Unlike President Obama, who today is the first sitting president to ever visit the site of the first atomic bombing, I’ve visited Hiroshima many times while living in Japan.
The thing that always struck me about Hiroshima was simply being there. The train pulled into the station under an announcement that you had arrived in Hiroshima. It was another stop on the bullet train’s long run from Osaka to Fukuoka, so they called out the name as if it was just another stop. I’d get off the train, step out into the sunlight – that sunlight – and I was in Hiroshima. I had the same feeling only once before, taking a bus out of Munich and having the driver announce the next stop as Dachau. Somehow such names feel wrong being said so prosaically.
I guess no matter how many times I went to Hiroshima, I always expected something different to happen, when in fact nothing happened. There were 200,000 souls out there that no matter how much concrete and paving had been laid down could not have been buried deep enough. I couldn’t see them for the crowds of people pushing into the station, and I couldn’t hear them over the traffic noise.
But past lives lingered. It couldn’t be helped. The mountains that form the background in the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of tall buildings of course now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. In that way the Japanese had of trying to make the war go away as quickly as they could once it was over, most of the bridges and streets were rebuild right where they’d been before the bomb. Same for most pubic buildings. With a map and some old photos, you could see where you where in 2016 and where you would have been in 1945.
In August, Hiroshima is hot as hell and twice as humid. You can’t really sweat, there’s so much moisture in the air. Take a fast walk and you feel like you have asthma. But in 2016, you can duck into a McDonald’s not far from the Dome and absorb as much free air conditioning as you’d like. An American there, or in the Peace Park, is as likely to be ignored as just another tourist as he is to become the target of some nice Japanese person wanting to practice English.
Hiroshima is an imperfect place, and one which will not easily allow you to forget the terrible things that preceded its day of infamy.
While grieving for the victims, many outside of Japan feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war, preferring to portray the nation as a victim.
Indeed, the otherwise moving Hiroshima Museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised by some as focusing too exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began years earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives at the hands of the Japanese military. The criticism is particularly sharp right now, given a rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
There have also been issues between Japan and Korea regarding Hiroshima. An estimated 40,000 Koreans were injured or killed in the atomic blast, many of them slave laborers kidnapped from Korea and brought to work in Hiroshima’s factories.
The centerpiece of the Peace Park, the Memorial Cenotaph, was created as the final resting place for the ashes and bones of the bomb’s victims, many of whom were never fully identified. Under Buddhist tradition, without such interment, the souls of those men and women will never rest. Japan, however, only allowed those remains believed to be Japanese to be placed in the Memorial.
There is still much to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S., above all, remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American Ambassador ever came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “the Japs deserved it.” There is still not enough for some, even seven decades later.
Perhaps the oddest part of my visits to Hiroshima was always at the end. I simply got on a train, and left it all behind me.
Or so I thought each time I tried, because at night my dreams always sought revenge. I hope the same happens to Obama.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.
Read more by Peter Van Buren
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