A hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) recounts to us how his family burned to death after our 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 "Peace Tour" of Japan led by the Nuclear Studies Institute, providing a unique perspective on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.
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 where we paused. American University History 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.
We can only explain what we experienced on this trip 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? 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. Incredibly, in listening to the memories of the hibakusha what struck us was not misery, but hope.
The hibakusha's stories inspired us. 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. They have redirected their anger into a solution: the total abolition of nuclear weapons. The hibakusha do not want revenge or retribution; they want peace. The hibakusha's stories inspired us.
The Japanese, Chinese, and Korean students who traveled with us 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 and its putative right to possess weapons.
Participants from a wide variety of professional backgrounds further enhanced the diverse nature of our group. We benefited from the unique perspectives provided by a Baptist minister, two medical students from Fukushima, and two U.S. naval officers. Koko Tanimoto Kondo, an atomic bomb survivor and proud graduate of AU (1969), also traveled with us for the duration, offering an unparalleled personal connection. Her father, Reerend. 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.
The cultural exchanges among American, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean students were without a doubt the most enlightening aspect of the trip. It has been said that after the bombing that no tree would ever grow in Hiroshima for 75 years, but seeds in fact sprouted quickly. One can only hope that these seeds of peace planted during this tour are equally hardly.
Some say that war is just a natural human condition, and 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. To hear the hibakusha sincerely thank us for listening to their stories in the hopes of carrying their message was a profoundly moving irony.
Author's note: special thanks to inspiration drawn from Nguyet Nguyen, Amy Langford, Tom Kenning, and Andy Cox.