After nearly 20 years away from Hiroshima, I came back to start some fresh reporting and research on the legacy of the city and Nagasaki, their bold attempts to put tragic history in front of the world in useful ways and the prospects they can teach lessons about peace to new new generations even as the bombings’ survivors age. It seemed appropriate to do just what I had done as a much younger reporter the first time I was here and walk through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
It’s one of the central points of modern history, and of humankind’s hope for a peaceful, just future.
It had been nearly 23 years since I first came here, time enough for the kinds of changes that greeted me earlier in the day. The new baseball stadium now sits next to the rail station where my shinkansen from Tokyo glided in. Except for one building, the huge intersection outside the station’s taxi stand is a far cry from the rather dingy spot I recall from 1986 and two other very brief visits through 1992. In a city where the use of English was once a challenge, a sheet outlining the city’s garbage collection system (I’m renting a place) was in English, with an apology for having no phone line for questions in any language other than Japanese.
When three friends took me to dinner in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district last Saturday, they gave me a hint of Hiroshima’s changes. I first met all of them in 1986 when they were working as volunteer interpreters, volunteering and working incredibly hard on a project that brought American reporters to learn and write about the bombings’ legacy. Over an all-organic dinner (talk about changes from the mid-1980s), they said Hiroshima, once backward enough that I recalled a literally painful contrast between a local translation help and their world-class skills as simultaneous interpreters, was now very much an international city where I would find many offices with people who could help me in English. We also remarked on the fact that we were getting together across an ocean after two decades in which we have managed to keep some track of one another. And then there are the surprising turns we’ve seen ourselves, including the fact that today’s mayor of Hiroshima, the internationally known Tadatoshi Akiba, was then a Tufts University professor who had helped bring us all together in the project.
My friends’ point was driven home several times the first day in Hiroshima, perhaps most emphatically late in the day in the smaller of two neighborhood grocery stores (this one doesn’t even stay open all night). When I asked with apparently dated Japanese phrasing for hand soap, a middle-aged woman stocking shelves looked at me rather uncertainly, then rubbed her hands and asked in English, “Wash?” She then took me a couple aisles over, pointed to the brightly designed plastic bottles and cheerfully said in Japanese that is almost literally English, “Hando soapu.” I think she was humoring me by not using the English pronunciation. The city and the store also seemed to me to have many more Westerners, of widely varying ages, than I remember from the ‘80s and early 1990s.
As I walked a little later in the dark, though, the Peace Park seemed little changed. There has been some construction, but origami folded-paper cranes still drape a statue of a woman teacher holding an injured student’s body in the corner of the park where I entered. The eternal Flame of Peace burns behind a cenotaph memorial to the bomb’s victims and a reassuringly calm pond. The trees and bushes seemed even more lovely, with some sweetly fragrant scent filling the air of the May evening. And there’s a steady flow of people in the dark as 9 p.m. approaches, some seemingly there for the first time, others perhaps making a deliberate trip to visit on their way some place else and a steady stream of well-dressed men and women cutting through the park as they leave workplaces or after-work activities in the nearby downtown.
There was also the same intense feeling of sadness as I felt first reporting from here for The Herald of Everett at the thought of the lives lost in the bombing. No matter what anyone thinks of the United States’ decision to bomb the city during World War II, the explosion, fires and radiation brought an immense, horrid loss of tens of thousands of lives. I stopped to pray for a moment, perhaps bowing and clasping my hands together more overtly than I would have done decades ago. In future decades, people will likely still stop in profound silence to commemorate the victims of what we can hope will still remain one of the world’s only two atomic attacks.
When I first came here, the survivors often lamented that, despite their ceaseless requests, the super powers had done nothing but increase their nuclear arsenals. At least, that soon changed with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev beginning somewhat different paths. But we’re now in a period in which the number of countries bent on possessing nuclear weapons seems to do nothing but increase. As I post notes about everything from interviews to travels and random cultural notes here in the months, I hope we can talk here about how that dangerous proliferation might begin to change.
Note: The views here are entirely my own. This blog is not sponsored by the State Department, the Fulbright program or any of the fine people at the Hiroshima Peace Institute. The views and descriptions are entirely my own.