As part of my semester abroad in Tokyo, Japan, my study program took our group of U.S. exchange students on a trip to Hiroshima. This two-day sojourn is part of the program’s overall mission to promote peace and improve understanding between cultures. It was certainly an experience I will never forget.
The site of the bombing in downtown Hiroshima has since been turned into the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Normally, I enjoy walking through Japan’s lovely parks; but as I wandered through this one, I was a little numb thinking that all the tall trees and lush greenery had replaced a landscape full of houses and people.
At the center of the Peace Park is the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum. I entered it with ambivalent feelings towards what had happened in Hiroshima in 1945. I had read many arguments for and against using the bomb, and although I thought the arguments against were slightly stronger, I could still see the other side’s point. At the very least, I was prepared to give the original decision makers the benefit of the doubt.
However, the exhibitions at the Hiroshima Peace Museum proved to be an eye-opener. The museum did not appear biased— despite the Japanese having every reason to be resentful. Instead, the facts were presented in an orderly and by all appearances impartial manner. However, there were a number of facts that I hadn’t seen in my U.S. history textbook. For starters, I never learned that the United States had refused to offer Japan any terms except unconditional surrender (not even the relatively meaningless condition of keeping their emperor), and that the bomb had been dropped without any warning. I certainly didn’t know that at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan had already been negotiating for peace through the Soviet Union, which raises the suspicion that the motive of the United States was less connected to saving lives by ending the war, and more connected to establishing supremacy vis-à-vis the Soviets. Even more stomach-turning was the revelation that Hiroshima and several other Japanese cities were deliberately left untouched by conventional attacks so that the effects of atomic bombing could be observed on a pristine target. This suggests two things: first, that some people viewed dropping the bomb on Japan essentially as an experiment; and second, that Hiroshima was never an important military target, since the United States could not have afforded to hold back attacking an important one. Indeed, it always had struck me as strange that the first atomic bomb was not dropped on a military base but on a heavily populated city.
Later, I listened to a lecture about the process of developing nuclear weapons wherein it was revealed that because the United States had mobilized an enormous amount of money and human resources for the project, there was a great deal of pressure to come up with results, even if nuclear weapons were no longer necessary to end the war. Long after the fact, Lieutenant General Leslie Groves described President Truman as “a little boy on a toboggan”—so caught up in the momentum of the Manhattan Project that he never paused to consider the alternatives. This is a rather unsettling analogy, given the consequences. Perhaps before Hiroshima, no one truly had any idea how horrible atomic weapons could be.
The facts presented were far from the most moving part of the Peace Museum. There were also pictures and emotional testaments from survivors of the bombing. There were drawings of a mother looking through a row of children’s bodies for her daughter, and of wells clogged with dead bodies of people trying to escape the burning. The sight of people with melted skin is not one I will forget in a hurry. Though death is never pretty, the nuclear bomb is a particularly horrific method of killing.
After I finished touring the Peace Museum, I was privileged to listen to an atomic bomb survivor, Miyoko Matsubara, deliver a speech about her experiences. She was only 12 years old when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but she has felt the effects for the rest of her life. The bombing left her with a severely scarred face, poor health, and mental wounds that continued to be inflicted when people discriminated against her for being a victim of radiation. She described how once people saw her scars, she was treated as if she were contagious, and no one would employ her or even sit next to her on the train. Despite her struggle, she persevered and even managed to raise the three children that were orphaned after her brother’s death.
Throughout her speech, I couldn’t help noticing that Miyoko Matsubara had difficulty speaking, and the sheer effort of forcing words out seemed to exhaust her. Even worse was the agony on her face as she recounted her experiences. I admire her courage for persisting in telling her story so many times over the years. She is now 77 and suffering from a radiation-related disease, the same condition that killed her younger brother. Her reason for continuing to live is to keep pushing for world peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons. I find it tragic that right now there seems to be no real political power behind the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons, and little hope that Matsubara will ever live to see a day when there are no more nuclear weapons left on Earth.
But the most important lesson I’ve taken away from Hiroshima is one of hope. Despite the great suffering caused by the tragedy of Hiroshima, nowhere in the Peace Museum was there any hint of vengefulness towards the perpetrators. I’ve met many Japanese who were born in Hiroshima, including my own host father, and none of them evidenced any grudge against the United States or me. In her speech, Matsubara said that after the bombing she met many kind people from the United States who wanted to stand against nuclear weapons, which made her realize that it was not the United States but war itself that was to blame for the tragedy. She offered a special thanks to Barbara Reynolds, a Quaker who encouraged her to speak up publicly about her experiences.
People in Japan and Hiroshima seem to have been able to find a way to move forward without hatred. Outside the Peace Park, there is a bustling city full of shops, restaurants, shrines, temples, and a renovated castle. The human power to endure and rebuild is truly astounding.