I went to Hiroshima, Japan not knowing what to expect*. A nuclear fall-out zone, maybe? Hostile glares from anyone who guessed I might be American? All I knew about the city was that my country dropped an atomic bomb on it in 1945, so the images that came to my mind were grainy black and white and dominated by a mushroom cloud.
*No, I hardly ever do research on the places I’m going to visit. To me, it makes it better to not have expectations.
What I found was a beautiful modern city in a river delta, dominated by peace memorials. A streetcar system on rails runs down wide boulevards and bridges span river channels, where the water rises and falls with the tides. A significant portion of central city real estate is dedicated to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum.
I arrived in the city in the early afternoon and, after dropping off my backpack at the hostel, I walked across a river to the museum. I paid 200 yen (just under $2) to get in, and promptly lost track of time as I was immersed in a world of acutely-remembered sorrow and suffering.
The exhibits show the effects of everything from the initial atomic bomb blast, to the fires, to the radioactive black rain, to the effects of the radioactivity in the months following the blast, to the shards of glass that are still occasionally found deeply embedded in survivors’ bodies. I read snippets of individuals’ stories—a mother desperately searching for her son in the rubble and carrying him home, only to have him die the next morning; the tatters of a young girl’s school uniform, which she had sewn herself; a picture of a woman with the pattern of her kimono burned into her skin, since the heat sought darker colors.
An exhibit recounts the story of Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year-old girl who developed leukemia years after the blast as a result of the radiation. Before she died, she folded more than a thousand paper cranes in hopes of living. The people of Hiroshima constructed a memorial in honor of her and the other children who died. People from all over the world still send paper cranes to Hiroshima. I remember hearing her story when I was in elementary school. Perhaps my class even folded and sent paper cranes. I don’t remember.
In the last room, there is a call to peace and nuclear disarmament. I learned President Barack Obama was the first sitting president of the United States of America to visit Hiroshima. 71 years after we carried out an unprecedented act of destruction. I felt a sense of shame contract somewhere behind my heart.
I have visited World War II memorials in Europe and walked in the footsteps of the ghosts of Auschwitz. I’ve seen the unbearable sadness and equally unbearable acknowledgement of responsibility for past actions. This, however, was different. This was me, my people, and my nation.
I’m not making an argument as to whether or not dropping atomic bombs was justified or necessary. Regardless of the circumstances that led up to it, the detonation of the atomic bomb was a tragedy, and I join my voice with the voices of the people of Hiroshima in calling for peace.
“We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”
-U.S. President Barack Obama
May 27, 2016
For more nuanced and balanced information on President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, NPR has a good article. My post is about my own worm’s-eye view.