In Nagasaki and Hiroshima I learned a lot about the horror of destruction, suffering, guilt, and military reasoning – but also about the importance of forgiveness.
While Japan has kicked off tremendously devastating events, especially in the 1940s, and still has a big issue about officially fully acknowledging its’ role of aggressor in that time it sure can be said that it paid a high price in World War 2: More than 3 million Japanese killed, the country defeated, occupied for the first time, losing its’ spheres of influence like Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Taiwan.
Nothing symbolizes that price more clearly than the two cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Visiting both of them and their peace parks, memorials and most importantly their atomic bomb museums is an intense experience. Trying to understand the devastation of those two cities after the attack and the sheer number of killed and wounded is grievous. While the area around the hypocenter (Ground Zero) in Nagasaki was surely impressing (including the atomic bomb museum), I understood a little better about the attacks in Hiroshima’s museum as a lot was shown more vividly (actually I think it is no place for young kids).
For an international guest it is interesting how differently the two museums deal with the question of Japan’s joint guilt: While in Nagasaki the museum refers to the “Pacific War started in December” the museum of Hiroshima acknowledges Japan of having been the aggressor: “In 1941 […] Japan started the Pacific War […].”
The most impressive and touching experience however – besides seeing all those pictures and items on display – was the encounter of a Hiroshima survivor. My host in Hiroshima, Coco, accommodated me in her mother’s traditional house. When she wrote me about meeting her mother, she added that it might be interesting for me because her mother was a survivor of the atomic bomb. And indeed, being fascinated by general and military history, I was very interested. So before meeting her, I actually made up a little interview guide: Question I did not want to forget and which were highly interesting for me.
So after I arrived and Coco’s mum welcomed me with a wonderful dinner and quite some nice talk, Coco offered me to translate any questions I might have. So we started talking quite a long time about her memories of that day. And the shyness I had to talk about that topid vanished quite quickly as it was a very open and friendly conversation without any hard moments.
It turned out that she was seven years of age at the day of the attack. She stayed home with her younger sister while her older sister and her own mother went away to work in Hiroshima’s city center 3km away. When the bomb did what it was supposed to do, her sister was killed instantly while her mother miraculously survived in midst the center. Nobody knows how, as everybody around her was killed and there were no obvious obstacles that could have saved her…
She stood close to the windows as they were shattered by the blast, resulting in her body to be cut multiple times – one obvious scar remains until today on her cheek. She saw the subsequent fire storm scoring through the surroundings of the city center – the center being flattened completely – and quickly coming towards her house. So she grabbed her sister and ran up the hill away from the fires. Standing there and watching Hiroshima ablaze, she saw people slowly coming towards herself.
While telling that she stretched out her arms in front of her. Seeing that, I actually did not need any translations, as I had seen a replica of Hiroshima’s ruins in the atomic museum with people walking like zombies, stretching their arms just like she did now: The burned skin of many had peeled off until the very fingernails and just hang loosely downwards. Seeing her doing this gesture, my blood ran cold. It is one thing seeing this in a museum, referring to a time two generations before mine – but it is another hearing that from a lovely lady sitting opposite you telling her real-life story…
While writing about Japan, I found this article (in German) about a manga series portraying the bombing. I already read the first book by now and will surely also read the second, anyone who is interested in that topic may have a look at those insights. For English speakers, here is another article I found.
I was also told how many people died right after the blast. Many died of thirst or while desperately looking for water. Some jumped in the city’s rivers – which were boiling streams after the attack.
My last question took a while as I really did not know if I should dare asking. As the conversation was really easy and open, I did and asked if she had any bad feelings towards Americans nowadays and how she felt about the bombing. I had expected quite some answers in all directions but only partially the one I got: She told me that no, she does not have any negative feelings. Of course deploying a weapon like this is terrible and should not happen at all. But after years of war the bomb actually made a quick end to it. Without it, the U.S. would have covered Japan with conventional bombs and an eventual invasion, killing many more and destroying Japan extensively. Being a German and knowing well how Germany looked like after the bomb war I could not but tell her she was absolutely right about that assumption. It was quite a special moment, hearing her rational and forgiving verdict on those who killed her sister and devastated her home town – not unprovoked, but how easy is it to forget that! I was very impressed by what she told me this night.
While our conversation, Coco told me about her mother sewing nice little items from used kimonos in order to sell them. After she had finished her story, Coco and I went into her workshop and I admired all the little things she made. I was making up my mind quickly and asked her if I could buy some of those for my family as gifts. Without any exaggerated expression of generosity, she picked several items and handed them over to me, to bring home as a gift to my mother, sister-in-law, godchild and future wife. She made me a special gift: A beautiful Japanese crane, made of kimono fabric as well. It was the perfect gift, as was it a general symbol in Japan for long longevity and happiness as well as a special symbol for Hiroshima due to the story of Sadako Sasaki.
Seeing all those products and my gifts I felt quite touched. Thinking about what impact people can have on your life that did NOT die in a certain event. That after surviving they made their lives, gave birth and at some point even host a backpacking traveler from Germany, telling him their story of the attack on Hiroshima. However you put it, it was a meeting that will accompany me for a lifetime – with the memory goes her crane. And who knows how long that one will be around to tell that story…