Trigger Warning: Topics of WWII, bombings, and death including that of children, the Holocaust, and genocide are discussed. Please take care of yourself first and foremost. Nothing graphic, but there are brief mentions of what happened in Hiroshima.
A man in a yellow rain jacket walked up to us as we stood in front of the children’s memorial. We’d accidentally made eye contact before, my anxious gaze has a habit of eliciting random company. I forced myself to watch intently as the old man came closer. His disposition was calm and the creases around his eyes were so few you could mistake him for someone much younger if it weren’t for the ash-grey hair.
It was one of those moments that you know while it’s happening that you’ll remember and write about. He carried himself without timidity, just a hint of melancholy sat in the slump of his shoulders as he attempted to straighten his back from time to time, “A lot of Americans don’t visit here.” He spoke in Japanese to my friend and me.
I had noticed he’d been watching with great sadness as an American family put on their greatest smiles for a selfie in front of the honorary gravesite. I nodded.
“Most of them go to the Dome, you mostly just see Japanese people here. I’ve been to a few museums, and it is a similar story…” the old man acted as though he was confessing, confiding. We had been disgusted too. He was under the impression that my friend was native Japanese, which I suppose inspired the kindship he must have felt. When he asked where we were from, that tie was quickly severed and he withdrew into himself as my friend explained, “We’re study abroad students from Osaka.”
“Ah. So, you aren’t Japanese?”
“I am, but I was born in America.” My friend explained, the airiness put on in her voice signaling a sense of discomfort.
“Ah, you are Americans. My apologies for bothering you!”
We exchanged some polite words, remorseful on the surface but underneath it I mostly felt sorry.
Visiting Hiroshima was strange. My friend’s family had been there since before the bombing in 1945 so when we walked through the museum all I could do was imagine what they went through. With a history-buff father and Jewish heritage, I was quite aware of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed throughout the globe, but it is profoundly different sitting in a dark, enclosed space where you are met with the gaze of someone who is no longer with us and was taken in such a violent way.
It reminded me of the Holocaust survivors I’d met growing up and the impact it had on the Jewish community. I think of all the elderly people at synagogue who always looked for a reason to celebrate and could dance circles around me even at 90 years old and beyond. You think that’s just how they are, but eventually, you realize they had to fight so much for even that simple joy.
When walking through the city of Hiroshima, it might be hard to imagine the atrocities that unfolded there. Behind every glass-covered, towering storefront or around the bend of the river, there are whispers of the difficulties of that existence. When reaching the end of the survivors’ testimonies, there is a screen where the daughter of a prominent family from before the bombing of Hiroshima speaks about her father and all the beautiful people who impacted her as a child. Her father’s body was never found, his belongings in his office fused together in the heat of the explosion. In an instant, it was as though he had disappeared entirely.
Many stories were similar. Absence is the source of the pain. Countless mothers searched for their children’s uniform scraps; the manikin in the museum wore an amalgamation of different little boys’ uniforms. Diary entries of symptoms of survivors scattered across the space told the story of a Hiroshima where not all causalities were direct, some suffered as time moved forward and could never fully heal.
Tears were inevitable. There were plenty of seats for contemplation throughout. Even a month after visiting, I still cry thinking about it. The survivors in the video spoke about how the only way to heal even a little was to continue living in Hiroshima and rebuild. Many left. Many could not survive the extreme mental toll of everything. But those that stayed relied on one another and built a new community despite their lives never being the same. The human spirit has so much endurance and you can feel that strength by just existing in the space that survivors built.
As we sat for dinner in a Japanese-style Italian restaurant with my friend’s family, I felt like I understood things better. Being in Hiroshima is very different from reading about it in textbooks or watching a documentary. The stories we hear about the atrocities of war often skew to one side or the next, whether it be highlighting a hero in the narrative or only describing one emotional impact. But Hiroshima is so much more complicated than just a story about pain or overcoming. It is not fully possible to overcome what has happened, it is a story about perseverance, but not in the way you might have heard.
Persevering and overcoming are not the same thing. No one conquers the deep pain and loss in their lives; people simply grow through it and learn to live in a world that is different than how they once knew it. Your humanity is tested at every turn. I think versions of Hiroshima’s story I heard in the U.S. always centered on the pain that led to strength, but I think that undercuts the reality of what happened in Hiroshima. I looked around that dinner table and saw how laughter rose and fell and smiles and questions came our way. The differences you are told that you think you never believed rise to the surface, and you understand better why we cannot allow anyone else to live in a world where this could happen again. It isn’t about moving past violence to enter a new era; it is about protecting other human beings because we’ve had periods of peace before. No one thought Hiroshima would be bombed in the first place. Peace is so conditional in a world where we allow the possibility of utter cruelty.
It is more than just sympathy, it is reality.
I imagine how the man in the yellow rain jacket must have felt. The dedicated space for all the children who were lost and never got to know the futures that belonged to them was a photo-op playground. The insensitivity was a harrowing reminder of how removed we make ourselves from the fact that those children and people were human beings too. That they laughed and cried and knew love in all the ways we do, and that there are stories we will never know.
It brings up so many conversations. How to be a better tourist? What is appropriate in this type of space? But I think all these issues stem from the same place: why are you removing yourself from the reality of other people’s lives, of other people’s existences? It is an issue of respect for others and decentering oneself which is a struggle for a lot of people and often something people do because they can’t emotionally process the truth of what hatred and war do to others. It is easier to believe that the world is a string of stories about good and evil people. It is easier to believe that people can’t exist in a greyer area than the poles of that spectrum. Human beings are capable of many things at once, and to respect survivors and the departed, we have a responsibility to act with compassion no matter how we feel about political or social issues. No one wins when people die.
When we deny other people their humanity, we exercise a lack of it within ourselves.