Hiroshima In June

Seventy years ago, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In the summer of 2005, I studied abroad for five weeks in Japan. It was and is one of the defining experiences of my life so far, various white geek girl cliches notwithstanding. I wrote this piece in the spring of 2006, just before graduating from Western Kentucky University. It was hard to write, and the time we spent in Hiroshima are still the most conflicted and difficult of all the fun, beautiful memories I have of that trip. This essay feels very young to me, looking back on it now ten years later, still very naive. It’s still one of my favorites, however.

Hiroshima is different from what you’d expect. In history class, they show you a picture of sepia-toned wasteland that might as well be Mars and tell you we dropped a couple bombs on two cities with names so far away they might not even exist at all. And just like that, the war was over.

It wasn’t what I expected at all — the sunny weather, and the efficient buses with their velveteen curtains. The disproportionate amount of bridal shoppes and the pachinko parlors with Ultraman beckoning gamblers, the pleasant shopping arcade muzak and the giggling schoolchildren tucked into their uniforms, yellow hats glinting two by two. I wasn’t expecting the massive pleasure district with workers in fantastic evening gowns enticing customers into heart-shaped neon façades. It seemed just like every other city we’d been to so far.

And the accent is on the “ro” when pronounced, not the “shima.”

In the West Building of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, there are fingernails of a victim of the bombing in a solitary glass case. They curl long and black and brittle, with the shriveled grey skin clinging in shards. I stood before them long after my audio tour said to move on to the tattered school uniform in the next case, charred by a heat no one had felt until August 6, 1945. The fingernails came from eight year-old nail beds that had been neatly trimmed and crescent-mooned, and were used along with those of other children and civilians to fortify one of Japan’s most important military ports in the Emperor’s total war. His mother had saved them for years, long after they had rotted off, along with the rest of her son’s skin.

The East Building is dedicated to showing how Hiroshima looked before Little Boy fell. There is important historical information about the period of expansion before the war, dioramas of the city, all your usual museum fare. A corridor filled with optimistic children’s artwork leads to the West Building, and there visitors are greeted by life-size wax figures of civilian victims, shredded flesh dangling from their bones. Their eyes are wide and their mouths jut outward and down to form the shape of prayers that would never be answered. In America, there would be a large warning of graphic content to protect the young and the naive. Here, there is no warning — this is something that should be seen by everyone, especially the young and the naive.

In the Peace Memorial Park that surrounds the museum, I squinted in the crisp linen sunlight at all the monuments and memorials spread out across the lushly landscaped green space. A large mound holds the dust of the still-unidentified victims from sixty years ago. A modern, geometric bronze sculpture and hundreds of thousands of origami paper cranes pay tribute to radiation victim Sadako Sasaki — her fingers stretch up towards the sky, chin uplifted and forehead smooth, as though waiting to catch something else that might fall suddenly from above. Another recently added statue is a memorial to the Korean workers who died in the bombing — they are not recognized in the official Japanese register of victims.

That night in our room at the Hiroshima Grand Intelligent Hotel, I sat in the tiny bathroom atop our automated toilet with spray, bidet, and blow-dry functions and sobbed, crushed by the weight of the sadness and the anger and the blame that had been thrust at me ever-so-discreetly all day long. I had seen the blame in the sunken eyes of the scarred elderly on the bus, their silent, unceasing hatred of those of my race who did this to them burning through me. The sadness sang silently in the elegant tiled dove reliefs on the subway walls, a plea for peace, a call for the end of nuclear armament altogether. I heard the anger when I returned to America, in my grandfather’s shaking voice telling me that had we not dropped those bombs, he and all other American men would have been castrated and the women raped and I would have been born Japanese.

That night I wept not for myself, not for the Americans who died to save us, not for the Japanese who died at our hands, and not for every fact that has been skewed in every history book on both sides. I didn’t know who I was crying for or why I was crying at all. At that point, it didn’t matter anymore.

Originally published at leighkhoopes.tumblr.com.

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