Hiroshima, City of Peace.
“Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” -Elie Wiesel
Hiroshima is a city of unrelenting beauty. In the harrowing shadows of Genbaku Domu, human bonds are forged upon impact, creating a sense of wonderment and peace among those in its presence.
To the naked eye, it’s one of the few traces of Hiroshima’s horrific past. It’s located right near the target of perhaps the most inexplicable crime against humanity that took place on August 6, 1945, when the United States government dropped an atomic bomb on the center of Hiroshima City, decidedly without warning.
The world had never experienced such sudden, deadly power. Residents thought they had been gassed; they did not know what hit them, and no one, including the creators of the bomb, knew what the longterm effects of its radiation would be.
In the hours that followed the attack, survivors stood atop rubble and opened their burned mouths to toxic, black rain. By seeking relief, they exposed themselves to more poison. In the years that followed, Hibakusha, or “explosion affected people,” endured reminder after reminder of that haunting day: mysterious boils would form on their skin as glass shrapnel rose to the surface; children died from leukemia; adults lost battles to all kinds of cancers; mothers gave birth to deformed or lifeless babies. Scientists from abroad occupied Hiroshima to study victims’ ailments in gymnasiums full of onlookers. While the bombing of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki three days later, might have ended World War II according to United States officials, for the Hibakusha and generations to follow, its physical and emotional implications have waged on to this day.
Yet, in the hours directly following the blast, able bodied survivors worked tenaciously to rebuild their beloved city on a foundation of peace. To understand the most despicable and inspiring qualities that human beings possess, you must visit Hiroshima.
To say that Hiroshima symbolizes resilience is a dramatic understatement. Words fail at describing the feelings one experiences in this place of humble triumph. Everywhere you look, it has risen above: awesome architecture has been resurrected; lush gardens replanted; and citizens have gracefully assumed their roles as practitioners of peace. This once fiery hellscape reclaimed its beauty, and the soothing, emerald green rivers running through it serve as a solemn reminder that time keeps on flowing despite the tragedies we experience in life. It’s hard to imagine that in our grandparents’ lifetime, these placid waters were red with the blood of maimed A-Bomb survivors who lurched to its shores in painful despair on that searing summer day.
Hiroshima is the greatest contradiction with which I’ve ever come face-to-face. Its streets are busy yet quiet and courteous; its soul crushing history glimmers with hope; its inhabitants are kind and tranquil despite experiencing the ravaging effects of nuclear war. It’s utterly stupefying– how can all this be? The stoic determinism that pervades the collective consciousness here is stunningly beautiful, and absolutely maddening to try and wrap your head around.
Hiroshima is ground zero for those attempting to understand the human condition; it’s a testament to the power of compassion, empathy, and resolve to change the world through peace and love. To be truly humbled, you must visit Hiroshima.
In the midst of its lively metropolis, there is a ghost. Genbaku Domu grabs you by the chest and steals the breath right out of your lungs. Walking along its perimeter, looking through the fence that enshrines the blackened skeleton, a haunting realization sets in that people, just like you and me, were wiped off the face of the earth within an instant, right here, on that ugly August day. And although the structure is an ever-present reminder of devastation, the people of Hiroshima maintain that it’s their symbol of peace. Frankly, I just don’t know how.
My boyfriend and I didn’t have a chance to fully circle around the dome when a soft-spoken Japanese woman interrupted our stupor and asked if she could share her story.
Ms. Ouchi was carrying a plastic binder filled with illustrations made by her now-deceased mother and grandmother, chronicling the day of the attack. Since pretty much everything was destroyed in the bombing, individuals’ only vehicle to document the horror was by drawing it, and so there is a heartbreaking legacy of artwork that depicts what people saw.
The painful imagery in Ms. Ouchi’s book, colored using mostly brown, black, and red, shows what looked to be zombies wandering a post-apocalyptic, smoldering wasteland, arms outstretched with sheets of skin hanging off their burnt bodies. Ms. Ouchi said that her family commonly described the scene as “hell on earth.”
After sharing her family’s odyssey in the decades that followed the bombing, Ms. Ouchi reached into her bag, and presented us with a melted piece of their former home’s roof; where her mother and grandmother were injured during the blast as they prepared breakfast. We stood there, in total shock, following her lead to run our hands over the scorched-smooth tile.
There were so many questions that I wanted to ask her, but I could not open my mouth to get the words out. In fact, I don’t think I said anything besides “thank you” until we parted ways.
In the presence of the first of many human miracles that day, I thought: Ms. Ouchi is just a few years older than my Mom. What an incredible act of nature that she was ever conceived after her mother suffered radiation poisoning from being within 2 miles of the impact zone.
How amazing that Ms. Ouchi learned to speak the very language of her country’s perpetrators, all so that she could tell her family’s story, and warn against the devastating effects of nuclear war– not to garner sympathy, nor conjure up guilt among those willing to listen, but simply to say: I do not wish this kind of life upon anyone. It cannot and must not ever happen again.
She ended with thanking us for coming to Hiroshima on this historic day of President Barack Obama’s visit, which she noted as being deeply important to her and so many others, and gave us a token of her gratitude in the form of two origami cranes– the emblem of peace in Hiroshima.
The story of Sadako Sasaki is the reason behind all the paper cranes hanging in thick masses around Hiroshima’s Peace Park. Only two-years old when the bomb went off, Sadako was one of many children diagnosed with leukemia in the years that followed the attack. When she was 12, her hospital roommate sought to inspire hope in the 12-year-old by sharing a Japanese legend, in which folding 1,000 paper cranes would grant the person one wish. By the time of Sadako’s death, she had folded well over that number using whatever paper she could find, from her own medicine wrappers to scraps she’d collected from other patients’ rooms, and donations made by her visiting classmates.
A few of Sadako’s cranes remain on view at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. They’re so, so tiny, and serve as a huge reminder of the little fingers that folded them. Over 6,000 junior high school students were killed in the Hiroshima blast, a statistic you must dig around to find. Unless you visit Hiroshima.
I’ve heard fellow Americans say many times: “Everyone should visit Hiroshima.” But now I know why. It is where the truth exists independent of politics. It is the birthplace of pacifism in Japan. It is where hatred, resentment and fear remain missing from the conversation. It is where our desensitization explodes into palpable pain. We can learn a lot about the powers of forgiveness and compassion in Hiroshima, City of Peace.
In the weeks before leaving for Hiroshima, I re-educated myself about World War II, and the disastrous finale set in Hiroshima. I watched every pro and anti-war documentary I could find, read countless articles, and researched the bone-chilling stories of the Hibakusha. This wasn’t some act of penance: I wanted to enter Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum fully engaged and ready to learn more.
Besides coming face to face with those new, terrible facts, I was equally troubled by the realization that much of this information is missing from the narrative told in the US, from history books to museum exhibits, and probably always will be.
This begs the question: How will we ever learn from past mistakes if we cannot fully admit them?
A photo essay of Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan on May 27, 2016. Included are quotations from President Obama’s speech, which you can read in its entirety here.
“The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” -President Barack Obama
“Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.” -President Barack Obama
“We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry.” -President Barack Obama
“That is why we come to Hiroshima. So that we might think of people we love. The first smile from our children in the morning. The gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table. The comforting embrace of a parent. We can think of those things and know that those same precious moments took place here, 71 years ago.” -President Barack Obama
“Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.” -President Barack Obama
“Those who died, they are like us. Ordinary people understand this, I think. They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.” -President Barack Obama
“We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted.” -President Barack Obama
“The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family — that is the story that we all must tell.” -President Barack Obama