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Nuclear Studies Institute 2011 Trip Reflection

As historians, we are taught to approach our subjects in the most objective manner possible. This proves to be rather difficult when you are staring into the eyes of a Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) who is recounting how his family burned to death after your country dropped an atomic bomb on his hometown in an act that General Dwight Eisenhower himself later described as “completely unnecessary.” Should the United States pay reparations to those affected, or at the very least offer an official apology? What can we do to ensure that this never happens again? These were the types of challenging questions that confronted us on the Nuclear Studies Institute led “Peace Tour” of Japan.

Through this program one gets a unique perspective on the atomic bombings of Japan than would otherwise not be possible. To many, the Hiroshima A-bomb Dome is just one more of the “must see” sightseeing stops on a trip through the infamous city. However, it was especially chilling for us to see the iconic dome right after visiting the hypocenter on an anniversary of the event. The group paused while Professor Peter Kuznick reminded us that this was the very spot and moment when the world changed forever. On that fateful morning of August 6, 1945, people were acting much like they are right now: sleeping; having breakfast; going to work, when at precisely 8:15 a.m., what the Japanese describe as pika-don (flash-bang) erased a city and alerted the world to the beginning of the atomic age. It is likely that the A-bomb Dome is the most photographed spot in Hiroshima, but after hearing what we just heard it seemed tawdry to be gleefully posing for a candid at a spot where 70,000 people were vaporized in an instant on that day. 

The only way we can adequately explain what we experienced on this trip is by describing it as moments of unmitigated numbness punctuated by brilliant clarity. How is one to react when listening to Hibakusha Mr. Keiji Nakazawa, the renowned author of Barefoot Gen, describe hearing his little brother, trapped under the debris of their collapsed house, calling to his mother for help as he burned alive? Tears streamed down our faces but it all seemed so insignificantly trivial, like crying when you watch a sad movie. How could we – 66 years removed and culturally insulated from the horrors of war – possibly understand? We could attempt to share in their agony but there is no way we could truly understand their nightmare. As we stared back at Mr. Nakazawa through tear-blurred vision, at his sweet face and gentle eyes, incredibly, what struck us was not misery, but hope. In listening to the memories of the Hibakusha, we were overwhelmed by an indescribable feeling similar to love – veneration for their courage; sadness; anger at what happened to them; but mostly of hope.

What the Hibakusha’s stories taught us was inspiring: that despite the fact that the United States dropped the atomic bombs on them - vaporizing their family and friends, erasing their cities, and scarring their bodies and minds forever – they harbor no ill-will towards the United States for this heinous act. They have redirected their anger into a solution: the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Only when this is achieved can we ensure that such a horrible tragedy never happens again. As the (former) Mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba stated “once we ensure our ability to live, then we can sort out historical apologies.” The Hibakusha do not want revenge or retribution, they want peace. As Americans, to hear them sincerely thank us for listening to their stories in the hopes of carrying their message was a profoundly moving irony.

Another instance of hope came from our interactions with the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean students who traveled with us. On a level unheard of in the United States, these students passionately embrace peace. They wholeheartedly endorse Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution: the clause that renounces war and does not recognize the right of belligerency of the state. They can quote from President Obama’s 2009 Prague speech in which he envisioned a world free of nuclear weapons. These revelations illustrate a stark contrast with the United States, where normally the only Constitutional Amendment spoken about with any passion is the Second Amendment: the right to have weapons.     

The diverse nature of our group was further enhanced by participants from a wide variety of professional backgrounds. We benefited from the unique perspectives provided by a Baptist minister, two medical students from Fukushima, and two U.S. naval officers, one of whom works on nuclear submarines and the other who was a helicopter pilot stationed in Japan who participated in the Fukushima rescue. Koko Tanimoto Kondo, an atomic bomb survivor and proud graduate of AU, class of '69, also traveled with us for the duration, offering an unparalleled personal connection. Her father, Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, one of the six survivors profiled in John Hershey’s Hiroshima, was instrumental in rebuilding the city and promoting its message of peace.

Thoughts and ideas were exchanged between the Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean students where they percolated and germinated. The cultural exchanges that took place were without a doubt the most enlightening aspect of the trip. Although rumors spread that after the bombing that no tree would ever grow in Hiroshima for 75 years, seeds in fact sprouted quickly. One can only hope that these seeds of peace planted during this tour are equally defiant.  

But despite this, such hope is sometimes an elusive thing. We visited many museums throughout Japan where the horrors of atomic weapons are real and undeniable. It is hard to stomach the seemingly endless displays of melted children’s tricycles or a piece of wall bearing the distinct shadow of a man vaporized in an instant while he sat on the curb waiting for the bank to open. These are the numbing moments I wrote of earlier, the moments that make it so difficult to adequately answer the oft-asked question “so how was your trip to Japan?”

The common refrain from previous students who have had this experience is that “it will change your life.” To be honest, up until the very last day of the trip I had not felt that this was the case. The trip had been eye-opening to be certain, but one can only hear so many tragic stories from Hibakusha; one can only see so many Coke bottles melted and deformed from the searing heat; one can only take so many locks of singed hair and burned school children’s lunchboxes with their carbonized contents before it becomes all too much to comprehend. Inevitably, just when things get to be too much, there are rare moments of brilliant clarity.

On our final night in Nagasaki I felt distant, unfulfilled, somewhat disturbed that we would soon be flying home and we still did not know what to make of this experience. There were feelings and thoughts brewing inside me that I did not know how to untangle. Well past midnight on that final evening in Nagasaki, through blind chance, I and some colleagues found ourselves headed back to the Nagasaki Peace Memorial which is located at the bomb’s hypocenter. We were surprised to see that the monument was unlit and shrouded in complete darkness. We continued towards the obelisk chatting amongst ourselves until something forced us to abruptly halt.

Laying on the ground was a tiny orange kitten that we had literally walked straight over, almost stepping on. It was as if that kitten was placed there to force us to stop talking, sit down, and reflect. Here we were, in the middle of the night, standing on the very spot where at least 40,000 lost their lives in a split second at 11:02 a.m. on August, 9, 1945.

In Vietnamese culture it is believed that cats have "psychic power," that they can sense spirits. It was at that moment – that moment as we were preparing to leave Japan – that the emotional weight of everything we had seen finally struck us. We sat in silence on the pavement and sobbed while the kitten calmly sat between us and the memorial, mutely watching. It was that moment when everything became real.

Some say that war is just a natural human condition, that we always have and always will carry out atrocities against one another. Therefore, achieving “world peace” is inconceivable. This trip, however, ultimately showed us the fallacy of that statement. Love is also a natural human condition, and although we know that our heart might get broken, we always give love a chance. Why not give that same chance to peace?

With special thanks to inspiration drawn from: Nguyet Nguyen, Amy Langford, Tom Kenning, and Andy Cox.