Visiting Nagasaki: August 8, 2011


August 8, 2011                                                    Nagasaki

Book Panel

We began our morning by walking to the Hibakusha shop, where we held a seminar to commemorate the publication of “Re-thinking Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Japanese and U.S. Perspectives.”  The book was written by Akira Kimura and a number of our faculty; Dr. Kuznick, Atsushi Fujioka and Satoko Norimatsu.  The seminar was co-organized and made open to the public by the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors Council and the Peace Philosophy Centre.

The seminar began with the testimony of Sumiteru Taniguchi, the President of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors Council.  On August 9, he had been riding his bike 1.8 kilometers from the hypocenter.  He had been badly burned and recalled seeing his skin just hanging from his body.  Taniguchi spent nearly four years in various hospitals.  He showed us graphic photographs of his wounds directly following the blast and of his scars now.  He emphasized that sixty-six years after the bombing, victims are still suffering from the effects of radiation.  Taniguchi remains active in the anti-nuclear movement in the hopes that he will be the last Hibakusha.

After the Mr. Taniguchi spoke, we listened to the panel of authors.  Satoko began by explaining that the book was born out of this tour and the desire to debunk the myth that the atomic bomb ended World War II and saved lives.  Much of what was said reinforced much of what we have already discussed on our tour.  Kimura discussed the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings in terms of the current crisis in Fukushima.  We are now forced to think from the perspective of a global Hibakusha.  The current nuclear crisis illustrates just how necessary it is to stop this vicious cycle of developing nuclear technology and lacking sufficient safeguards to stave of disaster.

But I have to say my favorite part of the panel came at the end from Atsushi.  He introduced the question that I had been waiting to be asked for several days.  Which war criminal was worse, Hitler or Harry Truman?  And I really appreciated Dr. Kuznick’s answer.  He said that nearly everyone acknowledges that Hitler was a truly evil individual.  Truman was not evil; he was a “little boy on a Toboggan.”  It is easy to explain why evil people do terrible things, but it is much harder to answer why relatively decent people commit heinous acts.  The lesson that people must take from these events is this: Why should any person, decent or not, have the capability to wipe out humanity?  He went on to explain that American presidents have not learned this lesson.  They all, at some point in their presidency, have threatened to use nuclear weapons.

After the panel, Allen and I were asked to be interviewed by a television crew with Satoko serving as interpreter.  The reporter asked us what we thought about Dr. Kimura’s claim that the United States deliberately prolonged the war in order to utilize the atomic bomb.  We both agreed with this assessment.  I was unsure about whether anything I said would actually end up on TV, so I decided to be less declarative in my response than I might usually be. I spoke about a notion introduced in the forward of Nagai’s Bells of Nagasaki.  The author suggested that there was a certain zeitgeist of the time that was enamored of nuclear technology.  I think that Truman was a product of this time and was determined to use the bomb regardless if it would end the war.  Given that, I think that it would have taken a very strong and unique leader to be in that position and not use the bomb.  The reporter then asked us how we were taught about the bombings in school, and I expressed my criticism of the public education system.  In my experience, the war in the pacific is taught almost as an afterthought.  That was why I came on this class.  Fukushima illustrates how this part of our history is important and increasingly relevant to current events.

We caught up with the group at a Chinese restaurant for lunch. The food was good, if unlike any Chinese food I’ve ever had in the states.  There was one dish that looked like thin slices of bacon.  It had a flavor and texture quite unlike bacon and I decided to let the rest of the table enjoy it.  Tom later told me that he had asked Atsushi what it was and Atsushi insisted that it was ‘sea pig.’ All I could picture was a little herd of gilled, green piglets swimming in the ocean.  I’m not sure if Atsushi was joking with Tom or something was lost in translation.

Field Work

After lunch, our Peace Families split up and went separately to several museums throughout Nagasaki.  In a fortunate twist, our family first went to the Nagasaki City Nagai Takashi Memorial Museum.  It was a small building with an exhibit confined to one room. The exhibit outlined Nagai’s life and contained photographs and quotes from his novels.  I copied my favorite into the pamphlet I was given at the door: “True peace is brought about by the power of true love, not by complicated meetings or ideologies.” Outside the museum was the modest home that Nagai spent his life after the bomb.  It was a single room structure that I honestly don’t think I could have stood upright in. Once again, I was humbled.  It was almost impossible to imagine that, after experiencing the horrors of the Atomic bomb, Nagai spent the rest of his life in this small room speaking out against war.

