Hiroshima, City of Peace.

Posted on June 13, 2016 in Blog
What's left of the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the now infamously recognized Genbaku Domu was once used as an arts and culture education center. Built in 1915 by Czech architect Jan Letzel, the exhibition hall was the only structure that wasn't completely flattened during the blast, which took place a mere 524 feet away. Everyone inside the building, thought to be around 60 people, died on impact. The structure has been the source of controversy in a city eager to rebuild and escape the painful visual remnants of its past. Popular opinion prevailed and the remains of the dome were preserved as a symbol of peace. From 1950 to 1964, Hiroshima's Peace Park was constructed around it. In 1996, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Genbaku Domu (A-Bomb Dome), formerly the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, was once an arts and culture education center in Hiroshima City. Located 524 feet from the atomic bomb’s hypocenter, it was the only structure that wasn’t completely flattened in the area on August 6, 1945, though all 30 people inside lost their lives. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

“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.

Praying for peace in front of Genbaku Domu.

Praying for peace.

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.

One of Hiroshima's many beautiful sculptures.

There are beautiful sculptures everywhere you look in Hiroshima City.

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.

A mother photographing her young ones near Genbaku Domu hours before President Obama's visit.

A mother photographing her young ones near Genbaku Domu hours before President Obama’s visit.

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.

Reflecting during a river-side walk hours after President Obama departed from Hiroshima on May 27, 2016.

The view of Genbaku Domu after President Obama departed the Peace Memorial Park.

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.”

"Flame of Peace" at Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park has burned constantly since its August 1, 1964 dedication.

The “Flame of Peace” at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park has burned constantly since its August 1, 1964 dedication.

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.

Clusters of thousands of origami paper cranes can be seen hanging throughout the Peace Memorial Park.

Clusters of thousands of origami paper cranes can be seen hanging throughout the Peace Memorial Park.

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?

Unveiled on May 5, 1958, the Children's Peace Monument (designed by Kazuo Kikuchi) is inscribed with the words: "This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world."

The Children’s Peace Monument, inspired by Sadako Sasaki, is inscribed with the words: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world.”

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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

Scenes from the crowded side streets around Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

May 27, 2016 felt like a holiday in Hiroshima. At every turn on the streets surrounding the Peace Memorial Park, you’d hear Japanese accents exclaiming, “O-bama, O-bama!” It was like Santa Claus was coming to town, and if you were an American, then you were considered part of his jolly, celebrity entourage.

“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

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On this day, typically shy Japanese men and women were extroverts, locking eyes with ours everywhere we went, smiles and “konnichiwa” greetings abound. Random people would exclaim: “Americans! Thank you for coming to Hiroshima!” Total strangers stopped to tell us their stories, and even hugged us.

“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

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People old and young filed into side streets that surrounded the park in hopes of catching a glimpse of the United States President.

Many people were streaming coverage of the event on their portable devices.

Before we knew it, we were packed in like sardines alongside thousands of Japanese people. You could cut the crowd’s elation with a knife; the amount of sincere gratitude and joy was overwhelming. Finally– someone with immense visibility and political importance in the US– had come to acknowledge their 71 years of suffering.

President Obama giving his speech, as seen on my new friend's iPhone.

Spectators brought portable television sets with them and streamed Obama’s speech from their phones, since the park was blocked off to the public. The crowd made “ooohhh-ing and awww-ing” noises as the speech went on, but nothing beat the moment when a Hiroshima survivor jumped into Obama’s arms for an extended hug. As it was happening, there was a collective gasp; everyone held their breaths.

View from above the crowd.

A common sight on May 27, 2016: People sitting on each other’s shoulders; perching on step ladders brought from home; even strollers and wheelchairs wedged into crowded thoroughfares. Everyone wanted to be as close to the Peace Memorial Park as possible– whether they could see the action or not– during President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima.

“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

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The streets looked like this for blocks and blocks. At one point, looking behind me into a Seven-Eleven, I noticed several patrons standing on countertops, hopeful to catch a better glimpse of the President’s motorcade. A store clerk, who made no attempt to shoo people from their perches, made eye contact with me as I gawked in total awe of the situation, and we burst into laughter at the scene of it all. This was an unstoppable celebration.

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When Obama’s motorcade finally drove past, the crowd’s reaction was priceless; what seemed like thousands of smart phones erected from the mass of people, and all you could hear was the clicking of cameras, until the cheering and clapping kicked in like the ball had dropped on the year 2000 all over again.

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The origami crane folded by Ms. Ouchi in front of the Flame of Peace.

“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

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Once the President’s speech concluded, the Peace Park opened back up, and people flooded in. A woman approached us on a nearby bridge, and we proceeded to talk for some time. Meigome, a second generation Hiroshima survivor, thanked us multiple times for visiting on this day before transitioning into the role of volunteer tour guide for the next 30 or so minutes.

“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

The Children's Peace Monument, inspired by the story of Sadko Sasaki, dedicated to all the young lives lost in Hiroshima.

As we approached the Children’s Peace Memorial, inspired by Sadako Saski’s death, Meigome’s voice broke up. “There were so many others like her,” she said in a whisper.

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I found the strength to ask Meigome some questions about her struggles as a second generation Hiroshima survivor. “One thing that is so hard for me,” she shared, “is that my father was at the airport on August 6, 1945. Why wasn’t he killed, but so many others were?” Her face expressed a lifetime of torment. (image: The origami crane Ms. Ouchi gave to me in front of the Flame of Peace.)

“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

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The Cenotaph for A-Bomb Victims was designed to shelter the names of victims, inscribed beneath, from the rain. This is where President Obama delivered his speech, which explains the masses of people gathered there to snap a photograph on this historic day.

“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

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The Memorial Cenotaph, where President Obama’s flowers– although guarded– were the subject of many photographs. Underneath the saddle-shaped memorial is the inscription: “Rest in peace, for the error shall not be repeated.”

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An onlooker waiting patiently to photograph President Obama’s flowers at the memorial.

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One Response

  1. Jonah
    June 16, 2016

    Lovely journey, thanks for taking it.

    Reply

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