Posted by on Dec 23, 2013 in Blog | 1 comment

Beyond Words

I’ve been stewing over this post for a while because I can’t quite seem to do it justice. Many times I sat down to write this ever since I visited Hiroshima and threw my hands up in frustration. Words are not sufficient enough to express what I experienced in just two days of being there. Even now as I type this, I’d spent many dark, early morning hours after the trip watching documentaries, reading facts and figures from historians and analysts, pouring over page after page of horrifying accounts from survivors.

Perhaps it was my new awareness of Hiroshima, of the atomic bomb and what it did to the people living in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki that also drove me to the online debate forums, a gruesome terrifying place second only to 4chan. There I came upon the following question: Was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? I didn’t expect a 100% outcry against the bomb, but nevertheless I was shocked to see that the debate was practically 50:50 with the ‘No’ side losing by 1%.

What History Class Taught Me

Though privileged in my education thus far, it was nevertheless facilitated on American soil in American classrooms and therefore, missing the other perspective of World War II. I learned the proper dates:

December 7, 1941 – Attack on Pearl Harbor
June 4-7, 1942 – The Battle of Midway
August 6, 1945 – Hiroshima Bombing
August 9, 1945 – Nagasaki Bombing
August 15, 1945- The Japanese Surrender

I was asked to explain the war tactics that lead to American victory at Midway and how war economy brought America out of the Great Depression. I was asked the dates of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and how/ when these two events ended The Pacific War. I got an A on each of those tests in my American History class related to World War II.

I should’ve gotten an ‘F’.

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Because I didn’t contemplate the underlying racism that allowed Americans to justify bombing in the name of democracy. I didn’t learn that early Cold War mentality perhaps contributed to the release of the atomic bomb as opposed to being a result of the release of the bomb. America pushed the button to drop the A-bomb on Japan while looking to it’s far left Russian counterpart. So busy America was with comparing sizes with Russia that Japan became a scapegoat. In that light, the naming of Hiroshima’s atomic bomb was was apt; ‘Little Boy’ indeed. It didn’t occur to me in the slightest to compare America to Nazi Germany in its willingness to obliterate Japan; America continued to make nuclear weapons to drop on the already devastated country.

Now there are none who object to the idea that the atomic bombing was a crime against humanity. So, my question is, “Why do nations still possess or try to obtain nuclear weapons?

Moreover while I knew the American side, the winner’s side, I knew absolutely nothing of Japan’s side. In my textbooks, I remember seeing images of the mushroom cloud taken from the perspective of a plane high above, as though looking down and casting judgement on Japanese people with the eyes of God. As though we as Americans had that right. I never saw the images from the ground where the rest of humanity trod, of the suffering allowed to occur due to decisions propagated by war. I never saw what the Japanese remembered or internalized from World War II until I myself went to Hiroshima.

My test questions did not ask me, “Was this right?”

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What I Learned in Hiroshima

I spent my first morning in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum amidst pictures and collected remnants of the atomic bomb and its affects. I learned that for many, it was better to have been one of the 60,000 – 80,000 who died in the instant ‘Little Boy’ detonated over Hiroshima. Those who did survive suffered immensely.

I saw long lines of refugees, just quiet, I don’t know why they were so quiet. There were long lines, like ghosts. Most of them were stretching out their arms because the skin was peeling off from the tips of their fingers. I could clearly see the hanging skin, peeling skin, and the wet red flesh and their hair was burned and smelled, the burnt hair smelled a lot.

And many people, just slowly passed by the front of my house.

More humbling and perhaps the most terrifying part of my experience was not the museum but speaking to and hearing from a hibakusha. Hibakusha (被爆者) are the surviving victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the term literally translating into “explosion-affected people”. Most hibakusha that are still alive today and present during the bombing were in their early teens and preteens. Some were still in the womb, and even more hibakusha were future generations affected by the bomb that occurred years before their conception. Many hibakusha spent years in fear of the radiation that could steal their lives decades after the bombing. Many were ostracized by other Japanese people who feared the affects of radiation. They hid their origins as though their keloid scars and deep-set wounds had stigmatized their whole families.

Still, I could not shed my uneasiness about radiation. I had no idea what might happen and when. I raised my children so that they could care for themselves. My eldest daughter could cook rice on firewood when she was in the sixth grade. I had shown her where I kept my registered seal. I let my two girls acquire special skills that could help them live by themselves. One became a medical laboratory technician, and the other a public health nurse. Deep inside I was preparing myself for death.
In this hell, I myself lost my humanity. Since then, I have been living with a feeling that “I failed to die,” rather than with a feeling that I managed to survive.

Keiko Ogura was only eight years old when the bomb struck. Her father had urged her to skip school that day, the only reason she, among all of her other classmates, lived to tell her tale. At eight years old she’d watched strangers and people she knew and loved die, begging her for water.

“Don’t give them water.” I hesitated, indecisive for just a moment. Even if it doesn’t save them, I thought, this water, which they so desperately yearn for, could be their last. I handed them the bucket. I still wonder if my judgment, this act, was good or bad. To this day I cannot forget that moment, and it weighs heavily on my soul.

Never Forget, Never Again

A single bomb descended like a falling star; a dust speck on a clear day annihilated an entire city. It destroyed the infrastructure of Hiroshima’s buildings and rocked the foundations of families for generations to come. The streets lay in ruins and people lay in ruins across the streets. Trees were stripped bare and the earth blackened by temperatures as hot as a thousand suns.

“Many thought nothing would ever grow in Hiroshima again.” I was glad to see this was not the case during my visit.

Even as a fifteen year old, I was deeply moved and greatly comforted. “OK, I’ll never give up and I will live through. I’ll live to bloom some day no matter how small a flower may be.” I firmly decided to do that.

If there was any resentment toward America, I did not hear it in Ogura-san’s voice, in her jovial anecdotes about learning English at school, in her smiles. She instead urged us as a whole to work toward peace and asked us how we would do so, a question that I wish I had the answer to. But I know part of it lies in what I’m doing now; studying in another country, learning through this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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She personally urged me many many times to tell her story and the stories of other hibakusha so that no one forgets why war is such a terrible thing. I humbly dedicate this blog post to her.

In the Peace Park in Hiroshima is a cenotaph with the inscription, “Let all the souls here rest in peace; For we shall not repeat the evil.” What mistake and whose mistake were purposely left ambiguous. Some wanted to point an accusing finger at America but I was pleased that the citizens’ committee put the issue on a higher moral and philosophical plane, signifying the universal need for nothing less than a cultural transformation away from our obsession with violence and war.