Reflecting on Hiroshima

Clouds over Tokyo

Our entire visit to Tokyo feature overcast (and occasionally rainy) skies. By far the worst piece of gear we’ve chosen to carry are two light weight ponchos from CVS, which are awkward to fold and nearly impossible to re-compact, but we wanted something lighter and smaller than umbrellas. (If you have any ideas for superior, light-weight rain gear please let us know!!!) Still, despite the rough weather, we found several gems in the city worth sharing about.

Views from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Tokyo has a ton of skyscrapers -- the sixth most in the world about three times as many as Boston. The photos cannot capture the vast expanse that is the largest metropolitan area in the world with over 37 million people. (Jakarta is second, far behind at 28 million people.)

Tokyo has many options for high, panoramic views. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building features 45th story observation deck, a free alternative to going up the Tokyo Tower or the Tokyo Skytree for a bird’s eye view of the city. Despite the weather, the view didn’t disappoint, and we returned later to have cocktails at the top-floor bar to make drinks and a night time view our last activity in Tokyo. I’ve never been up so high for a view of a major metropolitan area.

Between our trips to the top of the building, we walked to various closed exhibits (many close in Tokyo on the first Monday of the month) and passed through a passageway where someone had set up a public art display by projecting interactive videos onto the tunnel wall. My favorite of the rotating videos had colored bubbles on the wall that would bounce in reaction to passing shadows of pedestrians. 

We rode Willer Express in "Relax" class.

We had booked an overnight bus to take us to Hiroshima. I have taken a fair number of overnight busses in my travels, and usually find them dreadful experiences with bright lights, erratic bus drivers, tiny seats, and unpleasant other passengers. Given this experience, I was completely delighted with our ride on Willer Express, Japan’s only bus service with an English language website. The seats and buses are a whimsical shade of bright pink, and in Japanese fashion contain several amenities that skirt the line between comically superfluous and ingeniously luxurious. For example, each seat back pocket contains a courtesy instruction card reminding passengers to not eat smell foods, speak loudly, or to lay their seat back without first asking permission of the passenger behind them. My favorite was the privacy hood, which pulls down from the head of your seat like on a baby carriage to provide quiet and darkness while you sleep. It is especially fun to annoy one’s husband by flapping his privacy hood up and down while he is trying to sleep.

We actually didn't take this photo and instead took it from the Internet, but this is basically what the control panel on all the toilets we have come across are like.

The bus also stops every two hours (extending the voyage significantly) at the most palatial rest stops I’ve ever seen. Japan’s rest stops live up to the country’s reputation for immaculate restrooms and go much further in promoting comfort and convenience. Not only has each rest stop had vastly more toilets than I've ever seen occupied, the restrooms also have a light up display board to tell you which stalls are empty, a pull down chair in each stall to sit a young child while you do your business, and of course the standard toilet machines with buttons for bidet (with multiple directional options), deodorizer, seat-wiper-fluid-sprayer, and the false flushing sound to cover indelicate bathroom noises, complete with volume control.


We arrived in Hiroshima the following morning with significant neck cramps, but generally much better rested than I had expected. Why go to Hiroshima? I think I felt a sort of obligation as both a human and as an American to visit the site of the A-bombing. It doesn’t fix anything of course, but when there are so many powerful forces waging violence in today’s world, at an emotional level I’d at least like to think that spending time to pay homage to the victims of military forces I’m powerless to stop, to think about the difficult questions that face world leaders in periods of war, and to share those reflections with other does perhaps a thimbleful of good to prevent similar activities in the future. That’s quite likely naïve, given the way the world has completely forgotten the cry of “never again” since the A-bomb and the Holocaust when it comes to preventing genocide. Then again, one has to try.

There are several sections to the Hiroshima Peace Park and memorial. The first is the renowned A-Bomb Dome, a former industry-building turned government office that was almost directly underneath the atom bomb blast, which killed everyone inside.  The building remains preserved in this state to show future generations a glimpse of what physical destruction the bomb wreaked on the city. 

In order to maximize effect, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima exploded about 600 meters in the air instead of impact on the ground. Since the bomb exploded almost directly over the A-Bomb Dome, the ceilings were knocked out, but much of the walls were left intact.

A few of the many paper crane chains brought to the children's memorial in Hiroshima.

There are also several other memorial sites, including a memorial to children. Behind it are glass containers containing thousands of strands of paper cranes. One of the victims of the atom bomb blast was a young girl who contracted leukemia and attempted to fold 1,000 paper cranes in the hopes of recovering. She eventually died before finishing, but her classmates completed the set and now the paper crane has become a major symbol of peace, both globally and for the city of Hiroshima. As a result, schools and other groups worldwide have folded their own colorful sets and donated them to the city of Hiroshima, which hangs them in glass cases at the memorial. 

A mosaic created with paper cranes.

Aside from the children’s memorial, there is a memorial hall for all of the victims, including thousands of Koreans who had been conscripted into forced labor in Japan by the Japanese government during WWII, and various symbolic archways and fountains in the park. The area where we spent the most time, however, was the museum. I had hoped for a larger exhibit, like something akin to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC or the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. On the day we visited however, half the museum was closed for renovations. The remaining exhibit, while comparatively small, was still informative about what happened during the attack, how it had affected Hiroshima’s residents, and the aftermath of subsequent health problems. It displayed artifacts like reformed roof tiles, tattered clothing, and broken spectacles that remained from the deceased. The museum featured many objects from children. There were really creepy figurines of children having the skin melt off their bodies and dioramas of the bomb’s impact. I left in a slightly confused emotional state - the museum was very educational about the results of the blast, but I wanted a more personalized way to emotionally process the history of violence, since most of the stories of victims in the museum were brief and at times seemed to blend together.

