Ordinary People, Extraordinary Experience

Hideko Tamura is a second soprano with Rogue Valley Peace Choir, a retired social worker, an author, and a survivor of the atomic bomb blast that devastated Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. One night after choir rehearsal, she stood up and said the music the choir made that night had so inspired her that she had a vision of the choir going to Hiroshima to sing. She felt confident, she said, that her friends, her contacts, and her former school would support the idea. What follows is an account of the realization of that dream.

The first sun of August 6, 2006, dawned gently in Hiroshima, as the bustling city’s focus shifted to the activities at its Ground Zero. The annual commemorations drew people from all over Japan and a handful of others from the rest of the world, including 38 members of our choir.

At 8:15 am sharp—the time the bomb was dropped in 1945—the city fell silent, traffic stopped, and bells tolled.

Our schedule that memorable day began with the annual service at Hideko’s school (which can be seen on the map of Ground Zero) for the 350 members of the school family who lost their lives. Our singing of Finlandia was nearly incidental to Hideko, who later gave the student body a full, unvarnished accounting of her experiences as an 11-year-old 61 years before. Covered with debris, she ran from the fiery red ball, ending up at the river where she hoped to find her mother. At the assembly for all junior and senior high students, she spoke for half an hour without notes, unhesitatingly, forcefully at times. Diminutive in stature and standing behind a massive lectern, her words stood tall, commanding rapt attention. And even though only one of us could speak Japanese, the vision of this first-person account being delivered at this particular spot at this particular time in history moved us all. To say it was a peak experience would rob it of all that made it profound.

“Peak experience” had already become the clichĂ© of this 12-day journey for peace from the very beginning of our trip in Kyoto, when an assortment of U.S. and Japanese citizens of many different ages sat down together to sing. Strains of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Auld Lang Syne” floated out the door. It was an ordinary hotel conference room that could have been anywhere in the world—round tables with starched linens on them, slightly soiled carpeting, an upright piano not altogether in tune, draperies that might have been silver-grey, a podium with a Rotary International insignia affixed to it, and lighting bright enough for overexposing the endless picture-snapping by the official photographer and nearly everyone in the room.

But we knew we were in Kyoto, and not just anywhere, because of the amazing banquet of Japanese food, two full long tables of it; the over-sized beer bottles on every table, and plenty of smiles on the faces of our hosts. They had come to welcome us, hear us sing, sing for us, and then sing along with us. They spoke rudimentary English, and we smiled and nodded, since our Japanese was even less than rudimentary. This opened vast channels of communication between the two groups, setting the stage for instant, powerful relationships. Our mission of song was resonating in their hearts and in ours.

We had already exchanged songs with the chorus from the YWCA and sung most of the tunes in our singalong book when our host took to the microphone. “I have a very special announcement to make. We’ve been asked by the members of the Rotary glee club if they can sing for you. They were down the hall practicing, heard our voices, and wondered what was going on. Is it all right if they come in?” our Japanese host asked. Everyone in the room signaled a definitive “yes!” and seconds later we had another 15 singers filing through the door to sing with us, ready to join the fun. Directed by an irrepressible woman with unruly henna hair, they sang first one and then another song.

Before it was all over, the entire crowd had joined hands, circled the room, and launched the first of many verses of “We Shall Overcome.” Everyone sang; everyone teared up. If the purpose of the trip had been achieved in these few moments, how could there be more?

This was simply our first taste of what was to come rolling out for us as one day folded into the next in Kyoto, Kobe, and finally Hiroshima. With unparalleled passion, Hideko and her best friend Etsuko managed to marshal old school friends and colleagues into organizing committees in each city. They raised money and put together a program for us that included opportunities to sing, to see the country, and most especially to know the people. When we received nametags in both English and Japanese at the airport, we began to understand that every last detail had been anticipated. When we were given fans on the bus for our outing to the Shrines, we understood that every possible amenity was going to be provided. When yet another Japanese snack was passed through the bus, we knew we’d be fed, endlessly and well. And when we kept seeing the same people from one stop to the next, we understood the deep commitment there was to making the journey a success. The effort put in was simply amazing to those of us who had answered an advertisement for a “community choir—no audition necessary” two years earlier.

Day Four found us back on our big bus. Rounding another bend and starting down a hill, there before us spread the panoramic seascape we came to know as Kobe, the site of our second big concert. We’d sung for hours en route, everything from the Beatles to our choral repertoire, current and past and many in between. Our billeting was at the Village of Happiness, an amazing campus just on the edge of town. Built by the city of Kobe, it’s a massive multibillion-yen project designed to accommodate the needs of the disabled and aging population with several different medical facilities, vocational rehabilitation classrooms, respite care, a huge spa, and the Silver College, where retirees can enroll for three years to learn ways in which they can be of service, ways they can “give back.”

The concert, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 people, was held in a huge Methodist church recently rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake. Hours of waiting, practicing, and working out the logistics of getting on and off the stage laid bare the challenges of cross-cultural communication—as well as just plain communication.

By the time the hour of the concert arrived, the number of people working on the event had multiplied exponentially. The church sanctuary was full. As we filed onto the stage, they began clapping louder and louder. Turning to look out at who had come to hear us as we took our places, we all took a collective deep breath, a little overwhelmed at the sight of all these strangers who’d actually purchased tickets to hear us.

