Thursday, August 06, 2015

Hiroshima day

Twenty years ago today I was in Hiroshima.

I was in Japan for the summer and felt that as an American in Japan I could not not be there for the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombing. I felt I had to go especially in the wake of the wantonly impenitent things which had been said in the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian's exhibition around the Enola Gay, the plane from which the bomb had been dropped. I had been to see the exhibit when it was finally allowed to open, with dumbed-down and morally myopic captions, had seen the plane. I wanted to be there, sorrowful and silent, making amends with my physical presence not just for the bombing but for the callousness of Americans who refused to acknowledge the enormity of it, the targeting of so many civilians. (The first US emissary to attend the anniverary went only five years ago, I learn.)

I arrived in Hiroshima the night before, since the bomb drop was at 8:15 in the morning. All hotels were booked so I wound up in a capsule hotel.

August 6th, 1995 was clear and it was already warm by that hour, humid, unpleasantly warm and getting hotter. The ceremony, as I recall it, was a disappointment. Various officials gave droning talks at a little stage to which a distracted audience paid little attention. It was not solemn but dull.

I remember reproving myself for finding fault with it, and for seeking some kind of catharsis, some sort of absolution through being there. People in Hiroshima, and in Japan, needed no reminding of what had happened. Hiroshima lived with the consequences every day. The dead were dead. There was nothing new to be said. Was I expecting some sort of commendation for being there, as if it was supererogatory after all?

It was not my first visit to Hiroshima. I'd been there before the Peace Museum had updated and expanded its exhibition. The old one had been myopic in its own way, a completely decontextualized narrative, as if the bombing had come out of nowhere. There was no mention of Japan's aggression in Asia, of Pearl Harbor, of the war! There was no reference to the Koreans forced to work in munitions factories in Hiroshima on that day, all killed that day. Hiroshima, and the Japanese, were pure victims, singled out by the most deadly weapon in history, a kind of terrible anointing. But by 1995 Hiroshima had come through, a more left-wing mayor (if I'm remembering correctly) insisting that Hiroshima's voice for peace, for disarmament, could be heard only if it was honest about Japan's war responsibility - honest that the destruction of Hiroshima was something Japan had brought on itself. Right-wing obfuscation about war responsibility was as common in Japan then as now (even many left-wingers thought the US had forced Japan into war, a view conveniently ignoring Japan's imperialism in Asia), and this was a courageous and lonely stance. I was deeply moved when I saw it, saw the moral change it signaled. I was happy to find a memorial to the Korean victims, too.

I don't know what people are feeling there now. Frankly I'd rather not revisit all this in 2015. I know more about American fire-bombing of Japanese cities - more people were killed in Tokyo than in the atomic bomb target cities, and most Americans remain oblivious. I know more about the Japanese fire-bombing in China, and the other atrocities of their imperial rule in other Asian countries. I can now understand why many in Asia find it fitting that the victims in Hiroshima were civilians.

But I also know that, seventy years on, everyone's become more callused. Amazingly, while nuclear arsenals remain huge and many lands now have them, they have not been used in war. (But.) I don't know if children here or anwwhere learn about the danger the way my generation did. (I knew I was growing up in the middle of a triangle of certain targets in the event of a US-Soviet doomsday scenario.) One doesn't want to think about where all those Soviet materials, and their technicians, have wound up. Meanwhile Japan's current government has recklessly pushed through a revision to its "peace constitution" (against the wishes of most of the people, who'd rather not think about war past or present). This plays into the hands of other governments, like the Chinese, which buttress political weakness with nationalist narratives of unredeemed victimization. And the US government supported the change, the same government which has normalized raining terror on civilians by drone attacks.

There's no redemption to be had here, only moral clarity, repentance, vigilance. And sorrow - the broader the better.

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