Next, we went to the Oka Masaharu Memorial Peace Museum.  Founded by private citizens, the museum attempts to present the extent of Japanese aggression during World War II in and attempt to gain compensation for non-Japanese victims.  It shed light on Korean slave labor, the Rape of Nanjing, the institution of Comfort Women and the subsequent efforts to spread awareness of these crimes.  The photographs displayed were by far the most graphic and horrific I’ve seen on this trip.  Little of the exhibit was in English, but the images of soldiers grinning over piles of corpses and a Chinese woman who had just been raped needed no translation.  Though small and modestly funded, I’m amazed that a museum like this even exists in Japan.  I can’t help but imagine if someone opened a museum in the United States devoted to slavery and the eradication of Native Americans.  As the group gathered outside, Bamba looked a little disturbed.  He asked me quietly, “Did you see…” and made a chopping motion with his hands.  I immediately knew what he was referring to.  There had been a photograph of a Japanese soldier decapitating a Chinese man with a farming scythe that had been fashioned into a crude guillotine.

I knew that Bamba was Chinese, but I hadn’t realized that his family has lived in Japan since he was three.  Since he went through the Japanese school system, he hadn’t been taught about this part of his history.  I can only imagine what it must be like to be confronted with the way your people have been terrorized by the country you have been raised in.  He told us that his family in China had been upset when they learned that his parents planned on moving to Japan but he had never understood why.  Now he did.

On the bus ride back to our hotel, Tom and I asked other students what they thought of the exhibit.  Yuya agreed that although most students are aware of these events, they aren’t taught about it in school.  We asked some Chinese students about how they felt about Japan and they all made a clear distinction between the people and government during the war and the people and government now.  They felt that the Japanese now are the kindest people they have ever met.  Perhaps this is a skewed sample, because Tom told me afterward that when he taught in China, most people went out of their way to express their hatred for the Japanese.

Candle Ceremony

Back at the hotel, I had a chance to watch the news.  Most channels talked about preparations being made for tomorrow’s ceremony.  One showed a classroom of young students decorating candles that would be for the candle ceremony later in the evening.  Outside the window I heard the banging of drums.  I looked outside to investigate and saw a row of monks walking at a sedate pace.  Our group eventually gathered once again and made it to the candle ceremony at dusk.  The ceremony was held at the hypocenter and the crowd was a mixture of citizens and groups of various religious denominations.  There were several singing performances and rows of children carried lit candles, which they each placed around the perimeter of the hypocenter.  In the distance, I heard the same processional of monks banging their drums as they walked through the city.  At one point, a man carried a wooden bucket of water and placed it at the hypocenter as an offering.  According to Bamba, this is an offering for the victims who died crying for water.

After the ceremony, we walked to the fountain we had seen yesterday.  This time the long path of stairs was lit by hundreds of candles.  Each one had been decorated by children, much like the ones I had seen on the news.  At the fountain, we briefly watched a choir of schoolchildren sing.  Eventually, a few of us headed back to the remembrance hall and the water fountain at the exit was now lit with lights representing the lives taken away by the bomb.  Then we walked to the lookout point on the roof of the Nagasaki museum and we took a moment to take in the city skyline.  We had just enough time to grab some dinner at a Yakiniku restaurant, where we cooked our own meat and vegetables on a grill placed on the table, before we headed back to the hotel for the reflection meeting.

Reflection Meeting

For tonight’s meeting, the group divided again and the American students gathered in the hotel lobby.  We spent some time discussing the issues of teaching history at the college and high school level.  Tom described that there is often a stifling atmosphere for those few passionate teachers that truly want to tackle important historical issues.  Ultimately this is dangerous for our country.  Vinny pointed out that this is why it is so important who voters elect onto school boards.

Our discussion moved on to how the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has become such a defining event for so many Americans.  It often makes it difficult for people to approach anti-nuclear efforts and still view World War II as a good war.  Tyler offered his tactical approach to bridging this gap.  One needs to offer a people a way of entering a new narrative of the bombings without asking them to hate American.  Often, if one criticizes the use of the atomic bomb, the discourse comes across as angry, attacking and hateful.  Ultimately, we need to begin a discourse by coming from a place of love.  This is the approach that the Hibakusha have been taking this entire trip.  As usual, when Tyler speaks, everyone hangs on to every word and frantically scribbles into their notebooks.   He has a truly beautiful world view and I hope that someday I can emulate him.



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