenter. Her mother managed to crawl out of their collapsed home with baby Koko relatively unharmed. Where Yonezawa was able to describe the immediate aftereffects of the bomb, Koko went on to explain her experiences growing up as an A-bomb survivor. She remembers going to the ABCC every year to be examined by their doctors. She has a particularly disturbing memory of being forced to strip and stand before an auditorium of doctors when she was a young teenager. She was furious and wanted to ask them why she, the victim, was being punished this way. She held on to this anger for much of her childhood until one profound moment changed her perspective. Her family traveled to the United States when her father was asked to appear on an episode of “This is Your Life,” highlighting the life of Captain Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay. Here was a man that she had grown up hating; secure with the knowledge that he was a bad man. At the filming of the television show, she saw his now famous reaction to the bomb: “My God. What have we done?” She saw the tears in his eyes when he encountered Rev. Tanimoto and for the first time saw Lewis as a human being, neither good nor evil. Afterwards, she walked up to Lewis and merely held his hand. She asked God for forgiveness for hating that man, who had taken part in an atrocity that had destroyed her home and almost her family.
As a child, she had struggled to understand why her father was always away on speaking tours. She later determined that survivors had the duty to work for peace. Her father’s first thought after the bomb was of his family and church members, but he still devoted himself to do what he could to help those around him. And he continued to do so for the rest of his life. Koko told us that she wanted to walk in his footprints, little by little. And after she was gone, she would count on us to help create a better world.
I came here bracing myself for condemnation or resentment of some kind, if not from the Japanese students then certainly from the actual survivors of the bombs. But the testimonies of Yonezawa and Koko struck me with their generosity of spirit. Their actions are motivated by a desire for peace, not hatred or revenge. When Koko finished her testimony, she thanked us for coming here. For a Hibakusha to thank an American for hearing her story, that was something I did not expect. It was truly one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
For dinner, the group walked to the Co-op café on campus for a welcome party. There was a huge array of food that I still wasn’t able to enjoy because of my still rebellious stomach. But there was such a welcome atmosphere and several rounds of toasts made by students. Jet lag had set in several hours earlier, so I collapsed at a table with several other American students and was content to drink the Kirin that was brought to me and watch the festivities before me. Several students sang and played guitar and the night turned into an impromptu talent show. I had a surreal moment when I looked to my right and saw Yonezawa and Koko toasting each and everyone around them with a glass of beer. I smiled and thought, how many people can say that they drank with two Hibakusha in some basement café of a Kyoto University? Already, this trip has been worthwhile.