Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 17, 2011

The Train to Hiroshima

By David K. Shipler

Hiroshima is a long, safe distance from the damaged nuclear reactors in northern Japan, but it is close to the surface of my thoughts. That the only country attacked by nuclear weapons should now, 66 years later, face a threat from the peaceful use of nuclear power puts a particular edge on the injustice. I wish I could be in Hiroshima to hear how this tragedy of 2011 is playing in the minds of those who lived through 1945. Schoolchildren will soon find out, if they ask the right questions.

As spring comes, many schools in Japan organize trips to the city so that children can listen to aging survivors tell their stories. The bullet train from Tokyo was full of kids the day I went in May 2007.
 They wore neat blue and white uniforms, and the train rang with the tinny clamor of little voices. We’ve all made these eager sounds of excitement on a day out of class, the universal music of any field trip in any country. Yet here it seemed dissonant. They were heading to a mournful place. Shouldn’t there be a somber note?

Then I corrected my thought: They should be just as they are, held in their present and laughing into their future.

The museum at the Peace Memorial is built on facts, not blame. It is not anti-American but anti-war. The pieces of history displayed in documents are like hammer blows. The artifacts need no explanation: a metal lunch box, its lid open to reveal the ashes and coals of a child’s lunch that had been burned to a crisp inside; fragments of clothing, much like the bits of prison uniforms from concentration camps that you can see at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem; a wrist watch stopped at the precise time of impact; pictures of faces, of bodies burned and twisted. A panorama photograph of the leveled city runs for about 45 feet along one wall, a vast ruin. In a hallway hang children’s drawings, the simple unvarnished memories of the aftermath: a na├»ve rendition of a stiff corpse crosswise on a bike, bodies lined in rows.

Suddenly into the midst of my own somber gaze back into the shame came four giggling schoolgirls intent on practicing their English. “Hello!” “How are you?” “What is your name?” The stock phrases seemed about the limit, but we had a little exchange, their eyes shining with delight. When I asked them how old they were, a couple said thirteen, one fourteen. Then they bounced away, only to circle back again to try out the same phrases. Their joy was like a breeze.

Hiroshi Hara was waiting for me at a table in the museum snack bar. In all such catastrophic moments, the wheel of chance stops in favor of one, against another. He had been favored. Behind big glasses, his eyes were cheerful. His long gray hair, grown back after a bout of chemotherapy, stuck out underneath a black beret. He was now 75. When the bomb was dropped, he was 13.

Thanks to Tomoko Nakamura, a professor of English who generously translated, Mr. Hara’s story came to me with graceful fluency. He had told it many times. He lived on the outskirts of Hiroshima and had to travel into the center of the city to his middle school. The day before the bombing, a Sunday, he and others in his class had been set to work demolishing wooden houses to make firebreaks. This was a widespread task—an attempt, in case of a bombing, to stop the entire city from going up in flames. Since the kids worked Sunday, their teacher gave them Monday off from classes—Monday, Aug. 6. His school was only 700 meters from ground zero.

Instead of going home after the Sunday chores, he went to his aunt’s house on Etajima Island, which was two kilometers from his school. She had a farm, and he hoped to get food, for the city’s population had little to eat.

The next morning, while he carried his cousin on his shoulders on the way to the beach, a “blue flash” exploded across the water. A huge cloud shaped like a mushroom erupted and grew bigger and bigger. He wanted to go home, but his aunt persuaded him to stay until word came the following day that all children should return to their schools. He took a boat, then walked through town. “It was so cruel. I don’t know any words to express it. I found a body without a head. There was a body with organs coming out. A dead body [burned], looked like a tree lying on the ground. I started to look down on the ground, there were so many dead bodies I tried not to bump them.”

His school was gone. His teacher told the children to go home, although many had no homes to go to. His house, far enough from the blast, had survived with nothing more than broken windows, and his family was alive. His mother and younger siblings, who had been at home, were unharmed. His father, who worked for the railroad at the port, closer to the center, was peppered with shards of flying glass; Mr. Hara remembered his head covered with bandages. He died of cancer at age 52.

Since the early 1980s, Mr. Hara had met with some 80 school classes a year, adding up to about 100,000 kids, he figured. He had also done nearly 2,000 drawings of the city hall, left standing with its dome in partial destruction as a memorial, a reminder. He presented me with number 1,920 and was aiming to reach 2,000 by that Aug. 6. (Three years later, on Aug. 6, 2010, he painted number 2795, his wife told Prof. Nakamura today, and plans to resume work as the weather warms this spring.)

The giggling girls with the shining eyes and the few perfect English phrases were among the 50 or so sitting quietly in rows as Mr. Hara walked in and was introduced by one of the boys. The kids sat erect, then bowed in unison. And Mr. Hara told his story once again.

