Friday was the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I was out fishing. Oops. Anyway, Hiroshima may be a bit out of the realm of this blog, but I still thought I’d say a few things.
Hiroshima has never been that far from my mind, for many reasons. My grandmother’s family was from Hiroshima, or rather a town just outside of it. I read the appalling and gruesome Barefoot Gen when I was in the fifth grade, and it colored my view of nuclear warfare appropriately (i.e., flaming horses, people burning alive, and the horror of sudden hair loss). I knew another Japanese-American kid whose grandparents had emigrated to the U.S. after the war. The grandfather had been on a train August 6th, 1945, traveling through the countryside when he suddenly saw a bright flash of light from behind a nearby hillside. That was Hiroshima.
Sixty-four years later I was also traveling through the Japanese countryside on the Hikari RailStar line, reading The Manhattan Engineer District’s Report on the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on my Kindle. I was headed toward Hiroshima. I was not really going there because of the history; my wife and I were taking a long vacation in Japan and needed to break up the long shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Fukuoka. Hiroshima more or less fit the bill.
My wife and I visited all of the bomb-related sites. We took in the museum first. We saw the dioramas illustrating the blast effects on the city, horribly disfigured mannequins staggering out of the rubble, the melted relics, and the shadows burned into masonry by people who were reduced to ashes. I was surprised and heartened that the museum fully blamed Japan for starting what it called “The Pacific War” and didn’t go look for sympathy for anything other than the A-bomb’s civilian victims.
We also took in the A-Bomb Dome, the Children’s Peace Monument, the Cenotaph for Korean Victims and several smaller memorials. I stood in front of the A-Bomb Dome and wondered how a brick-and-mortar building could withstanding being directly underneath a 12-kiloton atomic explosion. It was a pleasant October afternoon and in-between memorials I tried to get a glimpse of everyday life at the original Ground Zero. I watched teenagers hang out on the banks of the Ota River, playing guitar and picnicking, and marveled at small fish schooling under the precise spot of the detonation.
I waited for “it.”
I thought I would feel some kind of remorse or guilt, some gusher of emotion over the fact that my country had caused so much suffering. I didn’t. Instead I thought of the brutality of the Imperial Japanese military, and how it had probably killed enough civilians in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Burma, Singapore, the South Pacific and China to eclipse Hiroshima many times over.
At least the bombing of Hiroshima had a point: to force Japan to surrender. Much of the killing of civilians the Japanese military did was utterly pointless, and occasionally done as sport. And if it weren’t for those atrocities, Hiroshima would never have happened in the first place. I felt terrible for the civilians, but bad things happen when you let idiots run your country.
I thought I would feel such an abhorrence for nuclear weapons that I would want them abolished from the face of the Earth. I didn’t. Instead, I thought that while we lived with the remote possibility of all the cities of the world ending up like Hiroshima (or far, far worse), nuclear weapons had in fact kept the peace and prevented exactly the kind of destruction that I saw in the museum. Mutual Assured Destruction is an obscenity, but there is a logic to it, and the clarity of the logic was never more obvious than when I was in Hiroshima. I once read that “nuclear war has only two data points: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” And I felt with a certainty that the only reason there had not been three or 6,000 data points was because of the existence of the first two.
Perhaps ironically, my wife and I found Hiroshima easily the friendliest city to Americans we encountered during our five city trip. A young boy gave me this origami crane. “I want you to have this,” he said in fairly good English. He’d done kind of a half-assed job with it, but being a dutiful Japanese-American, I knew how to complete it.
Two middle-aged working class men saw us walking through the Peace Park and asked, conversationally, “Are you having a good time?” To which my wife and I simultaneously thought, “We’re Americans who obviously just came from the friggin’ A-Bomb museum, how do you think we feel?”
“We are hoping that you are to have a good time,” the chatty one said, without a hint of irony or sarcasm, and gave me a double thumbs-up. We smiled awkwardly and thanked him and went in search of dinner.