Ten Years Gone: A Trip to Japan

Sometimes things are a little tardy here on the Chomp, but they always (eventually) get done. Although this is primarily a video game blog, occasionally I’ll veer off-topic, which (admittedly after some hesitation) I’ll be doing today. As many of you may know, August 6th and 9th of this month marked the 70th anniversary of the United States’ atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The results were devastating: the nuclear energy unleashed by the bombs instantly claimed an estimated 80,000 lives in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki. The overall figures are rough, but it is thought that well over 200,000 lives were lost due to the attacks, both from the initial detonations and other conditions such as radiation sickness.

I bring all of this up not just because of the historical significance, but for personal reasons as well. My love of Japan spans much of my life, ever since that childhood moment when I first read the words “Made in Japan” on the back of one of my Nintendo cartridges. I remember telling my mother and grandmother that I would one day travel to Japan, and thanks to their sacrifices and the kindness of family friends, that declaration became a reality in 2005.

However, my trip to Japan was not for vacation, but for scholarship. The year 2005 was the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb attacks, and in observance, DePaul University offered a course on the ethics of the U.S.’s usage of the atomic bombs. Professor Dr. Yuki Miyamoto, then a visiting religious studies professor at the school, created the course which also featured Father Dr. James Halstead as co-professor.

The course, which began during DePaul’s Spring Quarter, was a multidisciplinary class that included academic articles, creative pieces (specifically Keiji Nakazawa’s manga Barefoot Gen, which was inspired by his own experience during the Hiroshima attack), videos and personal accounts from survivors of the attacks, known as hibakusha (often translated as “bomb survivors”, but literally means “explosion affected people). Later on that summer, we were to travel to three cities in Japan: Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

Before taking the class, I hadn’t given much thought to the ethics of using the atomic bombs. From what I remember reading in the history books assigned during my pre-college years, the bombs were necessary to save American lives and end the war. Other than that, I mainly saw the bomb in terms of fear, mainly because of fictional stories in which the threat of nuclear war threatened humanity. I suppose if a weapon is so feared and powerful, I should have at least attempted to consider the ethics of its usage. Even after reading the articles that analyzed the ethics of the bomb attacks in an academic context, nothing resonated with me more than the personal account of Katusiji Yoshida.

Mr. Yoshida was a teenager living in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb detonated over the city. Through a translator, Mr. Yoshida told us of his personal struggle with the aftermath of the attack, including his stay at a hospital that lasted well over a year. His body and face were badly burned from the heat of the radiation, causing him a great deal of physical and emotional pain, the latter of which came from the teasing he suffered due to his injuries.

Unfortunately, stories of mistreatment like Mr. Yoshida’s aren’t uncommon for many hibakusha. They have faced some arduous times, enduring ridicule from some of their fellow citizens because of their injuries and appearance, as well as having to pay their own (often expensive) medical bills for over a decade until the Japanese government set up The Act on Medical Care for Atomic Bomb Survivors in 1957.

Faced with eyewitness testimony and learned scholars questioning whether atomic weaponry was ever an ethical choice in war, my mind opened to a whole new type of discourse on the usage of the bombs. Upon finishing the remaining coursework at the end of the school year, we were set to leave for Japan in late June. Our first stop was Kyoto, where we stayed in for only a few days. In that time, we did manage to visit a zen rock garden and traveled on bullet trains that rode so smoothly, I sometimes cry a little when I ride the L trains here in Chicago.

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The crew in Kyoto. See the girl in the red shirt with the glasses? I should have been nicer to her

The next city we visited was Hiroshima, Yuki’s hometown, where we spent the majority of our trip. A sprawling metropolis, Hiroshima was busy, modern, and beautiful. We visited a number of places and people in the city (including an internet cafe with one of the nicest guys ever), but the place I remember most is the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum.

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The Museum. Photo comes from Wikipedia

Established in 1955, the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum features a number of displays about the bomb attack on the city. There are photographs, artifacts, and videos featuring the personal accounts of hibakusha who recalled what happened to them on the day of the bombing.