He made the noises of the plane and the bomb; he squinted his eyes and twisted his face as he described burned faces and bodies, so charred you couldn’t tell whether they were male or female. After the blast, “The fire became bigger and bigger toward the end of the day, and even in the evening it was not dark because of the fire. … On the bridge there were so many people lying down—they were dead. In the river I saw many people floating.”

The children sat motionless and silent, held by the memories of the boy who had been their age. Three of his teachers died. One’s eyeballs had been blown out of his head. Some of his schoolmates were so completely burned they couldn’t be recognized. Of his five best friends, “I’m the only person who survived. I regretted that I was the only person who survived. I tried not to talk about my experience. Later I realized I should speak aloud in place of my dead classmates.”

Without explanation, his teacher told him that as he walked home he should ignore people’s pleas for water, for if he gave them water they would die. And so he remembered now the cries for water, the soldiers entering the city to collect and burn the bodies, the sickening smell of cremation that turned his stomach despite his hunger and made him unable to eat rice balls that women were making and handing to passersby. “I heard many people crying out, ‘Give me water.’ I could have given them water, but I thought of my teacher’s advice. I was shocked that I couldn’t do anything to rescue people. But the image still remains in my mind. The bodies looked like burned wood on the ground.”

The children remained still, quiet. The somberness I had craved on the train had descended on them all. He told them: “You cannot hear people crying out, ‘Give me water’ in the museum, and you cannot smell the cremation. So in the museum you cannot see what happened in Hiroshima.”

Mr. Hara recited facts about nuclear weapons, including the countries that possessed them, and urged the kids to take notes. They hunched obediently over notebooks. He told them some basic history including Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the American calculations, and a bit of his own speculation: “The United States tried to use the atomic bomb to finish the war as soon as possible, they say, but it seemed a sort of experiment. The United States wanted to get the results of the atomic bomb. That is why we cannot permit the American government to be the policeman of the world. … When I talked about this in the United States, some of the audience told me to go out of the place.” It had been in Washington state, he said later.

For a solid hour, the children had sat rigidly attentive. He presented one of his drawings to their school in Okayama, not far from Hiroshima. “Human beings cannot live together with nuclear weapons,” he concluded. “That is something I should hand down to the next generation. That is why I keep drawing pictures of the dome. I sometimes show the pictures to mothers. I will give you a baton of peace. Please accept it, and after, find someone to give it to. I don’t have so much time left. I would like you to remember what I said after you go back to school.”

Now a girl went to the front of the room to invite questions. A boy asked when Hiroshima residents began reconstruction. Soon after the bombing, people began growing vegetables near the dome, he replied, and within four years building was proceeding apace. A teacher asked about food in the aftermath, and Mr. Hara said his family shared a single rice bowl and ate any edible things. With nothing in the stores, money was useless. A boy asked how long it was before he felt like eating. Once he was home, he ate.

And then another boy asked a very grown-up question: When he had a hard time, what idea helped him? Mr. Hara said that he had been helped by telling what had happened. He sent a letter to a newspaper. He wrote a poem. He drew pictures. “So I have a mission to keep talking about my experiences.”

Then the session took an odd, funny turn. Mr. Hara introduced me, this gray-bearded American sitting in the back of the room, and the interpreter explained a bit about me. When she mentioned that I had been on the TV show “Close-Up” talking the night before about poverty, a girl in the front row jumped up and shouted that she’d seen me, and gave me a double thumbs up. She later told me that I had inspired her. My friends the giggling English-speakers shone with delight again, and I said a few words in support of Mr. Hara’s mission to keep the history alive. Then I asked if some of them could tell me what they were feeling during his talk.

I handed the microphone to one of my friends, whose eyes had been so cheerful when we met in the museum. She hesitated, looked at the floor, and then mumbled, “It was a terrible thing.”

A boy said, “I had learned something before I came to Hiroshima, but after hearing from someone who actually experienced it, it was more terrible than I had expected.”

A girl declared: “We have to keep saying we don’t need any nuclear weapons.”

When the session broke up, kids started smiling again and laughingly crowded around me holding out their notebooks for autographs as if I were some rock star. Here, at least, I had not inherited the sins of my fathers.

1 comment:

  1. So deeply sad...
    Good piece, Dave.
    I caught an interesting documentary on PBS the other week - super early in the morning when I was awake. About Guam and all that they suffered during WWII under the brutal Japanese occupation of their island. It was stunning. I actually had never known anything about Guam until seeing that piece. And then, in the end, now, all these years later - Japanese people - innocent and unknowing - come to Guam to vacation and sightsee and have a good time. The world is full of ironies! I highly recommend the documentary - it's also an education in itself. There are so many ways to truly suffer in this world! I also like what Obama had to say about Hiroshima...
    Thanks for the vivid piece.