Saturday, August 8, 2009

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Tokyo, circa 1991.

On Thursday morning, when I was about two minutes from work, I heard the announcement that shocks me every year: On this day in 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Really, they should say, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, instantly obliterating tens of thousands of people and condemning tens of thousands more to death. But that wouldn’t be polite, would it? And obviously, we all know who dropped the bomb, but it’s the passivity of the language that bothers me.

That night, I watched a documentary about the bombings, White Light/Black Rain, which was released in 2007 and includes interviews with the surviving crew members of the Enola Gay. One of them used the same passive construction: The bomb was released, or the bomb left the plane, something like that. None of the airmen expressed regret about their role; they talked about performing their duty to their country, and calmly described the missions in clinical terms. One of them did, however, deride people who are quick to say, "nuke 'em." I think he may have used the word "idiot."

There were also interviews with 10 or 12 survivors, who went through the details of where they were and what they were doing when the bomb hit, as well as what it was like to survive. I learned quite a few things from these people: The hibakusha (“bomb-affected people”) are still discriminated against, and were initially ignored by their own government. The patients in the hospital that was set up to treat and study hibakusha would beg passing nurses to kill them rather than endure another bandage change. The Japanese word invented to describe the atomic explosions is "pikadon," a combination of two onomatopoeic words: pika for "flash" and don for "boom."

But by far the oddest thing I learned had to do with the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of 25 severely disfigured young women who were brought to New York for recontructive and plastic surgery. During their stay, two of the maidens and the group's chaperone met Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, on the TV show “This is Your Life,” an encounter this New York Times article rightly describes as “monumentally awkward.” It is the original reality TV; all parties are extraordinarily uncomfortable yet remain glued in place, performing the roles they've agreed to. Lewis looks particularly squirmy, I'm sure in part because he didn't know he'd be meeting survivors until he showed up at the studio.

If you’ve read this blog for a while or know me well, you know that I spent a few years living in Japan, specifically in Tokyo and on Hokkaido. There were definitely times when I felt awkward about being an American in Japan, especially around older people who had undoubtedly lived through the war, and quite possibly survived the burning of Tokyo five months prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The photo above is of a man that my older brother and I encountered while ordering hamburgers late one night at a fast-food joint. I’m sure we’d had a few beers, but I was clear-headed enough to feel negativity coming from him, and to make an educated guess about why. Of course, it could just have been that he was annoyed by our loudness and foreignness; it’s impossible to know for sure, and asking wasn’t really an option from either an etiquette or language standpoint.

When I was watching the documentary the other night, my husband asked if I’d visited Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and I was ashamed to say I hadn’t. I was even more ashamed to admit I didn’t know why. I recall thinking about it, but can't conjure up the reason I decided against it.

Not making that trip is one of my few regrets; it’s the passivity of the decision that bothers me.


  1. Great picture and lovely post. The issue of passive language is an interesting one. The use of the passive voice both in the US and Japan obscures human agency in the atom bomb atrocity (and others). Japanese history books describe how China "was invaded...Korea was annexed...the people of Nanjing were killed."

    As for having missed a visit to Hiroshima, what is most striking about going there is how normal Hiroshima, the city, has become. The Peace Park et al. is stirring, but any hint that the city was once the original ground zero (as is true of Tokyo and the firebombing) has disappeared. There was an interesting article on this by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate:

    All the best--

  2. Well, I would like to add that it was Japan's deplorable actions (see Pearl Harbor) that brought the US into the war. If we had not "dropped" (because at that time we did not have missile technology) the bombs, potentially thousands more Americans & Japanese would have been killed. Japan could have surrendered prior to dropping the bombs, as well as after the first bomb, but they (the Imperial Council and the Emperor) chose not to. It does not make it right for those who were victims, or in the eyes of those who look back on this now, but in the end, that is why the US form of government (for the people and by the people) is the best form, not a emperor dictatorship like Japan had at the time, where the people were subject to the whims (or poor decisions) of their leader(s). I might recommend you review the Potsdam Ultimatum that was issued to Japan on July 26th, 1945, twelve days prior to the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. Please recognize that I see this as a tragedy, but there are consequences with everything we do each day.........including standing up to or not challenging our government.
    Mike J.


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