Here's a piece I wrote back in 1995, after attending the 50th memorial service for the Hiroshima bombing. That was my first summer in Japan. Now, my first summer back in the States, I find myself living forty-five minutes from where that bomb was midwifed into existence...
Seven-thirty a.m. or so. The air is cool this morning but growing hotter. The sun hangs low and is slightly blurry over the Gembaku Dome. People are entering the Peace Park from all sides , a steady stream quiet, somewhat solemn. The only sound now is the cicadas who scream from all the trees. I`ve heard that on that infamous morning fifty years ago it had been clear as well. As we near the museum area, the crowd grows denser, so we cut through the throng amidst a sea of chairs, moving in a near-orderly fashion toward the very front, an area reserved for bomb victims and their families. I feel somewhat strange sitting up here, a lone American amongst people who have every reason to hate me. Outside this area are thousands of people: Japanese and international press, important personages, and more foreigners than I`ve ever seen in a single place in Japan. Boy and girl scouts mill around handing out programs. Young men with armbands line the perimeter, and the large presence of police represents the upper limits of Japanese body size. The Prime Minister just pulled up, lined by a dozen or so bodyguards. I`m more curious about who I can`t see, either celebrities or friends. I think the Russian ambassador is here somewhere, and I wonder about Gary Snyder, Nanao Sasaki and others dedicated to the fight against nuclear weapons. I think of my brother Kurt and his personal commitment to this fight, not to mention the thousands of others in this crowd. The sheer number here is amazing, twenty thousand? Thirty? For a group this size they`re certainly quiet. There is a sense of peace, of harmony. People seem light, but far shy of joy. A brass band tunes up with a low note which sounds ominous as it fans out over the crowd. Flower after flower is laid out and Hiroshima`s last memorial service of the century is about the begin....
Yesterday, I hadn`t felt so light. Riding the bus into the city, I`d been reading Kenzaburo Oe`s Hiroshima Notes, being convinced yet again of the living proof of such power, a power that here in Japan actually fell once, twice, unlike in America where the power is merely a threat that hangs over head as it has for the past five decades. As I flipped the pages of Oe`s book I saw more and more reason for man to hate man, innocents victimized for the tyranny of others. Would that cruel experiment a half-century ago dredge up bitter resentment by an aged keloid-bearing victim toward a young healthy American like myself? I had heard of foreigners accosted outside the Peace Museum, verbally attacked for decisions made by the fathers and grandfathers of others, and in many cases the accosted were from a country other than the one responsible. This city and its name have a way of provoking strong emotion. This time of year emotions run particularly high, and emotions, like storms must finish their course in some fashion or another. All in all, I felt great hesitation about attending. Another scenario: wouldn`t an event of this size and with this much media exposure be an excellent forum for an act of terrorism? Aum, however much defanged, still operates its businesses successfully. Various other groups have been active recently as Asia goes through her latest stage of growing pains. The worldwide attention factor at this event is huge. More reason to worry.
The bus pulled into the station and I met a few friends. After a quick lunch we wandered through a busy shopping area and Wow! the dome was before me, not ten meters away. Earlier, on the bus, I had craned my neck for a glimpse of the thing and here it was, sitting unobtrusive amidst glories of Western-style success; a mild imperfection like a mole on a model`s cheek. Its outer structure was mostly intact, a few holes here or there, but the inside was completely empty and black. Bits of debris lay on the lawn like children`s toys. The steel beams forming the dome`s shape were slightly twisted, and in one of the windows, a bit of concrete hung down like a broken tooth. I was mesmerized by the thing, tangible proof of the fear that has gripped the world for three generations. I personally have never been entirely afraid of the bomb. I guess I`ve always looked at it like cancer; if it`s going to happen to you, there`s little you can do about it. Others I know have at times been nearly encompassed by that fear. But looking at this hull I realized for the first time the true power of modern weaponry.
Passing the “eternal” flame (to be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is destroyed), we entered the memorial area. Beyond the cenotaph, which bears the names of all known victims, was a sea of chairs, ten thousand or more, impressive in itself, and beyond this was the museum.
The Peace Museum, as it is called, is less a reminder of the bombing and more a call to halt the spread of nuclear arms. I think that a good way to go about this would be to present disturbing evidence which in turn pull at the sympathy of its viewers. As it is, of course, no one “approves” of nuclear weapons, but the American government, at least, seems to see them as preventative medicine, cauterizing an entire area rather than let “evil” spread. I think that to view the photographs of victims and to hear about the terror from their own lips could conceivably alter that kind of thinking. (It was said that for the first time, the hibakusha are finally willing to speak of their experiences. Over ninety-percent of Hiroshima`s citizens think that it`s best to tell the world what went on here, in order to prevent it from occurring again.) Perhaps a person with the right amount of power could do something to stop or slow my nation`s insane flight on the path of atomic manifest destiny. As it is, we need not physically conquer the world since we`ve already taken the hearts and minds through fear, intimidation, and consumerism.
