I was at the 50th anniversary in 1995. I'm not sure what I thought I was doing there - some kind of gesture of penance - but I was in Japan at the time and felt I couldn't not go. People weren't displeased I was there (though some of the other men in the capsule hotel where I stayed seemed a bit weirded out by it), but it was a pretty much all-Japanese, indeed an all-Hiroshima event. I recall sitting near the back of some viewing stands, and that boring speeches were given - I know they were boring because the Japanese in the audience weren't listening either - as the sticky heat of an August day rose. I remember the suspended stillness of the moment of silence at 8:15 - a silence in which one could almost imagine that other morning.
I think I went to the Peace Memorial Museum later that day, with its pieces of wall with burnt human shadows, frozen clocks, melted metal, and nightmarish dioramas of people with skin hanging off them like bark off a gum tree. The exhibit had just been expanded in 1994 to include, for the first time, information about Hiroshima's place in the Japanese war effort - the earlier exhibit (which I'd seen a few years before) presented the A-bomb as coming literally from out of the blue. No context at all: had you not known Japan had been at war - had provoked war - with the country of the Enola Gay, nothing in the museum would have told you otherwise... though I recall no demonizing of the US, either, at least not explicitly. The bombing was a metaphysical event, not an historical one, and the appropriate responses were horror and sadness and a millenarian resolve to end all wars.
Still, why was I there? I think it had less to do with my being American than being German. The German side's been through the whole Vergangenheitsbewältigung thing, and couldn't help noticing that as good as nothing of the sort was happening on the other side.
The point at which I most fully felt the sorrow and patriotic confusions of WW2 came a few years later when I went with my good Japanese friend O - one of my few close friends who are the same age as I am - to Yasukuni Jinja, the controversial Shinto shrine in Tokyo where Japan's war dead are ... venerated. (Folks were less happy to see me there; O enjoyed the disapproving looks he was getting for having brought me.) Its museum has been enlarged recently too, into something slick and sinister; O and I went to see the new one together a few years ago, topping the day off with the neo-nationalist movie "Yamato." But the aha moment came when we went to the original exhibit several years before that, and found ourselves in the gallery dedicated to the kamikaze, with heart-rending diaries and last letters. No effort was made to conceal the fact that many had not wished to die this way.
As we walked through it, the only people in the gallery, O and I both had the same thought. Had we both been born not in 1966 but in 1926, he might well have been in one of those planes, and I in one of those ships. We'd have tried to kill each other, might have succeeded. We shared this awareness, for an unsettling moment suspended between our imaginary past selves and our present friendship. We walked out of the gallery better but also more sober friends.
Part of the unsettling knowledge we shared (building hypotheticals on hypotheticals) was the sense that, even if O '26 and M '26 had known of the friendship of O '66 and M '66, they would probably still have done what they thought they had to do. Our friendship deepened, but our sense of the power of war to make enemies grew too.
Pray for peace, and the victims of all wars.
(Hiroshima 千羽鶴 senbazuru - 100 cranes - picture from here.)