July 31, 2011 In the Air: Somewhere between San Francisco, California, USA and Osaka, Japan
It’s six hours into my flight, and I’ve already seen Battle: Los Angeles three times. I manage to drag myself from the barrage of mind-numbing action sequences and Aaron Eckhart’s stilted dialogue to check our plane’s progress on the tiny blue screen mounted on the headrest before me. I am slightly taken aback when I see that our plane that has slowly been inching its way across the world map has now crossed the International Date Line. I shift slightly in my seat, searching for a more comfortable position and for the first time since I departed SFO, I allow myself to consider the enormity of the journey I’m about to embark upon.
What had initially drawn me to American University’s graduate History program was its Nuclear Studies Institute. As an undergrad, I had stumbled upon the complexity of Cold War culture through an independent study course in Art History. Since then, I had approached issues in Nuclear Studies in terms of how they influenced American culture, gender and identity and how they continuously manifest themselves through advertisements, films, and even musicals. But I knew that my knowledge of the events that predicated the Cold War, the actual use of atomic weapons, was lacking and certainly insufficient for someone who hoped to pursue these research interests in graduate school. So when my new graduate advisor, the director of the Nuclear Studies Institute, encouraged me to join this summer’s Hiroshima/Nagasaki Study Tour I seized the chance to remedy my woeful ignorance on the topic.
After all, it is one thing to read about an event and it is another to actually see an object or visit a site. After studying two semesters abroad, I leaned the difference between scribbling notes about a twenty-year-old slide of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican and standing under the gilded dome that soars over the tomb of St. Peter while inhaling the perfume of incense and melting candle wax. So when I saw an opportunity to visit the two sites of the Atomic bombings, I knew that I would learn more than I possibly could from any lecture. Even so, it would take a few days in Japan before I would realize how true that would be.
While waiting for my flight to board in San Francisco, I had decided to brainstorm my initial understanding of nuclear history and nuclear weapons. Whenever I think about World War II, I almost exclusively think of it as a European war. The enemy was Hitler; the liberators were the Allies and the United States; the real crime of the war was the Holocaust. This view was reinforced by popular culture, which is inundated every year with a new batch of World War II related material. In high school and college, I was educated by watching Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Schindler’s List. I read works by Anne Frank and Primo Levi. In public school and, I hate to admit, in my undergraduate survey course, the war in pacific was an epilogue, generally summed up to the notion that two bombs were dropped on Japan, effectively ending the war. For me, the most pervasive images related to the Atomic bombs were asphalt shadows and the mushroom cloud. I had passively accepted that perhaps in retrospect the use of the Atomic bomb was unnecessary, but that the United States government genuinely believed that this weapon was necessary to end the war with Japan. But, this explanation of the atomic bombings is too simple, and because of this I ought to know better than to trust it.
Osaka Kansai International Airport
My flight lands in Osaka at 3:15pm, and after eleven hours of sitting in an aisle seat directly across the toilets and being jostled and bumped by every single passenger heading towards said toilets, I was exhausted. In addition, the vaguely grey ‘vegetable noodle’ in-flight meal I made the mistake of consuming began to churn uneasily in my sleep-deprived system. I collect my luggage in the carousel #4, stumble through customs, and emerge on the ‘other side:’ arrivals. I know that I have at least two hours before the group flight arrives from JFK, so I dragged my suitcase to a bench that I decide to claim as home-base for the duration. By then the subtle churning in my stomach has become a more decisive, full-fledged rebellion. I spend the next two hours clinging to my bottle of water as though it were a talisman against the nausea that has decided to be my constant companion for the evening.
At around 6:30pm, I notice a large group of what seems to be Americans enter through the arrivals gate and I look for someone that resembles the picture of my advisor that I found posted on the American University faculty webpage. I notice him and my anxiety level lowers slightly. After I introduce myself to Dr. Kuznick, I meet several of the other students and in my current state I immediately forget their names moments after they introduce themselves. I am now at the point that I am perfectly content to follow the herd of students and be led about by the faculty members. After the students take a moment to buy dinner (while I tighten my rather desperate grasp on my water bottle), I have only a hazy memory of travel from train station to train station to finally a caravan of taxis. The students pile in to each taxi which is instructed to take us to the Seminar House at Ritsumeikan University, which will be our home for our time in Kyoto. I learn my first Japanese word, ‘reshito,’ which means exactly what one might suspect. Apparently for the trip, when we pay for a taxi on our own we are supposed to ask for a receipt from the driver so we can be later compensated from the group’s ‘common fund.’ When we arrive at the Seminar House, I have no idea what time it is other than nighttime. The faculty distributes keys and I am roomed with two other girls, named Nguyet and Natalie. We stumble to our room, and I make a feeble attempt to get acquainted with my new roommates. While Nguyet heads to the showers, Natalie turns to me, “I’m sorry. I promise I’ll be more social tomorrow. I’m just so exhausted.” I smile, relieved that I’m not the only one out of her mind with exhaustion. “No worries. I know exactly how you feel.” With no other thoughts beyond going to sleep as soon as possible, I change into my pajamas, claim a bed, and my last thought is to set my alarm before I lose consciousness.