Week 28: Hiroshima
I caved and bought one week's worth of the famous Japan Rail Pass for this. For this and for Fujisan. The pass allows me to travel anywhere in Japan as long as I'm in a Japan Rail train, which is confusing because there is also a multitude of private companies that own both the intracity subways and intercity bullet trains.
Hiroshima. Coming from Osaka, I fall asleep on the bullet train and wake to find myself parked at the endpoint: this city famed for the horror it endured. It's boiling outside. Hiroshima is closer to the sea, but so much hotter than Osaka. So much hotter today.
This summer's temperatures are breaking records in Japan, but not one record.
On August 6, 1945, it was hotter - if only for a brief moment. That heat was accompanied by two other deadly companions - a blast and radiation. That heat caused burns that made faces unrecognizable, burns that were infested by maggots within a few hours, burns that murdered.
I won't even get a sunburn today - just a tan, as a fleeting remembrance of this place etched in world history that I visited for one hot July day.
I take a bus to the Peace Memorial Museum in Japan and find the doomsday clock, which set a precedent to the "minutes to midnight" concept. It has a column of 14 wheel trains, with the first one moving rapidly and influencing the subsequent ones. Right now, movement - at least to the naked eye - reaches the fourth train.
When the world is on the verge of destruction, the clock will be set such that the first train's momentum will reach the bottom wheel and the clock will self-implode.
I wander around the first floor, which is the most personal and, therefore, the most heart-wrenching. Ordinary possessions like silverware, toys, coins, and mementoes permeate this exhibition, but most are melted due to the blast of heat that day. A watch stopped at 8:15, the time of the explosion, sits among letters from children to their lost mothers and garments stained with the result of the fallout - black rain.
The second floor hosts information about atomic bombs, a simulation of the specific bombing, and a history of the city inclusive of the pre-bombing era.
I spend about 90 minutes on the first floor and 20 on the second, just because the personal lives and faces of people really speak to my heart.
Dark tourism raises so many questions that I don't know how to resolve within myself. I stop at the cafe on the way out and buy an ice cream, trying to probe into the complexities of visiting a place like this and remaining a tourist. Part of me is so devastated seeing this place, and another part knows that I am once, twice, thrice removed from the place and experience I'm seeking to understand.
Here I am, walking through a museum with an ice cream in hand. I'm trying to make an effort to immerse myself here, but how far will that effort actually take me? Yet doesn't that effort have value? If I really wanted to make an effort, would I not have indulged in ice cream?
How does one compare pain? How does one live through this pain and find happiness, as so many did, while still holding room for their tragedy? I know I've never experienced anything close to the emotional pain the survivors felt in losing their loved ones or the physical pain that thousands succumbed to, but to what degree can one empathize?
We all experience our personal wounds that cut us deeply; does one kind or depth of pain discount another? I would argue no, but there are many people who can't leave their own experience alone and must compare. Do we need to compare? Could a fully empathetic person feel emotional pain with the same reality a person living through it can? If they could, doesn't the fact that they can walk away from it and move on with their lives mean something?
I believe in past lives, so what if someone currently living did experience this in a past life - how would it feel now? How much pain can a heart hold, and what kind of tragedies can humans live through? Does trying to understand something mean you will never implicitly understand? If so, isn't trying to understand at least better than not trying?
The museum is situated in a park is full of memorials, and there's another museum on site that is specifically for the victims. In this second museum, I sit at a computer and watch testimonials of survivors. These testimonials are from the 1980s, and many of them are from those who were in their twenties when the bomb dropped.
It is fascinating to watch these people talk about such a traumatic event after they have lived through the bulk of the aftermath, its consequences, and its emotional processes. The three that I watch are calm, reflective people. They were the few who were near the epicentre (one way to choose testimonials is by distance from epicenter) and lived. One man, then a young lad who barely survived, describes the light flash he saw from the bomb as the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Right across the waterfront is the A-bomb dome (pictured above), the skeletal remains of which survived because the building was almost directly under the bomb. All inside were killed immediately.
There's a guy outside the A-dome with his portable speakers, dancing to J-pop. It poses a contrasting scene, but I wonder about modern Hiroshima. This city is known the world over for one thing, but of course the residents here are normal people that want to lead lives full of happiness and success. Four local college girls come up to me, giggling, asking for an interview for their English class. They take selfies with me and we follow each other on Instagram.
As I stroll through the park, my biggest inconvenience the dessert melting too fast under the hot sun, I find myself thinking about World War 2. I notice that, in my mind, I list off the places of mass human destruction related to the war that I've been to - Dachau, Oradour-sur-Glane, and now here - the way people count the countries they've been to, and it baffles me how to understand my thinking. Is it flippant? Is it arrogant?
I know that I travel to these places because, to me, it is important to understand the depth of human suffering mankind is capable of inflicting - even though true understanding may always be out of my reach. While I live the privileged life I live, I want to be aware of what else is going on...but I also have the choice of doing so.
Does this make me the equivalent of a rich person saying, "Oh, I volunteered at the homeless shelter today"? What does the fact that I don't devote myself to a cause even while exposing myself to them mean? That nothing has truly hit me hard enough? That I just need to keep walking my path, and things will unfold as they are meant to?
I do believe that if a person seeks self-realization, at some point these fun endeavours will cease to offer fulfilment, and she will be naturally drawn to mature levels of selflessness and understanding. That day is so far away for me, so does that make me wrong to do what I'm doing? I don't think so, at all. Yet when I see this suffering it always leads to the question of what I'm doing with my life, why I'm doing it, and how important is it to follow my whims the way I am right now.
Am I lost, or am I lost in the way someone who doesn't know how to swim splashes in shallow water before realizing the groud is right underneath them?
The American man who dropped Little Boy (the name of the Hiroshima bomb) never regretted it. He felt that he saved more lives than he destroyed by doing his part to bring an end to the war.
Say you believe that violence sometimes necessitates using violence in return. Was an A-bomb on a largely civilian area necessary though? Just a few days before, the pilot named his bomb-dropping plane after his mother.
I don't have a working camera with me. Does it make me a more legitimate tourist see the place with naked eyes, and not through a lens? I only don't have one because I dropped my phone and broke the camera - does that undo any legitimacy? What about survivor's guilt? It seems more painful to survive loved ones than to die, is that true, and how would we even know that?
I head towards the tram, which will take me to the train to return to Osaka.