Visiting that museum is still one of the saddest experiences of my life. Some of the things I saw there made me physically sick. There were many photographs of decimated buildings, scorched neighborhoods, and people whose bodies were viciously burned, warped and disfigured by the radiation. It was a terrible thing to view, especially the images that showed children. Nothing more proved that sentiment to me than the remains of a young boy’s charred and tattered clothes on a mannequin in one of the exhibits. Even now, the thought of that display, and all of those photographs still makes me nauseous.

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Fellow student Matt (R) and myself laying down flowers in remembrance of the victims on the Peace Museum’s campus.

Despite the overall somber nature of our time in Hiroshima, there was one particularly inspiring moment when we were able to meet Yuki’s father.  He was a cordial, kind, and thoughtful man, even going as far as bringing gifts for all of us. The gift I was given was a decorative set of chopsticks, which I kept in the same condition that I received them.

Meeting Yuki’s father was a miracle in itself. During the war, he was a teenager in the military training to become a suicide pilot. When the bomb detonated over Hiroshima, he was (if memory serves me correctly) on an island just off the coast of the city. Fortunately, he did not suffer from any effects of the bomb but he did see it explode. I remember thinking how blessed Yuki’s father was to be alive, and humbled to experience how graciously he treated us.

The last city on the trip was Nagasaki, where we students got the chance to stay with a host family. A young woman named Seiko took myself and fellow student Brandon in with her family who lived in the mountains. The experience we had getting to Seiko’s house was cinematic in itself, as Seiko skillfully navigated the narrow roads like a stuntwoman. Jokes aside, Seiko and her family were incredible, no easy feat considering how insufferable I can be. I said it then and I’ll say it now, heavens bless them for dealing with my lack of chopsticks skill at the dinner table.

Nagasaki was gorgeous, balancing modern architecture with a rural aesthetic. While walking around I almost couldn’t believe it suffered such a devastating attack all those decades ago. Most of our study in Nagasaki was done at an all-female Catholic university, where we were able to interact with some of the students, and even met the school’s president.

Upon returning home, I took a few days to really process my experience. I felt a lot of emotions–sadness, joy, fear and anger to name a few–, but I was mostly grateful for being a part of that class and learning about the bomb attacks on Japan’s soil and from her people. In many ways, it was an experience that has indelibly changed my life.

Of all the things that occurred while I was in Japan, I the kindness of the people struck me most. I had heard that there would likely be many people who would be cordial to us, but I was still unsure. I feared that some people would be hesitant to accept us because many of us came from the country that was responsible for so much destruction on their soil. Fortunately, my fears were not realized, and I experienced some of the most comfortable moments of my life there.

During one Saturday that summer, I decided to share my experiences on Japan with a group of people at First United Church of Oak Park, which I often attended at the time. Despite some pitfalls I had as an orator, I did my best to describe what I had seen and learned, and, judging by their enthusiastic reactions was successful in doing so.

Where I failed, however, is my squandering of an opportunity to write then mayor of Chicago Bill Daley about the non-profit organization Mayors for Peace, which consists of mayors from cities across the globe. Founded in 1982 by then mayor of Hiroshima Takeshi Araki, Mayors for Peace seeks the promotion of peace across the world, with one of its efforts being to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Although Daley eventually joined the group, I never sent him the letter I started writing to him, mostly because I didn’t have the courage to find the words to say. Obviously, that wasn’t one of my braver moments.

In the decades since the bomb attacks, the U.S.’s nuclear weapons stockpile both ballooned (it had a cache of over 31,000 weapons in the 1967 fiscal year) and, according to this report by the U.S. Department of State, fell to its lowest levels in 2003. While that’s encouraging, I’d like to see that number hit zero.

To anyone who reads this post, know that I wrote it fully aware that I’m not an authority on nuclear weapons. I’m not a scholar, a veteran, nor any type of defense specialist. I wrote this out of concern for this world and the people in it. Perhaps one day we will see a time where there is no threat of nuclear weapons because the world will be rid of them. Don’t let my optimism deceive you; I’m no fool, and am well aware of the unlikelihood of a world free of nuclear weapons. Still, that doesn’t deter me from believing such a future can be realized. Until next time.

Peace & Pixels