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I Met with the Bomb

"I have read that to this day the bones of the dead wash up on the banks of the seven rivers that Hiroshima straddles." Chris Sorochin takes us to a place where many of us will never visit.

Chris Sorochin  

We arrived in Hiroshima at 11:30 on a Friday, and the rainy season I had been promised was just kicking in.

I have to confess that I had expected at least a palpable atmosphere; in reality I had sort of envisioned a city of peace activists, maybe even Buddhist monks directing traffic and streets named after Gandhi, the Berrigans and Martin Luther King. Nothing like that is in evidence as we leave the station. All I notice is a fountain shaped like two huge conjoined mushrooms raining water into a pool.

"Mushroom clouds?", I wonder.

"I sort of doubt it", opines Bill, my travelling companion and fellow pseudo-intellectual.

We locate our hotel and decide to venture into the night in search of food, drink and local colour.

Unlike Tokyo, which stays open all night, Hiroshima seems to roll up the sidewalks early. We wander through darkened, industrial-looking streets that look like something out of a 1930s waterfront detective movie and finally locate a place festooned with the red lanterns that signify sustenance throughout Japan. The place has the ambience of a small warehouse and has various mini-lunch counters offering different mysterious delicacies. The clientele is decidedly proletarian and they seem gladdened by our befuddled presence. A cigarette dangles from nearly every mouth in the place of the woman cooking, the teenage couple across from us (whose male half informs us he's a "businessman") and the jolly middle-aged lady next to Bill, who, he later confides, kept touching his leg. It's not unlike being in a tiny hometown bar in the States.

We enjoy assorted fish, vegetable and rice dishes, washed down with copious mugs of Sapporo and in a combination of fractured Japanese, English and sign language discuss Bart Simpson and Shonen Knife. When the Topic surfaces, they tell us we can walk to the Peace Park and offer no extraneous comment. Was anyone killed or injured in the bombing related to any of them? Gradually it dawns on me that Hiroshima is, and was, in 1945, mainly a working-class port city.

We're given quite a few dishes on the house (unusual in Japan) and the proprietor sends us home with complementary tomatoes for a midnight snack.

Next morning, it's still drizzling and, after our customary misadventures with the public transport system (streetcars!), we arrive at the Peace Park, whose entrance is guarded by the famous A-Bomb Dome, the shell of a huge exhibition hall that has been left as an exhibition of the destructive capabilities of atomic weapons. (And remember folks, the things they've got today make the original look like a cherry bomb.) The Dome is fenced off, so you can't get close. Artificial roses have been thrown inside the enclosure.

Throughout the park are numerous monuments covered with flowers and garlands, wreaths and even pictures made of origami cranes. These folded paper birds are traditionally presented to the sick and bereaved as a sign of consolation and are associated with the hibakusha (A-bomb victims).

I have with me several poems by Rich Sieber, a Plowshares activist, comparing the bombings to the crucifixion and relating both to the children suffering and dying in Iraq today. I place them in front of what looks like a suitable memorial. After we move on, Bill says "Look" and I see that two young men, with the unmistakable hairstyles and bearing of U.S. military personnel (off-duty) were reading the poems. We notice them later at the museum and several more at the snack bar. "Our boys", we snidely remark, but they don't appear to be behaving in any gloating or oafish manner and must have been there of their own volition. Maybe they'll be moved, and thus more likely to think more deeply about some of the things they may be ordered to do in the name of the United States.

We pass the Eternal Flame, which, I tell Bill, will only be extinguished when nuclear weapons are banished from the earth. "I hope they have lots of fuel", he quips.

By this time, I'm pretty choked up and the feeling is not mitigated by my being from the nation that perpetrated the outrage. Finally, the museum itself. A supposedly hip tour book dismisses it as emotionalistic, lacking historical context and failing to recognize the suffering of non-Japanese. I find all of these charges to be false. The most heart-rending images are not on public display and the material is presented in a very matter-of-fact way. Good thing, too, or I might've bawled right there. The first floor deals with the city's history as a naval base for Japanese imperialism and there is a cenotaph in honour of the Koreans who were doing forced labour there at the time. There is also unmistakable, though modest, acknowledgement of Japan's atrocities in Asia.

So I've written to the publishers of Insight guides demanding to know whether their other volumes criticize the Holocaust Museum for being emotionalistic, the Pearl Harbour Museum for lacking objective historical context, or the Vietnam Memorial for omitting all those Vietnamese names.

Among the many chilling exhibits are scale models of Hiroshima "before" and "after", pictures of horribly burned victims, samples of radiated skin and triumphal crowings from Harry Truman. Entire walls are covered with reproductions of letters: every time one of the five major nuclear powers tests a weapon, the mayor of Hiroshima writes a letter of protest.

In the middle is a book counter featuring all sorts of literature on the Bomb and related subjects. I gag to see that you can buy Newsweek's fiftieth anniversary issue, a pusillanimous regurgitation of official mythology and denial. How depressing to find that the Ministry of Truth has a toehold even here.

There is also that most Japanese of popular art formsanime. You can rent videos of wide-eyed youngsters surviving the conflagration, a sobering reminder that 19% of the bomb's victims were children under the age of 10. Perhaps COCA or ICON could give some consideration to this sub-genre.

There are also videotapes of actual hibakusha relating their own memories of that day. One exhibit tells us that they say, "I met with the bomb", as if regular terminology is simply inadequate.

By this time, I'm pretty choked up and the feeling is not mitigated by my being from the nation that perpetrated the outrage. When we walk outside, it's still raining lightly and I observe that the weather is perfect for the day's activities.
  "No", says Bill, "I wanted it to be sunny and see children playing and old people enjoying the warmth and couples strolling to fully appreciate the weight of the evil that happened here." Bill lives in Japan and teaches English at a university and says he often thinks of this as he walks around. How could we view these people (or any people) as insects worthy of extermination, as much wartime propaganda envisioned it?

Author E. B. White writes of sitting in a Manhattan coffee shop, shortly after the bombings and watching construction work on the building across the street and thinking just how pointless and insane it all was in light of the new capability for mass destruction.

About construction, Bill, who knows more about architecture than I do, notices that most of the buildings look hastily put up, as if to obliterate the bare wreckage (and its memories) as quickly as possible.

After a bracing machine-vended sake (Japanese ingenuity at its most convenient), we meander through the street market. I stop to buy a peace-symbol bracelet at a jewellery stand and notice that I can, if I choose, purchase a keychain featuring a cartoon character called "Atom Boy". Ironically, Japan has one of the world's most extensive nuclear programs and officials are busily trying to put distance between the memory of radiation sickness from the Bomb and that which would result from an accident in a densely-populated country prone to earthquakes.

The vendor speaks good English and tells us he lived in New York for some years. He gives me a free gold chain. And, indeed, we receive many more gifts from strangers that day - a lighter from a shopkeeper, a dish of kimchee from a cook at a tonkatsu parlour and strangest of all, beers from a man in a karaoke bar who didn't hang out to practice his English on us.

I have read that to this day the bones of the dead wash up on the banks of the seven rivers that Hiroshima straddles. We could only come to the conclusion that the truly unique thing about the city is, like radioactivity, invisible to the naked eye, but destined to remain for a very long time

Chris Sorochin lives in New York. He has contributed to The AISLING Quarterly in the past, writing about anti-nuclear demonstrations and activities.

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