the real phoenix

5 01 2008

Even after reading up on Hiroshima, I still expected it to be a shadow of a city. And the prevalence of JET stories of terrifying interviews with questions like, “What would you do if a student blamed you, as an American, for the atomic bombing in Hiroshima?” had also made me worry that the citizens are still angry and hostile towards Americans. It’s not like that at all. The city thrives, and while there probably are some survivors, or relatives thereof, who are still angry, in general the city chooses to present itself to the world as a symbol for peace and regrowth.

The purpose of the memorial, Peace Park museum and genbakudoumu (the A-bomb dome, a building about 150 meters from the hypocenter; one of very few left standing within the bomb radius) is summed up in this quotation found in the victims’ memorial:

We hereby mourn those who perished in the atomic bombing. At the same time, we recall with great sorrow the many lives sacrificed to mistaken national policy. To ensure that no such tragedies are ever repeated, we pledge to convey the truth of these events throughout Japan and around the world, to pass it on to future generations, and to build, as soon as possible, a peaceful world free from nuclear weapons.

The comment about mistaken national policy seems to be the only poignant stab at America that I could find, though because the city says the atrocity of having one dropped should never happen again, it would hardly make sense to say that it was the right idea to use one in the first place.

The first half of the museum is primarily historical and uses declassified primary sources from the Truman administration and the Manhattan Project to explain the reasoning behind the United States’ choice to 1) drop the bomb 2) in Japan, 3) specifically in Hiroshima. The only argument presented in the museum I hadn’t heard before, and can’t find on Wikipedia right now, was that the bomb was used partially to justify the enormous cost of the Manhattan Project: somewhere over $225 billion in 2007 USD). The second half of it shows more emotive aspects. It tells individuals’ stories using realia from the effects of the bomb: concrete scarred by glass, twisted metal, shredded clothing, cancerous growths, glass jars fused together by the heat, paper cranes made by a dying child. I left the museum enlightened about the effects of the bomb and having a better understanding of both sides of the debate to use it. Though it also seems clearer that there were other viable, less destructive options to end the Pacific War. Only by being in the city and then seeing the displays in the museum was I truly able to grasp the enormity of the impact (literal and figurative) caused by the explosion.

I’d like to hear your (yes, you!) opinions on the bombing and was a bit overwhelmed to talk much about it at the time, so leave a comment if you want.

The strongest messages, however, don’t come from the museum, but from the city itself. Between my expectations of some shell of a city and all these buildings dedicated to the massive effects of the A-bomb, surprisingly the strongest symbol of regrowth was simply the normalcy of the Peace Park and city. Hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) say they were told nothing would grow in Hiroshima for at least 75 years, but within a year of the bombing, weeds were springing up and delicate phoenix trees that had been hollowed out by fire were blooming. Now, except for the looming dome across the river, it’s just like any other city park: people eat lunch, kids chase birds, a father and son play catch, men fall asleep reading manga on benches. I didn’t feel depressed when I left the city, but rather felt inspired, and for some reason was reminded of Ian Malcom’s mantra from Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

While I made that comment at the start of the Kyoto post (about not wanting for this to turn into a travel guide), it is worth mentioning the other major site we visited in Hiroshima: the Ikutsushima shrine on Miyajima Island. It, like the genbakudoumu, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it’s definitely worth seeing even though Ikutsushima was entirely overrun with tourists of the Japanese, foreign and deer varieties. I don’t know if there’s a reason for it, but deer roam the island freely and often chase little children around, nibbling on their fanny packs stuffed with snacks. The shrine/island was beautiful, but we picked the wrong season to visit it—usually the water comes right up to the base of the temple and makes it look as if the entirety of this enormous complex is floating on water. There was also a monkey on a bike. ‘Nuff said. Look at the pics.

PICTURES (click to enlarge):

cute kids

these kids are cuter than Zach and I

wash up

used for the age-old tradition of hand-rinsing and gargling water in public

deer everywhere!

as many or more deer as there were people

the big mama

the floating torii of worldwide fame

monkey on a bike

no caption necessary

cutest buddha

don’t you just want to squeeze that fat little head (in a reverent way, of course)?


what’s left of the A-bomb dome

just a day in the park

bird-chasing, lunch-eating




2 responses

26 02 2008
Rachel H

You post kind of connects to events going on here. A friend of mine in Religious Studies recently spent the last two weeks in Israel and Palestine (yes, she skipped school). Last night I saw a photo exhibit about Israeli solders and their experiences with occupied territories, at the Rotunda, see One of the former soldiers was there. I also happened to meet a female junior at Penn, age 23, who served in Intelligence as part of the Israeli mandatory military service. Some of the Israeli soldiers’ stories were very similar to that of Nazi soldiers in WWII. Ironic. I wonder what it would be like for an average American to travel to Iraq, Iran, the West Bank, etc. Would I be apprehensive like you were about going to Japan?

