On May 27, 2016, President Obama visited the city of Hiroshima in Japan. It’s the first time a sitting President has visited Hiroshima since America dropped an atomic bomb on the city, August 6, 1945. He and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe placed a wreath at the Peace Memorial to honor all fallen soldiers and innocent victims of World War II. There was no apology from President Obama on behalf of America for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima nor the subsequent bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
I was disappointed to read this, but later an article about it popped up on Reuters and a local man from Hiroshima, now a taxi driver, was interviewed. He had been born two years after the bomb was dropped on his city.
“We’re still 10 years from the possibility of a (U.S.) president issuing an apology,” said Kenji Ishida, a 68-year-old Hiroshima resident and taxi driver who was born two years after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. “Japan has to apologize for Pearl Harbour, too, if we’re going to say the U.S. must apologize,” he said.
This morning, on NPR, they interviewed a survivor of the bomb, Kikue Takage and as the reporter thanked her for taking the time to talk about her experience, including the fact that all of her classmates perished while she was home sick that day, she ended the interview with a cheery, “Thank you very much!”
I visited Hiroshima In late December of 2014 while traveling to Japan with my boyfriend Masanori, his son and my two kids. Although I had been to Japan before, alone and with my kids, this trip was different than my previous travels. This time, we were traveling in order to meet Masa’s family. Most of his family still lives on a small island in the western region called Etajima, a 30 minute ferry ride from Hiroshima. It is the closest major city to the little island of Etajima and became the metropolis that Masa and his family ventured to during his childhood when they wanted or needed big city products and services.
The Ferry from Etajima to Hiroshima
When Masa and I first met and I learned that he was from an island across the Inland Sea from Hiroshima, it didn’t take me long to ask him if his parents had been affected by the bomb and what had his family done, and had anyone suffered from radiation sickness and did everyone in his family hate Americans because of what we did to them? This was me, being an American, trying to bulldoze answers out of him, needing to find an emotional toe hold on what I was certain must have been incredibly traumatic for his parents, who may have been young children when the bomb was dropped. I was certain that the family and his community had many discussions about what happened, and knew many people who suffered.
Masa’s answer was a thoughtful and quiet “No.” No his parents didn’t talk about the bomb, didn’t discuss it with their children. No, to his knowledge he didn’t know anyone who had suffered from radiation sickness. No, no one he knew hated Americans. He shrugged, knowing I was expecting a different answer.
How could this be? We killed 10,000 innocent people in one day. By the end of that year, 140,000 people died of radiation poisoning, and for decades others died or suffered in some way due to that Atomic Bomb. “Why?” I asked. “Why don’t they hate us? I mean why don’t you hate us?” Masa said, “I guess because we love peace more.”
So when I read the taxi driver’s statement that Japan had its own apology to make as well, and heard Kikue Takage’s interview it reminded me of that conversation with Masa, and our subsequent visit to the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which opened in 1954, is a large, green expanse built on top of an empty field created after the atomic bomb exploded. At the front of the park is the Peace Memorial Museum. We arrived on a day that the museum was closed entirely, which was disappointing, although I had a certain dread about going in, and Masa was worried about the graphic details and his son’s response.
We moved on through the park, where the main Cenotaph (empty tomb) sits, a large wave shaped cement sculpture. Standing in front of the Memorial Cenotaph, five or six Japanese people bowed their heads. A small stone pot with Hiroshima, ひろしま, etched into it sat on a marble slab surrounded by flowers. Further on, the Peace flame burned, and will continue to burn until all nuclear weapons are destroyed around the world.
At the Cenotaph is a plaque in Japanese and other languages which translated, “offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima — enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.”
I’m still shaken up by the very fact that the Japanese people are so forgiving, have indeed transcended, or try to transcend at the very least, hatred. My first Japanese teacher, Toyoko sensei said to me once, “Don’t you notice that many Japanese people like to make the Peace symbol with their two fingers when they are photographed? That comes from our national desire to have Peace and to not have war again”
Can you imagine Americans having this transcendent desire to forgive after the tragedy of 9/11? A different story, a different circumstance perhaps. But is it really? Aren’t there so many layers of events that happened with America’s support that created such hatred from the Middle East towards us? Can we not take some responsibility ourselves for how 9/11 came to be?
The Children’s Peace Memorial within the park is a tall Cenotaph which offers the symbol of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a story familiar to many children around the world. The metal sculpture of Sadako Sasaki sits atop the Cenotaph, her with arms outspread and lifted, and a crane shooting up to the sky behind her. Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the atomic bomb dropped. She developed radiation related leukemia and was hospitalized when she was twelve. While in the hospital, she began to create oragami paper cranes, hoping to be granted a wish once she completed 1000 of them, as Japanese legend has it. Her wish was to live. Although the children’s book about her life says she only completed 644 cranes before she died, and the rest were folded by her family and buried with her, her brother Masahiro Sasaki, who travels the world promoting Peace on his sister’s behalf, says that she actually completed 1400 of them. Many of these small paper cranes have been presented by the Sasaki family to other memorials, such as Pearl Harbor and the 9/11Memorial in New York.
Every year the Peace Park receives thousands of paper cranes dedicated to World Peace. Anyone can present them in person or send them. Once sent, you can register your name in the Paper Crane Database, which records your wish for World Peace and a world without nuclear arms.
Thousands of paper cranes are sent from all over the world.
It was New Years week when we arrived and Hiroshima had a beautiful light display all along one of the main boulevards near the Peace Memorial Park. Many of the displays had hearts and peace symbols. Walking among those light displays, I thought of the Japanese people, their culture of not imposing, not making waves. Americans sometimes don’t understand this aversion to individualism, to standing out, standing up and being heard.
After the Atomic bomb was dropped, and the war came to an end, and McArthur rolled in and set up camp, the Japanese people moved on. They were able to transcend the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were able to put the pieces of their lives back together. Most importantly, they were able to forgive. This is something to aspire to, and I think that President Obama’s presence at Hiroshima might help the world think differently about War and its consequences and how to truly survive.