The museum is powerful, the scale and breadth of its displays amazing. The physical debris showed the incredible power that a single bomb can possess, with melted bottles, twisted bicycles, and glass-flecked concrete. The human shadow forever indelible on the steps of a bank was terrifying, as were the permanent stains of “black rain.” Most frightening of all were the documented occasions that the US government considered using nuclear arms. Most incidences, with a little historical hindsight, seemed pretty minor, and I shudder to think of the opportunities to which the government didn`t admit. (In Oe`s book, he mentions a hypothetical scenario about a nuclear power bombing a remote African village, then covering up the traces.) Yet for all the museum`s power, in places it seems to have lost its focus. Some displays become less about presenting fact and drift into political rhetoric and propaganda-like discourse. (I`m also told that there is a serious discrepancy between the Japanese and English translations, both in content and strength of speech.) The three-dimensional exhibit of dazed bombing victims walking with skin in tatters was presented in a way half-horrifying and half-surrealistic Disney. The testimony of survivors and the photographs of victims were surely the most deeply disturbing, yet could be so much more powerful if allowed to stand alone, without such a strong accompanying moral message. The viewer can`t help but be moved.
Walking out of the museum, I was quiet a long time. A year or so before, when watching Akira Kurosawa`s “Rhapsody in August,” I thought it unrealistic for Richard Gere`s character to apologize for America`s bombing of Nagasaki. Yet here I was, telling my friend Osamu that I was ashamed to be an American after what I had just seen. He told me that he felt the same way when he traveled to China and Korea. When I asked him if he was moved by the museum he told me in typically stoic Japanese fashion that he`d seen it many times and that he`d probably be moved tomorrow during the ceremony.
My fears of bad Hiroshima vibes appear to be unfounded. The night before the ceremony, I went to my friend Osamu`s home, in a village high in the hills outside the city. There is an elementary school a block from his home, and they were holding a Bon-odori there. As we entered the yard, the abundance of stares made it obvious to me that not many foreigners are seen in this area. Buying a beer, I was given free popcorn. Throughout the night, I was chatted up by a variety of people, laughed at when I tried strange food, and was the attention of all. At one point an old woman pulled me into the center of the yard to dance. It wasn`t hard to figure out eventually, but I floundered for a while. This song, one of the most popular in Japan, was an old laborer`s song and the moves seem that of a worker—dig, dig, throw, throw, smooth, smooth, push, clap. Dancing that first time turned out to be unwise because as soon as one song finished, another woman would pull me into the circle, ever growing as people became drunker. Later, the drummer at the center of the circle called me onto the platform where I beat out a rhythm for the dancers. After talking with a few people—while helping some drunk guy eat his fish—I went back to Osamu`s home for dinner. It was really elaborate, his folks making me feel as comfortable as possible, going above and beyond as is the usual Japanese custom with guests. I spoke a lot with his mother who, like most of the old people at the dance, tried the two or three words of English that she knew. His father had worked for the Americans during the Occupation and used to teach English, so we spoke in a weird Japanese-English hybrid. A bottle of the local shochu was brought out, and in my role as guest I had no choice but to drink one after another. The drunker I became the more I lost my Japanese and my ability to use chopsticks.
This morning we awoke early. Osamu`s father moves quickly down the hill to the bus stop, showing absolutely no effect of last night`s drinking. Osamu and I follow as well as we can, our headaches intensified by the sun already hot though well before seven. We continue to follow in silence all the way to our seats in the Peace Park among the hibakusha. Osamu`s silence has little to do with his hangover. As a boy, his father had gone to school in Hiroshima. On the day of the bombing he was too ill to attend and subsequently, he was one of ten classmates who lived. Osamu is grateful that his father was here today sitting quietly beside us, and obviously Osamu himself was glad to be here as well. It seems amazing that a seemingly insignificant illness a half century ago could contribute to the existence of a young man whose friendship I deeply cherish. Osamu isn`t alone in being grateful about his father being alive for I feel that this man is one of the kindest I`ve yet to meet. How depressing to think of all the kind men who perished in the bombing and of all the children who didn`t get the opportunity to become kind men themselves. Osamu's father is testimony to that fact, sitting amidst the survivors for the fiftieth year, wearing the same green ribbon pinned to his chest.
At eight-fifteen, two children ring a large brass bell and the clock at the far end of the park begins to chime. The anti-nuke protesters on the perimeter of the crowd drop their placards and cease their chanting. The members of the Die-In drop to the ground, their contorted bodies outlined in chalk. The whole crowd of fifty-thousand is as one in a silent prayer. For the next minute, the only sound I hear is the woman next to me dabbing her eyes. Sounds of crying around me increase as two school children give a speech. Over the crowd, their immature voices are a reminder of potential never allowed to develop and of our own growth as humans, with our ability to overcome pain and sorrow, and our capability of becoming accustomed to a world filled with nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, the emotional high we all feel is quickly immersed in a morass of political speeches. One ran into another with the monotony of trying to follow the same message said a dozen different ways. The UN representative`s speech (the only one in English subsequently) was so bland and unemotional that I was embarrassed to be his fellow countryman. This same sort of neutral rhetoric is used not to question the wisdom of nuclear weapons but rather to justify their continued existence. Leave it to politicians to take the heart out of things.
After the ceremony, the crowd rushed forward to offer flowers and prayers at the cenotaph in such a mob that old people were in danger of serious injury. People lingered throughout the day, visiting the museum, folding paper cranes. The crowd thinned out considerably by evening. As is done every year, candles are floated down the Motoyasu river in honor of the dead. This year, a group was performing a play on a barge while nearby, men in small boats placed candles in multicolored bags into the river. These floated awhile, drifting single-file before being overtaken by the water. It`s unfortunate that the memorial flame won`t be snuffed out so soon....