The victims' memorial framing the A-bomb Dome and the Peace Flame. The Peace Flame will burn until nuclear weapons are abolished.

We saw many school groups visiting the peace park and memorials.

To that end, Andrew and I were pleasantly shocked that the Hiroshima’s Museum of Contemporary Art was exhibiting one of my favorite visual artists, Doris Salcedo. Salcedo is a Colombian artist who works highlights the suffering of victims of Colombia’s protracted wars between the government and paramilitary guerilla groups, such as the FARC, that have drawn the country into violence for decades.  Salcedo’s work, which I first saw at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, is deeply poignant and evocative of the experience of people who have lost family members to violence. Most of her pieces involve altering furniture, familiar objects that are evocative of family and home life, which are changed in ways that are unsettling, sad, or melancholy. They highlight the feelings of permanence, of something or someone desired being just out of reach, or the pervasive and haunting unknown about the whereabouts of loved ones. It’s ugly art, but it’s smart, sensitive, and deeply empathetic.

At the MOCA, we were able to see two of Salcedo’s latest pieces. One, called Flor de Piel, was comprised of thousands of rose petals sewn together by hand and delicately laid over a large floor space. The piece was meant to symbolize a funeral shroud to a Columbian woman as well as a flower offering to the dead. However, the rose petals are also evocative of human skin being sewn together which creates the feeling of disgust and violation intermingled with beauty and tragedy.  

The photo above was copied directly from the MOCA’s website, as cameras were not allowed inside.

My favorite was the second piece, called Plegaria Muda, which featured dozens of tables, stacked upturned onto one another and cemented in between with soil. The piece’s staging in a large, empty basement room lent an ominous feeling to the exhibit, which was designed to be evocative of coffins to unknown youth, the many victims of violence in Colombia but also to the huge number of unrecovered dead in Hiroshima’s own past. The tables are arranged in an unkempt, zig-zag pattern around the room, which forces one to walk slowly through and notice the minor differences in the tables and the grass poking up through them. One is filled with both a feeling of tragedy that these tables will never be used as a place of communion, a feeling of dishevelment that the upper tables are turned upside down, of confusion and loss that the tables are too many to count or to attribute to a specific person, and of helplessness that one has arrived too late, as the soil is compacted and has long been sprouting by the time one arrives. After looking at the exhibit for about ten minutes, I looked around and couldn’t see Andrew and was momentarily distressed, which made me think about the way that thousands of family members in both Hiroshima and Colombia have had to look for their own loved ones in mass grave sites, pulling back cloth covers terrified of finding and of not finding the person they had lost. 

The photo above was copied directly from the MOCA’s website, as cameras were not allowed inside.

I remember in high school studying WWII and the decision to drop the atomic bomb. We were made to rationalize Truman’s decision and appreciate the impossible difficulty of major decisions in war. I remember in college, in my peace studies courses, learning about the socialization and politicization of violence that is used to make it more palatable to modern society, and the need to make choices that delegitimize violence and provide viable alternative. So one inevitably walks away from Hiroshima with the obvious question “Would you have done it?” My answer is, I don’t know. It’s an intensely pertinent question as the world faces the terrifying progress of ISIS through the Middle East. How can we sit still? How could we ever face getting involved? To me, the answer comes back to one’s worldview. One view is that the world has good people and bad people, and it’s the job of the former to stand up to the latter whenever and however necessary. The second worldview is grounded in a belief that our common humanity creates a moral imperative in any and all situations to reject violence. The rational and the empathetic collide and I’m not sure where to stand. Wars force decisions on leaders with the best of intentions that no one ever thinks they’d be willing to make.

David Brooks had a column in a recent International Herald Tribune that we read over breakfast at our hostel. He argues that the recent beheading of two US journalists by ISIS goes beyond the common cruelty of death by small bombs or shooting that our eyes glaze over daily in the news. That there is something extra dastardly about the defiling of the human body in such a way that shows a deeper evil, a conscious decision to use wield horror, rather than killing alone, as a weapon of war.  He says this as if it almost separates the more noble “us” - those of us who are willing to support our government, fellow citizens, and sometimes even family and friends at war in killing other human beings - from the “them” who are willing to go the extra level of cruelty for a rape, beheading, torture, or dare I add the after effects of an atomic bomb? Melting skin, flesh eaten by maggots, being engulfed by towers of flame, the poison of radioactivity? Is there something about an atom bomb that is “too far” even under the most dire of circumstances? If so, where do we draw the line about what cruelty to tolerate, and how does that define us as both humans and Americans?

Obviously I don’t have any answers. What do you think?

Andrew-san makes a formidable samurai, don’t you think? Taken at Hiroshima Castle.

Beyond the challenging questions of Hiroshima, Japan has been absolutely lovely. We spent an overnight on the picturesque Miayjima island (photos to come) in a traditional tatami mat room (much more comfortable than expected!) and have spent a day hiking one of Kyoto’s most famous shrines (Fushimi Inari Taisha) which has thousands of bright orange gates running up a mountain side. Yesterday’s bus ride from Hiroshima to Kyoto featured window views of lush valleys and picturesque riverbeds. Though it took a while, we finally discovered discovered some worthwhile Japanese craft beer. We even figured out how to purchase Japanese baseball tickets (Hiroshima Carp vs Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers on September 12th!) on our seventh or eighth try punching random Japanese buttons on the ticket machines at different convenience store chains. Stay tuned for another dispatch shortly, but in the meantime, I’d love your thoughts and reactions below!