Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hiroshima: Crisis of Conscience

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
--Mark Twain

Locals walking past the A-bomb Dome in Hiroshima.

Nuclear ruins. That's what I expected to see in Hiroshima. Growing up, all I saw on TV documentaries and in history textbooks was the infamous mushroom cloud.

In Shanghai, I had the great luck to become friends with Marie, a traveler from Australia. She had lived in Hiroshima. In Marie's words: "I lived in Hiroshima for 15 months. I had to leave.  If I hadn't, I'd have never left! It's awesome!"  She made me wonder if I held an outdated stereotype of the city. The only way to find out was to go.

The shock of my life was seeing a charming, fun city with the friendliest locals this side of Taiwan. Marie helped out by putting me in touch with Naomi.

* * *

Naomi led me through a neon spiderweb. The alleys criss-crossed each other into a maze. "This is the place," she said.

Fortune Cafe & Bar

Marie had told me about this pub, one of her favorite hangouts in the city.

I stomped up the steps, trying to shake off the cold. The welcome I received inside warmed me up quickly.

Yumiko, me, Naomi, and Megu

They all greeted me happily and were eager to hear news about Marie. Playing the newscaster, I filled them in on her travels through Italy, England, and Canada. She was always the girl on the move.

The women took turns playing tour guide, suggesting where I should go. More importantly, they also told me which foods I absolutely had to try while I was in Hiroshima. That's Asian-style traveling: the food takes priority over the sights.

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the former."
--Albert Einstein, physicist

Being a typical American, I was surprised that Hiroshima wasn't a radioactive wasteland. Intellectually, I knew that couldn't be true since people live there now. But that impression lingered. Pretty much every history book I had to read in school only talked about the atom bomb. After that, Hiroshima disappears from the records.

What the books don't say is that parts of Hiroshima feel like a European city. I could write about it, but the pictures are better:

Girls on bicycles

Electric streetcar

Old man sitting by a canal

Even though it wasn't Tokyo, Hiroshima still had a great buzz. I didn't feel like I was in a remote countryside. The girls were really fashionable too, sporting the high-heeled boots that are popular in winter time.

My good friend Colin once talked about "prime cities." These are cities with enough restaurants, nightlife, economic growth, and international flavor to be a cool city to live in. Some countries have lots of prime cities, like Malaysia. Other countries have none, like Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma).

On the other hand, Japan seemed full of prime cities. Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, and now Hiroshima. I could easily see myself staying in any one of them. People told me Fukuoka and Sapporo were awesome as well.

I was amazed that Hiroshima recovered so well from its tragic history.

“Men like war: they do not hold much sway over birth, so they make up for it with death. Unlike women, men menstruate by shedding other people's blood.”
--Lucy Ellman

Visiting the Peace Memorial Park and Museum were an exception for me. As a rule, I don't like going to the sites of tragedies. They're so damn depressing. People like to quote that saying, "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." But I'm not sure if people have learned that lesson from building all these memorials and museums.

It's like, "We've made this monument to commemorate the sacrifice, but now we want to do it all over again." There are hard-line Japanese conservatives who want Japan to re-militarize. As for America, they didn't end wars after Vietnam.

"I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."
--George McGovern

"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity."
--Dwight D. Eisenhower

In businesses, executives are given stock options, so they have a stake in the success of the company. I wonder if that would work with war, if politicians were exposed to the risk of failure.

A modest proposal: if a politician does vote for war, any of their kids aged 18 and over get sent straight to the battlefield. Not stay in the reserves at home, or in some officers' club away from the front lines. Dropped right there in the middle of the crossfire.

Leaders love to talk about "shared sacrifice" without practicing it. With their own children in danger, this would focus their minds on winning wars, bringing troops home, and most importantly, backing off from going to war in the first place. A stark contrast with how war is conducted now--to make defense companies and mercenaries rich.

"You can't say civilization don't advance . . . in every war they kill you in a new way."
--Will Rogers

A replica of the atom bomb at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

Bombs should be big. Considering how much destructive power the atom bomb had, I expected it to be huge. I was shocked by how small it was. The average car is bigger than that atom bomb. When I took a picture of it, I made sure to include people in the frame. That gives you a sense of scale to see how tiny it actually was.

Thinking back to the Manhattan Project, it's frightening to think of how much brainpower, money, and resources went into developing this weapon. The research and development cost was $2 billion at the time. That would be worth much more these days. Was it money well spent?

What kind of problems could have been solved if a bunker full of geniuses were given the same unlimited budget?

How could otherwise intelligent people be convinced to kill so many?

" . . . the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
--Hermann Goering, Nazi military commander

After seeing the preparation of the bomb, the exhibits moved on to cover the aftermath. This was not going to be pleasant, that much I already knew.

One of the tough parts about travel is facing the bad things that your country has done. I think most people are brought up to believe that their country is good and right, no matter where they're from. It's not until you visit the countries your homeland has victimized that you get the other side of the story.

In Vietnam, I visited the Hoa Lo Prison, a.k.a. "The Hanoi Hilton." I was with a French girl. On one wall, there was a painting of French colonialists torturing Vietnamese peasants. The French girl sucked in her breath and clucked her tongue. She turned to me and said, "My country has done many bad things."

Now it was my turn to see what America had done.

"There will one day spring from the brain of science a machine or force so fearful in its potentialities, so absolutely terrifying, that even man, the fighter, who will dare torture and death in order to inflict torture and death, will be appalled, and so abandon war forever."
--Thomas Edison

There was a display that re-created what the blast zone looked like. Crumbling buildings, raging fires, and a dark sky. The worst was the wax mannequins. They were shuffling forward, with skin dropping off their bodies, arms outstretched for a rescue that wasn't coming.

I shuddered. Zombie movies could compete on gore, but can't compare with real horror. History can't be dismissed as fiction.

Then there were the photos. I couldn't bring myself to look at the photos. The melting skins, the mouths cracked open in silent screams. These victims didn't need to die to go to Hell; they were already there. Fire and brimstone brought to Earth by American ingenuity.

Members of the U.S. Army examine the area around ground zero in Hiroshima, Japan in the autumn of 1945. (U.S. National Archives)

"I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it."
--Dwight D. Eisenhower

In a weird way, Hiroshima actually reaffirmed my faith in mankind. If anyone had a reason to hate Americans, it'd be the Japanese. But all the Japanese I met this trip were completely hospitable and didn't resent me for being American.

On the other hand, there was the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet every American I know thinks Japan is cool and Japanese are so nice. People can overcome hate.

How did they do this? I'm not smart enough to solve the world's problems, so I won't claim to have any answers. I do think openness is a big factor. Openness in communication, in culture, in politics, in trade, and openness to change can make a difference.

It's hard to hate a people when you like their food, their art. Impossible to hate if they're already your friends. The way we know about each other is through openness and staying connected.

"We have two ears so that we can listen twice as much as we speak."

Sato Hitomi, a volunteer guide and daughter of an atom bomb survivor. She and others give free tours and spread their message of a world without nuclear weapons.


Colin Monk said...

Nice entry Marcus!
You had a lot of good quotes and I like how visiting Hiroshima reaffirmed your faith in humankind. I agree that staying open and connected will be key to fostering tolerance and peace in our diverse world.

Anonymous said...

ohh why did i leave! i'm so glad you went Marcus. Great piece xx Marie

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