Note: This post was originally published in August 2017 for the 72nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Growing up in Japan, I’d always found August a solemn month. Two grim anniversaries came in quick succession as the month began: the bombing of Hiroshima on the 6th and the bombing of Nagasaki on the 9th. At 8:15 a.m. on the 6th and 11:02 a.m. on the 9th, a bell would sound to signal the time of the bombing, and we dropped whatever we were doing to observe a moment of silence for the victims. As a child, I didn’t quite understand Japan’s larger role in World War II, but I did understand the gravity of so many lives taken at once. Casualties numbered up to 146,000 in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki, each the result of a single bomb, striking a single city. Those bombs brought World War II to a close and sealed U.S.’s status as a world power.
I traveled to Nagasaki with my family in April of this year, and naturally, we stopped by at the Peace Park and Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. At first, I was reluctant to take my nine-year old son and American husband to the Atomic Bomb Museum, but my husband thought it was important for he and our son to see, as two Americans. My last visit as a teenager left an indelible impression about the horror atomic bombs. There were countless graphic photos of victims with severe burns and skin melting off their flesh, shellshocked kids standing in the rubble where their homes once stood, sometimes next to corpses of loved ones, burned beyond recognition. I walked out feeling dizzy and traumatized, knowing that what I felt was a mere fraction of how the survivors must have felt. That visit fell near the 50th anniversary of the bombing. Many survivors were still alive to tell first-hand accounts of the aftermath. Emotions were still raw, and it was obvious that they would never forget those days after the bombing.
Since then, the museum has been renovated to a more sleek, informative exhibit. While the more gruesome aspects of the aftermath are still presented with photos and relics, they have been tempered with scientific information about the workings of an atomic bomb blasts, how quickly the explosion spread and devastated the entire city, and the historical background leading to the decision to drop “the bomb,” first on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki. My son mentioned liking the scientific aspects of the museum, describing them as informative. He didn’t quite grasp the enormity of human tragedy. How could he, though? He lacked the historical knowledge, and 80,000 was too abstract a number.
The museum observes a moment of silence every day at the time of the bombing, 11:02 a.m. The morning of our visit this past April, I was standing in front of a replica of Fat Man, the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki 72 years ago, when the time of its detonation was announced over the PA. One passage on the panel of chronology leading to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombing kept playing in my mind. It was something I’d read in The Atlantic couple years ago—the fact that Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, was first on the list of targeted cities. First on the list not only because it was a major industrial center, but also because it was of cultural and historical significance.
During June, the Target Committee narrowed the choice. On the 15th, a memo elaborated on Kyoto’s attributes. It was a “typical Jap city” with a “very high proportion of wood in the heavily built-up residential districts.” There were few ﬁre-resistant structures. It contained universities, colleges, and “areas of culture,” as well as factories and war plants, which were in fact small and scattered, and in 1945 of negligible use. Nevertheless, the committee placed Kyoto higher on the updated “reserved” list of targets (that is, those preserved from LeMay’s ﬁrebombing).
– Ham, Paul. The Bureaucrats Who Singled Out Hiroshima for Destruction, The Atlantic, 2015. Web. August 6, 2015.
The fact that they knew the psychological impact such a strike would have on the Japanese made my blood boil. In the end, Kyoto was spared solely because Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, had once visited Kyoto with his wife and admired its beauty. He convinced General Leslie Groves to take Kyoto off the target list.
Would Japan be Japan without Kyoto? I couldn’t imagine what a loss of Kyoto might have done to the national psyche—Kyoto, whose ancient temples and castles were the spiritual core of Japan. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a trauma that Japan will always carry, but if Kyoto had been destroyed, would we ever have recovered from the loss of our cultural identity? A cultural identity that dated back 2000+ years? I doubt it. I understood this mostly thanks to Native American writer Sherman Alexie. I saw him speak at a benefit show organized by Ben Gibbard of the band Death Cab For Cutie on March 5th, 2017, to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I can’t believe this is what finally brought the tribes together! Imagine what we could’ve done 200 years ago if this had happened,” he joked. He went on to talk about how the violation of Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s land was a fraction of what had been done to the land of his own Spokane tribe. The Spokane tribe was a salmon tribe. They worshipped salmon for thousands of years. “Salmon,” he said, “was our Jesus.” And construction of the Grand Coulee Dam took their salmon—their Jesus—from them. His people hadn’t seen salmon for over 70 years. With the loss of salmon, his mother wandered from one religion to another, in search of her salmon. She was spiritually lost, as were his people. In this way, the plight of Native Americans continues to this day. A plight which began before the conception of United Staes of America.
With this in mind, it chilled me to imagine Japan without its spiritual center, Kyoto, though it was little relief that Hiroshima and Nagasaki took its place as the first cities to experience the devastation of atomic bombs. Those scars will remain for generations, as will the scars left by Japan over all of Asia.
On August 15th, 1945, World War II ended with Japan officially accepting the terms of the Potsdam Proclamation. August 15th coincides with Obon, the annual homecoming of our ancestors’ spirits, a celebration of the dearly departed. At the end of Obon, we symbolically send the spirits back to their home by way of little lantern boats set adrift down a river or on the backs of carved eggplant cows and cucumber horses. I wonder how many spirits found their way home in 1945, with their cities still smoldering.
On this day, 72 years after World War II’s end, I wish for peace. The recent rise of tensions between North Korea and the U.S. has been disturbing, to say the least. Even more disconcerting is the language used by President Trump, warning of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The world has already witnessed fire and fury. Atomic bombs aren’t fancy cars you flaunt to impress your frenemies. People of Guam, the Korean Peninsula, and Japan aren’t pawns in some war game. In a recent interview on KUOW, Sherman Aleixie talked about how violence done against Native American lands were the same as physical violence against his people. If that’s too abstract, think back to 9/11. I still remember the anger and sadness I felt on 9/11 as I watched the twin towers crumble, taking 3000 lives with them. It was broadcast all over the world. I know we grieved the loss of lives and the forever-changed skyline of New York City as a nation. Casualties from a nuclear strike will be counted in millions, not thousands. What was it that Joseph Stalin said? “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Those are the words of a tyrant. We aren’t a number. Each of those million deaths resulted in tragedy for family and friends. It’s time to demand our politicians to get back to the hard work of diplomacy, because we are strong enough to resist the lure of violence, war and death. Lastly, I pledge to do a better job of telling the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to my son, so that he may carry the message of hope for a world without nuclear weapons his peers and future generations.