With the nonstop coverage of the news from the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor leaks in Japan, I have had the country on my mind a lot the last few weeks, and it seems appropriate to post the follow up piece to my first post on Japan, Hiroshima I.
July 14, 1984. Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Twelve of us American teenagers from across the United States were privileged enough to be a part of a Rotary Youth Exchange trip, one component being a trip to Hiroshima. Our Japanese host on this month-long exchange trip was Mr. Jim Kishi, a soft-spoken man who appeared to us to have purplish birthmarks splattered across his face and hands. We were to soon discover that he did not wear the marks of genetics or birth but rather the marks of war, radiation, loss, despair, but also, finally, triumph.
Mr. Kishi, as we all called him, saw our anguish and our tears after our emotional visit to the museum and peace memorial, and he surprised us by asking us to join him in one of the hotel meeting rooms that night. The pall the museum cast over us earlier in the day remained, and we were unusually quiet as we gathered in the room and arranged ourselves on chairs, couches, and the floor in a circle around him. Up until now he had just been Mr. Kishi, the gentle man who taught us Japanese phrases like “Moshi moshi” and “Do y tashty mash tay” (or as he explained it, “Don’t touch your mustache,” which meant in English “pleased to meet you”). He worked for the Miniminihon Broadcasting Company (MBC), the television station that sponsored our visit. Though we all thought he was sweet, he was background to us. Until now.
He began his story by telling us that he noted how upset we all were during our museum visit. He then began his story. Hiroshima was his hometown. He had been in junior high at a boarding school there when the bomb was dropped. No warning. In the early morning of a regular school day, his life changed forever. At first, he said, the city was chaos. The boys of the school first tended to each other, and then were told to tend to the people nearby. For a day or two the boys attended the sick and dying, the burning buildings, hauling buckets of water to put out the fires. Finally, they were allowed to go to their respective homes.
Jim Kishi made his way home to a village near the city, but it took days of walking. He passed the sick and dying, those he knew with their skin peeling off from the radiation, the dead bodies lining the roads. And the wailing. And the stench of death and radiation. When he finally arrived home, he discovered that a number of his own family had been killed or died in the days following the exposure to the radiation or from the fires caused by the blast. He himself suffered for years from the radiation sickness, as he called it, the most obvious to us being the purplish splotches visible on his face and hands.
His story held us entranced for more than two hours. It felt as if we couldn’t breathe or move. We floated inches above our seats as he told us of his odyssey from the school to home, the eyewitness account to what had been only a history, though a vivid one, to us earlier that day.
What was more remarkable, when I think back on it, was what he said after his story. He believed truly that the bomb saved millions of lives, both Japanese and American, that the Americans had no choice but to do it. Many of us were conflicted; I could see it on the puzzled faces around me. How could we see good in this ultimate act of destruction? Even then, at that young age, I understood that he needed to believe that the bomb produced something, that to think anything else would be an utter defeat of the human spirit, a triumph of destruction and evil. I loved him then for believing that, though I did not agree with him. I would later argue with my father, who fancied himself an autodidact of history, over the necessity of the bomb. He held to Mr. Kishi’s theory, a conventional theory, that the bomb was necessary and ultimately saved more lives than it destroyed. I argued that a bomb is never necessary. I would argue the same today, 26 years later. We know now, too, that the radiation of the land and people extended generations past the first exposure. The bomb continues still today as a blight on the land.
What I learned from Mr. Kishi is with me still today. From him personally I learned that the human spirit is capable of anything, even love of a people and country that intended to destroy it. I learned that despite this horribly traumatic event, a person could go on and be productive and kind, and then work towards peace and cultural understanding between two countries who were once enemies. I learned that museums, memorials, and history matter, that we must look into the ugliest parts of what human nature is capable of and try to understand it and then build bridges over it. I learned that we must go outside our borders and hear the story that the other places in the world have to tell us. I learned that my friends and myself and my small town mattered only a little in a world as large as ours. I learned to love Japan, a country so different from my own. I learned that love in the form Mr. Kishi practiced it is more powerful than the hate of a bomb. I learned, finally, that I hated war and would always work for peace.