Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Painful Past Worth Facing

The building opened in 1915. Designed by a famous Czech architect, it boasted a bright green dome. Large windows overlooked the river where it split around a long, slender island. Near the building, branches of a large camphor tree wound their way toward the sky, as if beseeching the heavens for mercy.

For decades, the building was a commercial exhibition hall that also housed art exhibits. The was neighborhood known for its artists, actors, and artisans.

The river still teems with life. A raven works his way along the water’s edge, turning over small rocks with his beak to reach his prey. A stately blue heron stands motionless under the big stone bridge. A black cormorant takes off like a seaplane. Frogs croak from a small lily pool near the Peace Bell, their sound drowned out whenever someone rings it.

As the sun pierces grey clouds, I realize that on the last day they used the building, my father, just back from flying bombers in the Pacific, had just met my mother.
Everyone inside the building died so fast their minds could not even have started to ask "What is it?" Less than two football fields away, and about six football fields above the city, something unthinkable had happened. Even with more time, the folks working in the Exposition Hall could not have understood that an atomic bomb had been dropped.

Almost everything in this part of Hiroshima was completely destroyed. The exposition hall remained partially standing, though bereft of its proud green dome. (Supposedly, some of the center walls remained because the blast struck from almost directly above.) Its windowless walls testify eloquently to the destruction. Around it, the bustling, noisy streets of the rebuilt city would give no hint of what happened..

Mito Kisei approaches us to tell his story. In the U.S., he would be seeking money or not all there. He is neither. He is simply a man who knows a painful truth he believes we all should know.

His mother lived in this neighborhood. On August 6, 1945, she was five months pregnant with him. He was born into a world of horror and pain. He believes passionately in disarmament – and that the use of nuclear power is a grave and dangerous mistake.

Of course I have always known what happened to Hiroshima. I had even read Japanese novels about the aftermath.

It is different to stand here and see, yes, it happened exactly here.

It is different to walk, numbed, through the museum. To file past the memos and letters and journal entries documenting the decision to use the bomb, then to file past the artifacts, like the twisted tricycle on which a three-year-old boy was riding. His father, feeling the boy was too young to lie in a grave away from home, buried the tricycle with the boy in the backyard, so that he could still play with it. Forty years later he dug it up and donated the tricycle to the museum.

The museum rightly criticizes Japan’s militaristic government and initiation of the war; but the facts about the U.S. decision raise sad questions. My father believed that dropping the bomb had been necessary to save the lives of numerous U.S. soldiers. But the actual military predictions of loss of life in an invasion of Japan involved far smaller numbers than President Truman claimed. (His estimate of the saved military lives saved increased over time.) The bomb was used largely to intimidate the Soviet Union. An important factor also was to quiet Congressional critics, who knew a lot of money had been spent on a mysterious military research project, with nothing to show for it. The U.S. general in charge of the war in the Pacific learned of the plan about twelve hours before the bombing. He never believed it was necessary, because Japan was finished. Whatever one concludews about Hiroshima, bombing Nagasaki a couple of days later can’t be justified. It was done mostly to complete the experiment.

To inflict unimaginable horror on vast numbers of civilians to save a significant number of soldiers may be more reasonable than it seems to Mito Kisei or me. To risk an even worse catastrophe to provide nuclear energy seems less defensible.

Building more nuclear power stations is wrong. Not for emotional reasons. Because we cannot operate these time bombs for decades and dispose of their waste safely for millennia.

To think otherwise is pure arrogance. Our record as human beings is that we err over and over. We squabble over borders or religions or gold. Yet we promise to protect nuclear waste for a far longer period than any nation has ever existed on earth!

Nuclear weapons have existed for one lifetime – and already there are literally hundreds of lost or stolen weapons unaccounted for, and many others in the hands of governments that may not be stable. Yet nuclear energy proponents promise nuclear waste will be kept safe for a hundred generations. Seems unlikely.

That late April day in Hiroshima seems a long way off.

Yet last Saturday at the Farmers’ Market a nice young couple handed out leaflets concerning a hunger strike and anti-nuclear demonstration August 3-6 in Los Alamos.

I wish them well.

[Note: The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 5 August 2012.  Some photographs relevant to it appear below, on Saturday's post "Hiroshima and Miyashima Island."

We visited Japan 10-24 April this year.  It was cherry blossom season.  I psted observations and photographs from other aspects of the visit in several posts in May and in one yesterday concerning Hiroshima and Miyashima Island.  As well as photographs relevant to the column, Saturday's post contains, at the end, links to the five earlier Japan posts.

For further information on the hunger strike and protest activities, go to  or to .

I noticed recently that the "in utero survivor" who wpoke to us near the A-Bomb Dome is the subject of a ten-minute video posted on U-Tube at:
Within the first minute, the video explores what’s left of the building.
Shortly after the one-minute mark, the videographer meets up with the gentleman with whom we spoke.
Finally, I notice now that Harry Truman's grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, is among those attending memorial services this week in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The 55-year-old former hournalist met Masashiro Sasaki in New York a few years ago, and wanted to work with him to help deepen understanding between their two countries.  (Masashiro's brother Sadako, an A-bomb victim, died of luukemia at age 12.]  Said Daniel, "I think this cenotaph says it all -- to honor the dead, to not forget, and to make sure that we never let this happen again."  He also said he made the visit partially to understnad more deeply the consequences of his grandfather's decision.
One 78-year-old Hiroshima native wrote in a Tokyo Shimbun  op-ed that although he was enraged to learn that many Americans still support the cidsion to drop the atomic bombs, "When I heard on the news that former President Truman's grandson is visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I felt as if I lost some weight from my chest."
The U.S. government sent a representative (the U.S. ambassador to Japan) to the annual commemmoration for the first time just two years ago.]

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