One of our last songs was to be “Cranes Over Hiroshima,” which tells the story of Sadako, a little girl who got leukemia as a result of the bomb. She attempts to fold 1,000 paper origami cranes to fulfill a Japanese legend that promises a long and healthy life if this is accomplished. Before we sang it, a group of women from the Kobe YWCA came on stage and presented each of us with a lei of 70 cranes they had folded, making the song all the more poignant to sing. We learned later that a group of five women who regularly read to young children at the Y had had the idea, and one of their number single-handedly had folded all 2,000 of them.

Arriving for an event the next day at Silver College, we were greeted with a huge printed banner welcoming us, and an amazing logistical plan to get tables assigned so there would be two people from the U.S. and eight Japanese at each table, all of them taking different courses of study.

Our presentation was followed by their choir’s, and then we had another singalong, ending again with “We Shall Overcome,” with everyone in a large circle around the room. When I went back to my table, a man who had a career in computer software said he wanted to tell me something about the song we’d sung that ended with, “Never again the A bomb. Never for the third time.” “I think you should see if there are some North Koreans who could go with you to Hiroshima,” he said. “If they saw it, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing now.” When I asked him if he’d been to Hiroshima many times, he said, “You only need to go once.”

The rest of our stay in Kobe was taken up with home visits. Tea ceremonies were the only common denominator, as each of us forged new individual relationships with new friends, new places, and in some cases, new songs.

The Peace Park immediately became our focus upon arrival in Hiroshima. Located on Heiwa Boulevard (“heiwa” being the Japanese word for peace), it was just a few blocks from our hotel. We watched preparations there, at the Peace Museum, and even in our hotel where guests arrived with shopping bags filled with strings of 1,000 cranes to place at the memorial.

On the 6th, peace groups and neighborhood associations donned their matching T-shirts and unfurled their banners. Cub Scout troops greeted those arriving with small bunches of flowers to be placed at the memorial. An enveloping fog of incense-sweetened air grew muggier by the moment. The heat simmered, then boiled over onto the heads of those in the 15,000 seats set up in the Peace Park, with special sections reserved for “Atomic Bomb Survivors and their families.” Every five rows, the end chair sported a bountiful bouquet of lilies. Banks of yellow chrysanthemums all at the same stage of bloom surrounded the cenotaph and eternal flames. The A-bomb dome in the distance with its burned-out iron roof structure was the only visible remnant of what was once a thriving section of the city.

After a reception at Hideko’s school, our August 6th activity stretched well into the evening when we assembled for a performance at one of the many smaller memorials that surround the Peace Park. It was beastly hot and sticky. The cicadas threatened us with their volume, nearly as many decibels as we could muster. When Hideko had first consulted her former classmates about the possibility of being on the program that night, they all realized it was a tall challenge for a U.S peace group—she was reminded that this was a Japanese observance that was primarily for Japanese survivors. To her surprise and delight, a former teacher who had been challenged by her as a student became a steadfast ally as a member of the organizing committee. She seized upon his pledge of support, and with persistence she sent individual mission statements from each participant. “These are the people who want to sing,” she wrote. “They are all individuals interested in peace.” The official invitation arrived soon after.

Hideko’s daughter Miko sang the song she’d been waiting to sing, one she’d composed called, “A Prayer for Hiroshima.” To the tune of “Danny Boy,” her amazing soprano voice carried us through her mother’s experience of waiting in vain by the river for her own mother to return and Miko’s lament for the grandmother she never knew.

“I would have been a different person,” she sang, had her grandmother not been robbed from her by the bomb. All at once, we were dipped into the sea of remembered pain that surrounded us. Hideko stepped up to comfort her daughter as Miko’s voice cracked, and for a moment, seemed unable to continue. Rubbing her back, Hideko gently encouraged her to continue, telling her it was all right to cry.

Just behind us was the sacred mound, the final resting place of her grandmother, her uncle, and the tens of thousands who died that day and in the days and months after. “Step lightly here, for you tread on thousands of lost souls,” Hideko had cautioned us as we approached the mound where many were buried. How close we were to them all. We couldn’t help crying.

On our way back to the hotel, we added our own paper lanterns to the thousands floating out to sea, all with messages of peace and hope for a time when the specter of an atom bomb would no longer be a threat. Please do not permit the atom bomb a third time, we sang.

Once home, a letter came to Hideko from the gentleman in charge. “There may be many other highly skilled and professional groups, but none could have reached our hearts the way yours did,” he wrote. “You sang directly from your hearts to ours.”

Members of the choir had their lives transformed by the journey, a fulfillment of the choir’s mission that most could hardly have imagined when we set out. For Annette Lewis, who was born on August 6, 1945, and raised to believe the bomb was a good thing, it was a chance to see and understand firsthand that this wasn’t necessarily so. Our gifted director, Dave Marston, awoke in the middle of the night and composed a song of apology for a bomb that was dropped before he was born. The song has been recorded and was recently released in Japan. For some of our Japanese hosts, our visit was the first time they had ever talked about the bomb with people from the United States.

In the months since our return, Hideko has been awash with a sense of what she calls collective healing. Of the experience, she says, “Being with the choir in Hiroshima, reaching out with the sound of true heart and harmony in the spirit of collective healing, gave me an opportunity for the final healing of what has been nearly a lifetime of grief.”

Donnan Beeson Runkel

Donnan Beeson Runkel, a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, has been attending South Mountain Meeting in Ashland, Oreg. After many years of working for the Peace Corps, Peace Links, and other organizations, she now shares innkeeping duties with her husband for a 14-room inn. In the middle of writing her first book, she also writes for AARP's Bulletin.

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