I am afraid to ask this question, but I can’t help it. Are reasons for the U.S. bombing of Japan’s cities similar to that of Taliban’s for 9/11? It’s funny isn’t it that adults teach children to learn from previous mistakes. And yet, we never seem to learn from history.

1 03 2008

Maybe I’m dumb, but it seems to me (even after re-reading a few times) that the expression “mistaken national policy” is a humble self-reference to Japan’s own aggressive imperial ambitions in the 30s and 40s.

If they first “mourn” those who died under the a-bombs (ours) and then add, “At the same time, we recall the many live sacrificed to mistaken national policy,” the phrase “at the same time” seems to turn the focus to themselves for a moment.

Also, dropping the bombs was not a “national policy” at all, but a tactical move in PURSUIT of policy. The American “policy” during the war was to kill enough Japanese to defeat the whole country. That may be ugly, but it’s not “mistaken;” if you’re at war, that’s sort of the basic idea. That reinforces my impression that the mistaken policy in question is an expression of humility.

On the other hand, I thought the recent Japanese administration had done a lot to reverse that post-war humility, so I don’t know.

Maybe I’m not dumb, just wrong.

But that’s how I read it.

So, inspired by the rest of your Hiroshima post, I’ll respond indeed.

The thing that makes the A-bomb drop-or-not debate so absorbing, I think, is the fact that we don’t know exactly how other techniques would have worked (though there’s plenty of reasons to imagine they would have) or how quickly, at what cost, etc. Even if we DID know roughly how many American lives it might have cost to defeat Japan without dropping the bomb, the notion that it’s possible to weigh a certain number of lives of your own citizens for value is absurd – especially if what’s on the other pan of the scale is a pile of deaths of the publicly demonized, degraded enemy, even civilians. There’s no algorithm to walk you through those moral vagaries.

With that said: yes, the logic about the cost of the bomb is a commonly-heard one over here. It’s more or less the same argument for deploying the product of any hugely expensive government program, with the burning momentum of war thrown in: after spending as much as we (FDR) did on the Manhattan Project, and building a working bomb, what chance was there really that the United States WOULDN’T deploy it, since it was pretty much a sure war-ender? Remember, the Japanese were exhausted by the war, but so were we. The European war had already been over for three months, the country was moving swiftly back toward a peacetime economy, and Japan is a long way away. The fighting in the Pacific was being done almost exclusively by us (though the Australians were there), and the body count was getting harder and harder to justify. The ugly stereotype of the devilish Jap had ironically been reinforced by the fanatically loyal bushido-style defense of the islands leading to the main archipelago, with extraordinary it’s not really surprising that so many analysts foresaw a brutal fight for the main islands, especially when the Japanese leadership had effectively terrified their people with similar stereotypes about us.

There’s another piece of the puzzle that I’m not sure they talk about in Japan, but they probably do: Truman was an obscure guy, not a well-loved national figure. he had just inherited the presidency from a man who’d held the office for 13 years, in whom was vested the hopes, trust and love of a giant majority of the nation, and who had died before even seeing the closing of combat in Germany. It’s hard to imagine Truman balking from using the bomb when he had so much to prove to the American people, and when it had cost as much as it did and it would simultaneously end the war and punish the Japanese for (as most people, reasonably enough, saw it) starting the war with us in the first place. (Never underestimate the role of a single human being’s idiosyncratic views in world-changing decisions; I’m sure you’ve heard how Secretary of War Henry Stimson took Kyoto off the target list – because he’d been there and thought it was too culturally significant).

Indeed, one of the lingering and uneasy questions for me about the bomb-dropping is: how much of the post-war renouncement of imperialist aggression which swept over Japan (and of which I approve) took place BECAUSE the means of the their ultimate defeat had been so extreme, so brutal, and so final? I also give SOEM credence to the idea that the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did give the world a grim gift that may well have borne richer fruit later: they showed us the horror of the fucking things so that when we built a lot more, we didn’t use them.

Eisenhower, it’s not widely known, came under tremendous pressure by his chiefs of staff and other generals to use atomic weapons against China during the Korean war. It took all of his credibility at the “man who won the war” to face them down and refuse. He knew what the use of those weapons would cost the U.S. in reputation and prestige, because he knew what those bomb sites would look like. It’s not the world’s most powerful argument, because it’s unpleasant to think of, and sounds like a rationalization: but I do think that in some fashion we owe the nuclear non-use from 1945 till now to the dead of those two cities. Small comfort to them; real comfort to me.

In the end, I don’t really come down one way or the other about whether it was “right” to use the bomb(s). It just seems a little easy to stand here and look back sixty years, with honest and decent intent, and ask whether it was the right choice. War of that scale turns normal thinking and feeling on its head. In the moment, victory takes on colossal meaning. Real triumph becomes an end in itself. in that context, new weapons tend to get used. And I’m not the least bit surprised it happened in 1945. If anything, I’m surprised that there was as much debate as there was.

Plus, I dig that monkey.

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