I thought, perhaps, if I gave myself more time, I would have the words to describe my emotions and give some insight on my visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, as the days went on until it became a week and more, I realized that it will never be easy to describe. More importantly, however, is what it means to live through it on a daily basis.
I chose to stay at a small hostel near Miyajima Island, about half an hour outside Hiroshima. (Side note: if any of you ever get a chance to visit, this island is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.) In speaking with several other travelers and friends at the hostel, I heard how moved they had been during their visit, many of them to tears. I became nervous in anticipation of what my own visit would bring.
As I got off the subway stop nearest the memorial, I climbed the stairs, knowing from travel websites that I would have a view of the A-Bomb Dome almost as soon as I got to ground level. I felt my heartbeat steadily rising and a strong sense of anxiety as I got closer and closer to the last stair. Reaching the sunlight and fresh air, I looked to my left and was shocked with the shell of a building, the remains of what was once the pride and joy of a city.
I slowly walked closer to the building, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. For the most part, everyone around the memorial was quiet, either reading the signs, taking photos, or just absorbing it all. The A-Bomb Dome has its significance because just 600 meters above it is where the first atomic bomb exploded, resulting in the strange pattern of demolition. In order to remind both the Japanese people and others of the harms of war, the city of Hiroshima decided to maintain the building as a memorial. Each and every day, the people of this city are reminded of the horror that was once cast upon the generations before them, and even some of them.
I sat for a few hours across the river from the dome, reflecting on what it must be like to see such a vivid reminder of one's history on a daily basis. Hiroshima's skyline was eternally marked by a shadow of their past, and as I continued on with my visit, I saw how much this had changed their mentality of their present and future.
Once I felt ready, I moved to the museum, interested to see how Japan had decided to share and reflect upon such a dark time in its history. When I visited South Africa, I remember being disappointed that many of our visits to historical sites were very clearly catered to us, as Americans, and I hoped this would not prove to be the same. I think, in some sense, I wanted to be challenged to reconsider my American identity, and I was hoping for some of that through this experience.
Overall, the museum was much different from what I expected, although I'm not quite sure what I expected either. It started off explaining the events and timeline that led up to the bomb dropping on Hiroshima, and then a good portion of the museum described the aftermath and harm that the community faced. Featured in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki museums were artifacts that were found after the bomb dropped: the glasses of a grandfather, a school uniform, the shoes of a wife, and—the one that hit me the hardest—a tin lunch box with an uneaten lunch reduced to ash.
Although these artifacts would be painful to see regardless of their previous owners, what was most upsetting was that many belonged to young children and students, as those had been the primary victims of the bomb. I'm not sure whether I simply never learned this fact or blocked it from my memory, but in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombs were dropped very close to the center of the city, which housed dozens of schools. As a result, a good majority of those killed were young children. Even worse, although many died on impact or in the days following, many died years into their childhood as a result of radiation. One such story that I recall from my youth is Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, which is featured greatly in the Hiroshima memorials.
After I passed through the artifacts section, there was more information on the physical bomb. A life-size model was created to help visitors understand how small the bomb actually was in relation to the damage it caused, and there was also information on the study of nuclear warfare at the time. Although I was learning quite a bit, I realized that I was incredibly frustrated. Only once had the museum mentioned the U.S., in stating that the bomb was American-made, but otherwise blame had essentially been left out of the picture.
But, there were still a few exhibits left, so I gave the curators the benefit of the doubt. Surely the anger I was expecting would come soon. And, finally, I thought it had. I reached the final exhibit, the take-away of the museum if you will, and was ready to hear about what an atrocious act had been committed by the United States. Perhaps how Japan had moved on but they would never forget this atrocity, but I was stunned yet again.
The final thoughts the museum left us with were that of policy change. The exhibit gave details on how the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in light of the 70th anniversary of the bombs, had been advocating even more for the end of nuclear warheads. They, along with many other political leaders in Japan, had been asking the UN to work with them to eliminate these weapons altogether. Although they had faced much resistance, particularly from big countries like the U.S., they were optimistic.
There were petitions for museum patrons to sign and the letters the mayors had issued to their own communities as a call to action. These political leaders said that they wanted to use their own pain as a way to prevent the suffering of others. They felt that this was their duty and responsibility.
One closing sentiment that stuck with me was, "We want to eliminate the notion that, in order to have world peace, we must have the ability to destroy one another. Peace can exist without the potential for [nuclear] war."
Leaving the museum, I was humbled by the desire for change, but also, I realized, quite angry. After seeing all the pain and suffering of these people—which they are still experiencing today as many survivors continue to live with the after-effects of radiation—I wanted to hear some sort of blame. I wanted the world to hear that this was the United States' fault. I was mostly upset because I knew that each time another country had harmed the U.S. in some way, we had done everything but "let it go." The U.S. is particularly good at finding ways to blame other countries for their wrongdoing and forgetting their own; in their own eyes, playing the hero.
It's somewhat ironic because, just a few days after leaving Nagasaki, I was watching an episode of Mad Men to relax after a long day. In this episode, one of the partners of the firm, Roger Sterling, is strongly against the firm signing a contract with Honda because "they killed my friends." The absurdity of his misplaced anger in that moment—attending meetings with Honda executives and basically spitting in their faces—was too painfully accurate in that moment. I had to stop the episode before I finished.
But, the more I thought about it, I realized nothing good would come of that. The Japanese people would harbor this anger, but would it change the actions of the U.S.? Probably not.
This experience reminded me of the Freire quote I included at the beginning, in that it will often, if not always, be the minority group that must take on the responsibility of forgiveness. In taking the high road, Japan had not only allowed themselves to move forward after this time of suffering, but also given the United States a second chance in creating a positive relationship with Japan. During my time here, I have felt nothing but immense love from these people. I don't think I deserve it, but it is what has been best for the healing process of the Japanese, and I have benefited as a result.
This is not to say that I think communities of color or countries made primarily of people of color must always take on the burden of forgiveness. Just that it mostly happens that way. However, I hope that in sharing this, my American friends can consider how we all (myself included) allow ourselves to be complicit in the suffering of others, simply because we have the privilege to do so.
As Americans, we have economic and social capital that even the richest people in other countries may never attain. And we must see this as a responsibility, not a ticket out. It is my hope that as I travel more and to other countries, I will continue to feel this responsibility and never forget it. When I look back on these eight months, I want to be continuously reminded that it is my responsibility to stay conscious and aware of what it means to be American. Also, as a member of minority communities, I have been humbly reminded that it is often for our own benefit that we forgive, but not forget. For it is these memories that can drive us forward in seeking empowerment and change.