I admit, I was torn. I could make a day trip to visit Ground Zero for the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, but was that something I really wanted to do? I knew it would be worthwhile and educational, but I do have a sensitive soul and was afraid I would be too overcome with emotion and make an embarrassing scene. I’d had to leave S-21 in Cambodia and “The Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam because I was crying so hard, I couldn’t stop. In the end, I decided that since I was here, and so close, it was something I wanted to do.
I boarded the sleek, white Shinkansen or bullet train. On the inside, it looks much like an airplane without wings-three seats across, an aisle, two more seats across, overhead bins for luggage, folding tray tables on the seat in front of you. However, there is MUCH more leg room, and the bathrooms are gender segregated and clean, and once again, have heated toilet seats, noise maker on demand, and multi-function spray bidet. My bottom has gotten spoiled in Japan. An attendent rolls up and down the aisle ways with snacks, coffee, and tea. The ticket checkers wear white gloves and hats and bow as they enter and exit. I enjoy the dignity and formality they convey. My stomach did a little flip as we approached top speed (about 200mph I understand) and the telephone poles whipped by so fast you could not see them. According to Google maps it is a 4.5 hour trip by car. We were there in a less than 2 hours.
At first glance Hiroshima looks like any other bustling Japanese city. Shiny high rises, department stores, narrow congested alleys criss-crossed with a web of power lines, buses, trains, trams, taxis, all jostling for position on the crowded roads. People in business suits on cell phones, children in plaid school uniforms, gaggles of teenage girls, the occasional lady in a traditional kimono, people weaving in and out of it all on bicycle. And, like most Japanese cities, there is a castle, temples, shrines, and beautiful, quiet gardens in and amongst all the hubbub.
It’s hard to imagine that in August of 1945, there was nothing here. Nothing at all but smoking piles of rubble. Actually there was one structure left partially standing. It is now called the A-bomb dome. The bomb detonated directly over this building and for reasons of physics that I don’t understand, parts of it were left standing. All the other buildings were flattened. The people died. About 150,000 of them. Those who didn’t die immediately, wished they had and died horrible deaths soon after. One man was vaporized, but his shadow was scorched onto the stone steps where he was sitting and waiting for the bank to open. So many people who had nothing to do with anything. School kids. Mothers doing their shopping. Foreign exchange students. Taxi drivers. Workers from other countries. Even American POWs though they had something to do with something. After the initial explosion many of the victims described a terrible thirst. Later that day a black rain fell from the sky. The people were so thirsty they cupped their hands and drank it. It was toxic with radiation and everyone who drank it died within a couple days.
The area has been turned into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. There are collections of clothing worn at the time. Pictures of the destruction of the town, melted faces, charcol stiff arms. Individual stories of people who lived a few days and wrote about what they had seen and experienced. Collections of drawings from school kids depicting eyeballs popping out, smoke coming off fingers, horrible, horrible things. Dante’s Inferno, the Bible’s tales of hell-Hiroshima has already been there. There are sound recordings of people telling the stories of their loved ones. One room is a 360 degree view of stitched together photographs as if you were standing in the middle of Hiroshima after the blast. I found it difficult to breathe, standing in that room. Even though it was black and white photography, turning and turning and seeing nothing but destruction anywhere you looked, my God.
And yet, the theme throughout the entire park was one of peace. The message was, “We have collected these things so the world will remember how terrible war is. We have collected these things so we will remember never to use this weapon again. We have collected these things to honor and remember those who died. We have collected these things and we pray for peace.” There was no message of blame. But I cried. I cried for Hiroshima and for Japan and honestly, from shame. Shame that my country would do something so awful. There was a small desk and a notebook and pencil by the exit with an invitation to write anything you felt. I wrote what I was feeling. I wrote, “On behalf of my country, I would like to apologize. I am so sorry for what we did to you. Please forgive us.”
If one atomic bomb weren’t horrific enough, the US dropped a second bomb 3 days later on Nagasaki. Did you know that the original plan was to drop the second bomb on Kyoto? Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capitol, city of over 2,000 temples and shrines, 17 world heritage sites, where lovers sit shoulder to shoulder along the banks of the Kamo river and geisha flit like splendid butterflies down the alleyways lit with lanterns. Unfathomable. But the US Secretary of War, Hary Stimson, had been to Kyoto on his honeymoon and vetoed it from the list. But that’s just it! Isn’t it? Once you’ve been to a place, and met it’s people, and shared their food, and stood in their beautiful churches, and admired their artwork and listened to their stories, you see. Once you’ve chatted with a bus driver or been helped when you were lost on the street, once you’ve been bumped into by a little one running to school with his oversize back pack flapping, or recieved kindness from a sales person, you see that they are just people. Nice, decent people. And you could never drop a bomb on them that would kill them. And that is why everyone needs to travel. And why before dropping a bomb or starting a war, those government officials should have to go live with the people for even just a week before they make those kind of decisions. That’s a lot of ands. But I think it’s true.
As I was making my way back to the train station an old man was riding his bike down the cobbled sidewalk towards me. His brakes squealed and he stopped right in front of me. “Excuse me!” he bellowed in the way of deaf old men. “Where ah you from?!” My heart seized as I timidly replied, “California?” I was, after all, from the country who razed his town and he was old enough to remember or know people. “AH! United States! Very beeauteeful!” His face split wide with an ear to ear grin. I bowed, feeling very humble. He gave me two thumbs up and as he wobbled away on his bicycle he shouted, “Wercome to Japan!”