“Pilgrims are persons in motion, passing through territories not their own, seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.”
– Richard R. Niebuhr
During WWII, my great grandmother “Obachan” was a widow raising three daughters in Hiroshima, home to her lineage for generations. In early 1945, however, Obachan had a premonition of what was to come that compelled her to uproot her family to Tokyo.
On August 6th of that year, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. 140,000 people died, most of them civilians and many of them children. Obachan’s friends perished, but my mom, brother, and I are here because Obachan followed her intuition.
I have always been curious about the lineage on both my mother and father’s sides. My parents of English-and-Irish-by-way-of-Butte, Montana and Japanese descent got married on August 6, 1978 without initially realizing the significance of their wedding date.
My mom’s mom lived through the war in Japan. She was taken out of junior high school to make counterfeit money for the army, and I know little of her experience other than of the scarcity and fear of the time.
My mom’s father grew up first generation Japanese-American in Los Angeles until the U.S. government mandated that all Japanese Americans be interned. He was class president of his high school in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona before going on to graduate with high honors from the University of Texas with an architectural degree. He served as an architect for the United States Army for 52 years without missing a single day of work and ultimately received the highest honor the Army can bestow on a civilian.
I have felt a call to visit Hiroshima for some time now, so when I made plans for this long summer trip to Bali this year, I knew that I had to make it to Hiroshima first. The trip added about 25 extra hours of travel time to Bali, but it was worth every minute. It was in some way coming home.
No words can describe what it was like to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Photos, reconstructions, videos, and artifacts from the bombing bring what happened to life.
On the day the bomb was dropped 6300 high school students had been taken out of school to help demolish houses to make fire lanes in case of air raids. The exhibit displayed at least 25 sets of bomb-mangled clothing worn by those students. A sign next to each one shared the story of who the students were, their ages (most were between 13-15), what they were doing that day, if they made it home to their parents or not, and when they passed away. Some of them died that day and others in the few days to follow.
The exhibits explained the magnitude of the explosion that reached 6000 degrees Centigrade. The area of direct impact spanned 2.1 kilometers. As this recreation (photo below) of Hiroshima shows, the entire city was incinerated less a handful of buildings that left their skeletal remains.
People in the direct drop zone were killed immediately. Others miles out were injured and killed, as well. While many died right away, large numbers would suffer and die from the effects of the radiation months, years, and even decades later. The bomb exposed over 350,000 people to radiation on August 6th, and 140,000 people (plus or minus 10,000 they say because they weren’t able to count people who were immediately incinerated) died. Can you for a second relate to that magnitude? The death toll of 9/11 that I am in no way diminishing was 2% of that.
I stood next to a woman about my grandmother’s age outside the Museum at the Memorial Monument that frames the Flame of Peace (pictured here).
As she wept, I wondered if her friends or even family members died here. I wondered what it was like to have lived through such an immense act of violence and its aftermath. My heart felt deeply for her. It felt deeply for us all.
Japan has recovered remarkably. Hiroshima is now home to 1.2 million people, about the same size as San Diego. Japan’s infrastructure is incredible; the train system is a work of genius. The people are honorable. Whatever they are creating whether it be a meal, a flower arrangement, or a temple seems to be an offering of their great care.
After Hiroshima, I went to the island of Miyajima, a World Cultural Heritage Site about an hour away by train and ferry. The main town on Miyajima and its major temple were busy and touristy, but I ventured off for a hike up to the island’s peak. Arduous and wonderful, the hike passed through an enchanting forest, along streams and waterfalls, and by numerous shrines.
The experience made me wonder what Japan was like before the Industrial Age. How did my Samurai ancestors live? Even through the concrete jungles that exist throughout the country now, mystic, spiritual and natural connections are ever-present.
As I return to Tokyo for my flight to Singapore and then Bali, I am still digesting the visit to Hiroshima. It’s so strange to come from a place that I know relatively little about. It’s harder still to know the incredible strength of my ancestors without knowing more of the intimate details of their experience.
This is perhaps part of why I write. I believe in the power of our stories. I believe that knowing where we come from – the victories, the everyday experiences, musings and the challenges – helps us feel surer of who we are and who we can become.
In Hiroshima where it was said
“For seventy-five years, nothing will grow here”
New buds sprouted
In the green that came back to life
Among the charred ruins
Their living hopes and courage
And isn’t that one of the great wonders of humanity? No matter how grave our challenge, we have a pure essence that shines through. Love remains, always.
This year, August 6th will be the 70th anniversary of the bomb on Hiroshima. It seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect that day on the power humans have – to create life and to take life, to hate and to love.
Additional Pictures from Hiroshima:
Pictures from Miyajima: