Visiting Hiroshima: August 4, 2011


August 4, 2011                                                            Hiroshima

We left Seminar House for the last time this morning and headed for the train station and finally made our way to Hiroshima.  We didn’t have seat reservations, so a few of us were stuck in what Allen termed ‘steerage.’  We squeezed into a vacant hallway for the duration of the trip.  I got the chance to hear more about Andy’s experiences in Japan.  He is a helicopter pilot in the Navy and had been stationed in Japan when the earthquake hit in March.  He participated in the relief efforts and I think both he and Mike have a perspective about nuclear weapons that I wouldn’t usually have the chance of hearing.  They are both going to spend the year at AU and once they earn their Masters, both will go on to teach at the Naval Academy for two years.

After we arrived in Hiroshima, we checked in to our hotel and found lunch around the Hiroshima train station.  We then gathered and took a streetcar to the famous A-Bomb Dome. The faculty first pulled us off to some side street where a small plaque had been placed against the wall of an office building.  I realized that this was the actual hypocenter of the bomb.  Dr. Kuznick asked us to imagine that morning in 1945.  People were carrying on about their morning, preparing for the day, arguing, making love- until the flash.  It was eerie, imagining 70 thousand people’s last moments in what was now an upscale business district.

I had expected the hypocenter to have some sort of memorial or monument of some sort.  But then I realized that the A-Bomb Dome essentially plays this role.  Only a few meters from the hypocenter, the dome was one of the only buildings left standing after the blast.  No attempts were made to repair it and the building now stands with the river on one side and a cluster of modern high-rises on the other.  I snapped a few photos as our group wound its way among clusters of schoolchildren with their teachers.  But it felt disrespectful to play the tourist so I eventually slipped my camera back into its case.  Atsushi and his Snoopy flag (at some point he had attached a towel with Peanuts characters on it to his ever present umbrella) let us to the t-shaped bridge that was the original target.  We were told that the United States chose the bridge because it was a landmark easily visible from the sky.  But weather conditions forced the bomb to drift slightly, moving it to the final hypocenter.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

From the bridge, we walked to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.  I braced myself, expecting the museum to be an emotionally intense experience.  It was, to a certain extent.  The first and largest portion of the museum focused on Hiroshima’s development as a city, the bombing and the subsequent antinuclear movement.  Following this portion of the exhibit was a collection of personal effects donated by family members of people killed by the atomic bomb.  As informative as the beginning of the exhibit was, this was the heart and soul of the museum.  Items that victims had been wearing or holding were now displayed behind panels of glass.  Below each was a caption telling the fate of its former owner.  A majority of the items were pieces of clothing worn by Junior High students who had been outside clearing rubble to make room for fire lanes at the time of the explosion.  One by one, I read how each child died within days.  Then, off in one corner, I saw a scrap of dirty linen.  It was the bloodstained underwear of a toddler.  His family had saved this last piece of this child.  It had been saved for nearly sixty years in his family’s Buddhist shrine.  When I saw this something inside of me broke.  I found myself hurrying through the rest of the exhibit.  I made a beeline for the exit, crying the whole time.  Each item was more heartbreaking than the next and these families clung to them in a futile attempt to keep some small piece of the loved ones they lost.  As I left the museum I thought that the exhibit could be reduced to that one small room and not lose any of its emotional impact.

