“You know what’s weird to think about?” Walt asked me as we were walking the streets of downtown Hiroshima. “Our house is older than all of these buildings.”
I have learned about the bombs dropped the United States dropped in 1945. Along with the rest of my generation the world over, I’ve read the numbers, I’ve seen the pictures, and I’ve watched the footage. Learning about it in an American school, I felt I was also given an extra dose of the reasoning behind the attack: “as a result, the war was cut short … in the end, thousands if not millions of lives were saved…” etc. And using those bits of context, I rationalized it – I had to. The history was to distant for me to fully connect with, and the devastation too anecdotal. I took notes in class and filed it into my memory to be used on my world history exam, and potentially later at pub trivia should the need ever arise.
I knew that I, like so many others this day and age, was compliant to the reality of a nuclear world. I wanted context, to see it for myself, and to learn about the ramifications of the attack. This was exactly why I felt compelled to visit Hiroshima and why in the end, I am so glad that we did.
The Hiroshima Memorial Museum is dedicated specifically to the victims of the first atomic bomb dropped in human history. Initially I assumed the museum would detail more of the war as a whole, offering context to the bombing, but upon reflection I really think that would have been inappropriate. The main reason Hiroshima was chosen as the target was that the city had made it through the war repetitively intact compared to the heavily bombed cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama. The US wanted to exercise an indisputable show of strength and annihilate Hiroshima with one blow – and they succeeded. This resulted in the eventual deaths of nearly 160,000 people, the majority of them civilians and a shockingly high number of children.
Many of the artifacts showcased in the museum were belongings of victims. Most were in tatters and all were accompanied by placards detailing family members desperately trying to find, revive or care for the item’s owner. One large display was devoted to Sadako Sasaki, who has since become one of the most widely known victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. She was two years old when the bomb was dropped. She survived the blast, but was exposed to a heavy dose of radiation. Sadako died ten years after the bombing, spending the entirety of her childhood in and out of hospitals which were ill equipped to handle the new diseases surfacing after the attack. While seeking treatment, Sadako folded over one-thousand paper cranes as a meditative form of prayer for her recovery. After her death, her friends and classmates initiated a national fundraiser to erect the Children’s Peace Memorial in Sadako’s honor to call for an end to all war.
Hundreds of thousands of peace cranes are sent to Hiroshima every year from children across the globe. The cranes decorate the Children’s Memorial before being roatated out and recycled into postcards for the museum. I was unfamiliar with Sadako’s story, but Walt remembered learning about the memorial in First Day (Quaker kid Sunday School). His class folded peace cranes and sent them to Japan when he was a kid.
The museum was horrifying and devastatingly sad. I found myself drifting from case to case tears brimming in my eyes soaking in as much as I could. Along side the displays of school uniforms, toys and lunch boxes, there were detailed descriptions of the bomb itself; how nuclear weapons work and what exactly radiation does to the human body. There were extremely graphic photos, along with specimens of skin, hair and bone… I am not generally a squeamish person, but I was glad Walt and I had not eaten before visiting the museum. But even more than the grizzly, disgustingly honest displays of the carnage, the most nauseating part of the museum is that this horror was inflicted – with intention – by one group of people on another. Human beings did this to each other.
My country did this.
It’s really hard to look critically at the culture you were raised in. It’s nearly impossible to find quirks or oddities in the society where you’re most comfortable and when you try to analyze it objectively, it’s really hard to be sure you’re not talking about an egregious, potentially self-demeaning stereotype. That said, since this visit, I’ve been trying.
Because when Walt and I walked away from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum we both were grappling with huge questions: what is it like to live in a the only country subject to nuclear strikes, and to have it so recently etched into your social narrative? How does that attack color the way a Nippon sees us, a pair of American tourists when we pass each other on the train? And perhaps most importantly, what sort of responsibility do we, as a young Americans but also as citizens of the world, have for the actions of our grandparents’ generation?
Stepping out of the darkened display area and into the light drenched hallway we found a small table with three volunteers who help visitors fold peace cranes. Without question, Walt and I pulled up a seat at the table and were greeted by a smiling woman handing us two brightly colored bits of paper. I had folded cranes before, and giggled as the woman gestured to Walt to follow me through the process. I was still in a quiet, very fragile head-space, trying to grapple with what we had just seen and moving my hands through the familiar paper folds offered a welcome purpose.
We thanked the women and continued down the hallway toward the exit. But were greeted with one last display surrounded by onlookers.
You guys, I lost it. One look and I was completely undone.
I immediately turned to a window and focused on my breathing, trying desperately to quiet my sobbing. It was completely inappropriate for me to make such a scene, I just could not keep it together.
Look, I know there are so many people in this disgustingly politically charged time that would scoff, scold and mock me for losing it so completely. And god, if I could, I would challenge each and every one of those people to walk through that museum in good faith, read about those who died horrifying deaths, and hear the voices of their families. I dare every single person with that ugliness inside of them to sit across from that Japanese volunteer, accept her bright sheet of paper and learn to fold a crane without a common language, but hopefully with a new, blisteringly powerful common understanding.
We can’t do this. Not again. Please, never again.