Theory Teacher's Blog

Tokyo Diaries 4: “When We Say Hiroshima”

Sometimes the most important or meaningful things to write are the hardest. As I mentioned a few days ago, my students and I traveled to Kyoto and Hiroshima, and my previous post on the Zen of Hybrid Technology was about the Kyoto part of the trip, and so this one will be about Hiroshima. Although I visited the Peace Park and museum in Nagasaki way back in 1999, and although I have read the first-hand account of the atomic bomb by Tamiki Hara, I was still not prepared for the emotional impact of this visit, my first to Hiroshima. It’s hard to put all the emotions I felt into words, and so I am impressed that writers who witnessed the bomb were able to write about it so quickly after the event, with incredible immediacy, honesty, circumspection, and artistry.

The museum and the memorial in Hiroshima provide a very balanced and complete history of the events that precipitated the bombing on August 6, 1945, as well as the effects of the bomb such as the radiation burns, melted flesh, and radiation poisoning, and finally also what has happened since with regards to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and efforts to disarm them. The images of the devastation and its effect on human bodies was horrifying. In addition to horror, I felt immense shame, guilt, rage, and sadness, but also hope. My students and I were so stunned and emotionally exhausted, we could barely talk to each other — some of us (including me) were struggling to choke back sobs — and we still have not really talked about it except to admit how hard it is to talk about it.

Of all that I saw and felt, two in particular stand out. First, when we arrived, we discovered an entire class of junior high students standing in front of the Children’s Peace Monument, which is also called the “Tower of a Thousand Cranes.”

Childrens Peace Memorial

Children's Peace Memorial

As the story goes, a young girl named Sadako Sasaki was exposed to the bomb’s radiation at age 2 and developed leukemia ten years later. Hearing the old story that the person who folds one thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish, she began to do so, but died before she could finish. After her death, children around the world raised money for the memorial, and elementary and junior high school classrooms continue to donate their own collections of paper cranes. And this is exactly what we witnessed — a class of children, all in uniform, standing before the monument. The teacher and several students gave moving speeches about why it was important to remember the dead and work towards world peace (at least, the speeches seemed moving, but admittedly I could only understand some of the Japanese), and then the students presented their own colorful wreath of cranes. Around the base of the monument are several containers filled with such wreaths. What is particularly moving about all this is how out of such horror and despair could arise such a spirit of hope and dedication, and I think the sculptor of the monument rightly emphasized the transcendent spirit rather than the tragedy.

Memorial Hall for the Victims

The second thing that stood out was the Memorial Hall for the Victims — in particular, the names and photographs of all the victims. The faces are all so different. Some young, some old. Some dressed in traditional garb, and some were obviously progressive and modern men and women. Most were Japanese, but many were not, as some 10% of the victims were Koreans, and some others were foreigners living there, and even some American prisoners-of-war. There were so many, each one individual and unique, all so different from each other except for one thing — all died the same way.

The next day, back in Tokyo, my students and I met with a professor at our host university who explained to us his work with UNESCO and with the United Nations University, the latter of which is based in Tokyo. My students and I will visit the university tomorrow to see this symposium on the effects of the current economic crisis on poverty and relief organizations in Africa. Both my experience in Hiroshima and what he taught my students gave me the inspiration I needed for a speech I was required to give yesterday for my host university’s 85th birthday celebration. In it, I tried to explain — first in English, and then in Japanese — why the relationship between our two universities was so important, and of course, such institutional relationships, the scholarly work that comes out of them, and the pedagogical work that goes on there every day are essential to building a peaceful world. I was worried that my students might leave Hiroshima only despairing of the inevitability of war, but the very institution that brought them to the question of Hiroshima is also part of the answer they were desperately looking for. As one of my students remarked, what was most depressing was the end of the museum when he discovered that all but two members of the United Nations had signed a disarmament agreement — and one of those two is his own country, the United States.

The title of my blog is the title of a poem by Sadako Kurihara, a poet, political activist, and survivor of America’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One of her most famous poems, she wrote it in 1972 to encourage us not to use tragedies as an alibi, but to recognize both our own complicity in human suffering and our power to do something about it. In other words, when we say Hiroshima (or likewise, when we say 9/11 or Auschwitz or…), we should not imagine ourselves simply as victims without recognizing the ways we have been victimizers. Kurihara’s challenging ethos is also in one of her other most famous poem, “Let Us Be Midwives” which she wrote in September, 1945, just one month after the bomb. The question, in the face of horror and despair, is what to do and how to remain ethical. Kurihara’s poetry is an exemplary answer to that question.


May 24, 2009 - Posted by | Japan

1 Comment »

  1. I want to add a postscript. A day or so after I wrote this, I had dinner with one of my Japanese friends with whom I used to hang out way back in the late 1990s when I lived in Tokyo. When I mentioned that I had taken my students to Hiroshima, she told me about her visit to Vietnam and the memorial to the tragedy of that war. I hadn’t thought of comparing the United States’ use of chemical weapons such as agent orange with its use of atomic weapons. But of course, the effects would be similarly devestating. My friend said that the museum in Vietnam was much more powerful than the museum in Hiroshima — including photographs and jars filled with biological speciments of what happens to bodies poisened by American chemical weapons. It was hard for me to imagine a memorial museum even more powerful than the Hiroshima one.

    One of my favorite poems is by Nguyen Duy, the Vietnames poet who was in the Vietnamese Communist army during the war, and later visited the United States where he and several American veterans collaborated on a poetic project for peace and reconciliation. His poem is titled “Fire!” and is in his book Distant Road.

    It also strikes me that today the U.S. is one of the loudest countries condemning every other country for possession of chemical or atomic weapons, but nobody has actually used such weapons to the extent that the U.S. has. And the only country whose president has actually mentioned in a public speech that he might use atomic weapons AGAIN is the United States — Truman during the Korean “war” and Bush during the Afghan “war” (neither of which were officially wars, which is scary when you think the Commander in Chief might be willing to preemptively use a nuke even when Congress has not formally declared war.) Why newspapers were so quiet when Bush talked about developing and using “bunker buster” nukes is a mystery to me. I remember when he gave that speech, and I was horrified — both by what he said and by the lack of response to it. And now Israel is seeking to gain such bunker busters for itself. I can’t imagine anything more dangerous to world peace than such bunker buster nukes in anyone’s possession. The fact is, only the U.S. has been so self-righteous that it still believes it was justified in using them, and I suspect that the only other country in the world who shares that insane sense of God-given-right is Israel. In the context of the recent agreement between Obama and Medvedev to reduce “strategic” nukes, I think people worldwide need to advocate for a unqualified and total ban on all “tactical” nukes such as the bunker busters.

    Comment by steventhomas | July 11, 2009 | Reply

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