Sunday, August 10, 2008
Remembering the bomb
Last Wednesday, Joe and I took the day off work so we could go downtown to see the ceremonies commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Peace Park was already filled with thousands of people when we arrived around 7:15 a.m. and made our way over to the Memorial Cenotaph outside the Peace Memorial Museum.
Thousands of chairs had been set up to accommodate visitors, including one section specifically for foreigners. At first we tried to stake out a spot standing because we didn't want to get roped into the seated section where it would be difficult to take pictures. I couldn't find a good spot where I could see standing though, so I made it through the crowd to grab a seat after all. Oddly, when I sat down I looked up and saw that I had sat right next to my friend Katie. There were 45,000 people in the park and I managed to randomly sit next to a friend.
I noticed that Katie and a lot of other people had little hand held radios and ear pieces so they could hear translations of the speeches. Somehow I'd missed the place where they were handing these out. It was a bit too late to slog back through the crowd to get one, so I had to do without it, which was disappointing. But at least I had one of the programs being handed out by the Japanese boy scouts in the park, and it had English translations of some of the remarks that were scheduled.
Even before 8 a.m., the sun already was beating down harshly on sweating visitors. Many people hung towels over the right side of their heads to guard against the rays. Throughout the crowd, fans fluttered everywhere. The loud buzzing of cicadas surrounded us.
The mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akima, called for the eradication of nuclear weapons around the world and singled out the U.S. as one of three countries that refused to sign Japan's UN resolution calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He expressed his hope that the next president elected in November would support the resolution. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and a UN ambassador from China offered flowers at the Cenotaph, which holds the names of all the people killed by the bomb.
At 8:15 AM, everyone stood. A heavy silence hung over the crowd, punctuated only by the cicadas and the distant drumming and shouting of some protesters (protesting what, who knows). A large bell began to sound slowly. It was the kind of loud, low bonging that you can feel in your chest, like it reverberates through the air. This was the exact moment, 63 years ago, when the bomb fell. This was the moment when 140,000 lives disappeared in an instant.
I could feel the weight of the moment. In my mind, I imagined the flash of devastation that swept across the very place where I now stood. I swallowed a lump in my throat and prayed.
After a minute, the bell fell silent and the crowd sat. The ceremony moved on. At one point everyone's eyes turned upward toward the flock of doves that had been released. There were more speeches, and then soaring voices filled the park as a 500-member choir began singing the Hiroshima Peace Song.
After the ceremony, Joe went home but I walked around the park and took in the scene. Thousands of people waited in line to pray at the Cenotaph. They lit incense and left flowers for the victims.
Near the statue of Sadako Sasaki at the Children's Peace Monument, a man played a cello next to others displaying posters telling the story of Sadako, a girl who died from radiation.
I stopped to check out a long row of copies of old newspapers from World War II that had been hung up.
Below the images of war were English translations of excerpts from these old newspaper stories. It was tough to read those headlines:
(March 1945) "Most of the Dead Had No Arms, No Legs: Major cities like Osaka, Kobe, Nagoya were totally burned"
(June 1945) "They Bombed around the City to Cut Off the Residents' Escape"
(July 1945) "They Attacked Even Ferry Boats Deliberately: U.S. warplanes machine-gunned civilians after having burned their houses"
And some of the accounts:
"The Americans targeted Nagano since the Imperial Headquarters was located there. I saw a mother drying the diapers of her baby hit to death by machine-gun fire."
"The air raid on Utsunomiya City was just as horrible. The Americans fired their machine guns. During the daytime, they aimed at even us, elementary school children. I ran to a shelter. A bomber flew so low that I could see the dark glasses of the people in it. My friend was hit by an incendiary bomb right on his head. He was burned black and died. A baby on a carriage was also fired upon and became handicapped. It was horrifying everday and I was shaking with fear. Even today, I still dream about it."
"Aomori City was firebombed. The Aomori Station and surrounding area were burned down. The Americans began the bombing in the periphery of the city to bring the citizens to the center of the city and then killed them all."
This was not exactly the stuff included in my high school history books.
After this, I headed back to the peace museum to hear stories I'd never heard in those high school history classes, either. In the basement of the museum, at 10 AM, survivors of the atomic bomb (called "hibakusha" in Japanese) were to tell their stories in English.
I got there and grabbed a seat in the front row. For the next two hours, I listened to two men and one woman recount their experiences from this day 63 years ago.
It was the woman whose story really shook me. Her name is Keiko Ogura. You can actually read a summary of her story here. I highly recommend reading it.
Ogura is 71 now. She was 8 years old when the bomb dropped. Following a gut instinct, her father kept her and her siblings home from school that morning. Their house was 1.5 miles from the hypocenter. She was outside when the bomb exploded, knocking her over.
She recounted the bright flash, the darkness that followed, the black rain, her astonishment at the flattened city she saw when she later climbed a hill by her house.
Long lines of people lined the streets with their arms outstretched, scorched skin hanging from their flesh. Victims had flocked to the rivers, desperate for water. Their bodies clogged the rivers — so many bodies that it was as though you could cross them to the opposite bank.
At one point, Ogura was walking along a street in her neighborhood. Suddenly, a hand grabbed her ankle, scaring her. The person begged for water. Many victims lining the street called out for water. She ran home and drew water from the well and brought them water, but soon after drinking the water some of them died. She was scared and wondered if she'd killed them. Later, her father implored her and her siblings not to give the victims water because some of the victims had died after drinking water.
She felt tremendous guilt. For 40 years, until her father passed away, she kept her actions a secret. Even as she told the story again, 63 years later, emotion strained her voice. She still feels guilty. I wondered what other torments she may still find unspeakable to this day.
Another one of the hibakusha who spoke at this event, Isao Aratani, was 13 years old when the bomb hit. He told his personal story and recounted the memories recorded by students in his Hiroshima Middle School class from that day. His class was pulling weeds from a sweet potato field 1.4 miles away from the hypocenter when the bomb went off.
Here's a 9-minute video clip from his talk, but it's only just a piece since he talked for around half an hour. Unfortunately, the TV cameraman decided to set his camera up right in front of me in the middle of his speech, so the video is a great shot of this guy's rear end, but you can still hear Aratani speaking, and that's the important thing.
You can read his whole story online. He translated an abstract from a book his class wrote about their experiences called "The Poplar Tree Will Transmit The Story From Generation To Generation."
It wasn't easy for these survivors to tell their stories, particularly considering the discrimination many hibakusha face from some other Japanese who believe that radiation sicknesses could be hereditary or contagious. Ogura described one woman she knew who had to break off a wedding engagement because her fiance's family repeatedly asked if their children would be deformed since her parents were bomb survivors. Ogura mentioned many times how scary it is for survivors to speak out and how worried they are about prejudice.
So it took courage for them to face those fears and relive that day for us. They deserve to be heard. That's why I urge you to follow the links to their stories. All of them described the experience as pure hell, but they said they feel compelled to share the horrors of that day to send the message that these cruel events should never happen again. When an audience member, an American teacher, asked what message the survivors would want her to share with her students back home, she was told that one of the reasons they share their stories is that American children are taught that the bomb was necessary, that it was the right thing to do. It wasn't the right thing to do, they said. That is the message that they wanted to share — their wish that nuclear bombs will never be used again.
After the story telling was over, I headed home for the afternoon. At nightfall, Joe and I went back downtown for the evening memorial. People made floating lanterns to represent the souls of the victims and released them into the river. There were also handmade lanterns displayed all around the Atomic Bomb Dome, which were really, really beautiful.
It was a touching sight to see those lanterns floating gently away. Joe snapped some good pictures.