Hiroshima National Memorial Hall

We soon left the museum and met with Tadatoshi Akiba, the former mayor of Hiroshima.  He has led the global fight for nuclear disarmament for the past two decades and now teaches mathematics at the University of Hiroshima.  He established the Mayors for Peace in 1982, a program that united cities across the globe in a call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.  Akiba reminded us that we are the last generation with the opportunity to listen to the testimonies of survivors.  Now we need to figure out how to share their experiences with future generations.  He spoke with hope.  He said that since 1945 there have been consistent attempts to work towards a nuclear-free world.  The 1986 meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland almost ended in simultaneous disarmament.  Obama’s 2009 Prague speech revived hope that his administration will make steps to reduce nuclear weapons.  He felt that instead of criticizing what political leaders haven’t done, we should rally behind them to support the steps they have taken.  When asked if he would like to see President Obama visit the August 6 city memorial, Akiba surprised me with his answer.  He said that if Obama visited on that day, it would send the wrong message.  His presence would be interpreted as an admission of guilt and not seen as a desire for a nuclear-free world.  If he were to visit, he should do so in an environment where no one would question his motives.  I enjoyed listening to Akiba and I look forward to learning how the current mayor has carried on his legacy, if at all.

Hiroshima Seminar: Barefoot Gen and ‘Thinking Hiroshima/Fukushima

We left Akiba to meet with Keiji Nakazawa, the author of the ten part graphic novel series Barefoot Gen.  I had read the first installment of his series on my flight and it detailed Nakazawa’s life leading up to the bomb and immediately after. I haven’t read many graphic novels, but I thought that it was a surprisingly effective vehicle to present his story.  It is difficult enough to read the accounts of survivors.  But seeing a visual representation of Nakazawa’s experiences was particularly heartbreaking.  After reading some of his work, I admired his gift and appreciated how he paved the way for other authors to write about similar topics, such as Art Speigelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.  For the first time, I noticed that our meeting has drawn a local television film crew. It was a little bizarre to listen to Nakazawa’s account while cameramen scurried about, zooming in on our faces and copies of Barefoot Gen.

He began to share his experiences with us and even though I know what happened to him from his book, it is still difficult to hear.  Poor Satako was asked to serve as translator, and I watched as she was forced to repeat his story in English.  As she began to describe how Nakazawa’s mother was forced to abandon her husband and children who were trapped beneath their house in order to escape approaching fires, Satoko finally dissolved into tears.  As she wept, Nakazawa sat and waited patiently for her to continue.  He said that people seem to have missed the lesson of Hiroshima.  We still live in danger of world annihilation.  As long as he is alive, Nakazawa intends to repeat his story and speak against nuclear weapons.  He ends his talk by saying that he wants to pass the torch to younger generations. Satoko’s emotional retelling of his story evoked an intense response from the group and I pitied the presenter that follows them.

Yuki Tanaka gave a brief lecture that attempted to explain Japan’s interest in nuclear energy despite its experiences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He traced this interest back to 1953 with the implementation of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace.  The program aimed to contain the power of the Soviet Union and gain the dependence of target nations by providing them with nuclear technology.  Japan becomes a primary target for America’s propaganda efforts.  He felt that support for nuclear energy was gained by propaganda ploys, such as the 1955 Exhibition of the Peaceful use of Nuclear Technology.  He believed that part of the reason that there is so little protest over the Fukushima crisis is because the belief in nuclear energy is so strong.  He presented some interesting arguments, but I was honestly a little skeptical of the fact that his thesis seemed to be based on the attendance of one exhibition in 1955.  After the presentations, I was able to get my copy of Barefoot Gen autographed by Mr. Nakazawa, we were dismissed for dinner.

Tom, Allen, Tyler and I end up exploring the area around the train station again.  We made our way down several alleyways until we chose a hidden stairway that I decided either led to a restaurant or was a secret entrance to Narnia. We found that it was a small, one room restaurant.  The menu was only in Japanese so we placed our trust in the owner/server/cook who brought us several plates.  Each dish was better than the next, and half the time I have no idea what I am eating.  One dish was skewered octopus legs, which was tough but delicious.  The tables were low to the ground and the four of us lounged on pillows and relaxed over our meal and a few pints of Kirin served to us by a cheerful four-year-old boy.  I loved getting to know Tyler a bit more and grilling Tom and Allen about the grad program at AU.  It was a relaxing end to the day and we didn’t make it back in time for the optional reflection meeting.  But as we walked in to the lobby, I don’t think anyone else made it either.



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