Trip Journal for January 21, 2009- Hiroshima:
When I first realized I would be going to Japan I went onto the wonderful Wikitravel to see what there is to see, and my eye stopped on the list of major cities at Hiroshima. Somehow the Japan I think of doesn’t connect to the first atomic bomb, but once I saw it I knew I was going to go, if only for a few hours. I don’t know if others can understand this compelling feeling but I just finished a major in physics, minor in history, and Hiroshima is where the idols of my discipline became Death, the destroyer of worlds, and changed history forever. I had to see it.
As it turns out the train runs the distance from Kyoto to Hiroshima in an hour and a half, with a brief stopover in Osaka, so instead of heading straight back to Tokyo I made a side trip to Hiroshima. I must say the scenery made it worth it- this part of Japan has even more numerous ragged mountains than the Tokyo-Kyoto stretch- and Hiroshima station was in the middle of a bustling city not at all different from any other Japanese city. Somehow it was hard to believe it was the same city that had been destroyed by an atomic blast just 62 years earlier.
A quick taxi ride later landed me at the southern part of the Hiroshima Peace Park, next to the museum. I actually think calling it a park doesn’t seem quite the right word, though, as it wasn’t a park like any other I’d been to- it was quite shushed for the middle of the city, no one was engaging in recreational activities, and a mother scolded her little boy for making too much noise. There were several signs admonishing people how it was illegal to peddle or litter here, and considering there were more security guards than I’d seen anywhere else in the country I’m sure they meant it.
I headed north. Most of the park is just a grassy area with various memorials to the victims of the atomic blast- the children’s memorial with thousands of paper cranes folded by children from around the world, the flame in the middle of the reflecting pool which will never go out until all the atomic bombs in the world are destroyed, the mmorial for victims allowing for quiet meditation. All was quiet save some foraging pigeons and a group of schoolchildren, who were busy proving that no matter where you are in the world at least half the kids in the field trip aren’t actually paying attention.
But what held my attention most was the A-Bomb Dome, located on the northernmost tip of the park just across the river. I caught sight of it upon leaving the victims’ memorial and walked over, a bit amazed to see that famous symbol in front of my eyes. I learned later that in fact there was controversy for years over whether to preserve it, some arguing that the building was too unsound and brought back memories too painful, but I’m glad they did.
And because it was rebuilt I walked across the Aioi bridge that the crew of the Enola Gay used to aim the bomb. I stopped for a few moments in the middle to peer into the sky, imagining what it would have been like to stand there as the air around me caught fire.
My last stop was the museum dedicated to discussing the atomic blasts, partly because I was curious as to how the Japanese describe the event and partly to see the artifacts that survived. A few that made deep impressions were the watches that stopped precisely at 8:15 when the bomb fell, hundreds of tiny glass boxes that fused together, the countless tattered clothes reduced to less than rags, a lunch tin with food inside that had turned to charcoal, and the shadow of a man in stone who had been sitting waiting for a bank to open. There were some gruesome pictures too of course, people whose skin was falling off, with burns where their clothes had been, a boy whose hair was shorn and skin burned where his hat ended, a girl whose face was so disfigured from burns I couldn’t believe it was a girl until I read the description. I can’t say I dwelled on these for long.
As for the Japanese description of things, it was pretty much the same as what I’d learned in my American school. There was no shirking away from Japan’s war crimes at the time, with mentions of “mistaken national policy” and mentions of the use of Korean slave labor and the treatment of American POWs, as well as explanations as to why the Americans decided to drop the bomb. In fact, the only real anti-Americanism on this topic I noticed was in the guestbook encouraging people to share their impressions, though all such comments were from Europeans (to be fair, I couldn’t read the comments in Japanese).
I am now sitting on the shinkansen speeding back to Tokyo while I’m writing all this down, as it was certainly sobering to see but I’m glad I did. I have spent most of my time today thinking about proliferation and how to get rid of nuclear weapons. I don’t pretend to have an answer to all the tough questions except to say it’s complicated, and how much I resent my 10th grade history teacher for making us write an essay on if dropping the bomb was a good or bad thing while saying we had to choose a side. I’m sure he was just trying to get out of having to read wishy-washy essays, but something like this is not so simple as yes or no, and I don’t see what is so wrong with recognizing that.
I do sincerely believe that people are fundamentally good, and that love and happiness are our most basic emotions because fear and hate stem from not wanting to lose what we have. And most of my trip so far has been nothing but an affirmation of this fundamental kindness in people so it is hard to reconcile things like war and atomic bombs with that- the odd idea that people can be capable of both such beautiful dreams and terrible nightmares. It wasn’t too long ago, when my grandmother was about my age today, and yet such war and destruction seems so far removed from our consciousness.