Keeping the horror of Hiroshima alive


Masako’s Story: Surviving the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima, by Kikuko Otake, edited by Dr. Jesse Glass. Tokyo/Toronto: Ahadada Books, 2007, 94 pp. with photos and maps, $15 (paper)

The cenotaph for the Hiroshima victims reads “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil,” but war goes on incessantly in what promises to be the most bloody of decades and the evil here referenced, the atomic bomb, is commonly flaunted as a threat. How then can the souls of the Hiroshima dead rest in peace?

One way is to keep them always in mind and never to forget what happened on Aug. 6, 1945. But that was over 60 years ago, the lifetime of a generation, and forgetting is a way of recovering. Also, while we can keep alive the death of a loved one or two, it is more difficult to feel the same way about larger numbers of people. With the best will in the world, we cannot encompass the emotional demands of thousands — and the atomic bomb destroyed hundreds of thousands of people.

In addition the dead have been drafted for political purposes. It is now commonplace to hear use of the bomb absolved by reference to all of those lives saved that would otherwise have been sacrificed. But those thus hypothetically saved are only nominally alive and those that the bomb killed are actually and irrefutably dead. The future can never vindicate the past. Only the present can do that. So how is memory of what happened in Hiroshima to be kept alive, to be retained in its pain and horror? Each year the task becomes more difficult.

I remember when horror was fresh. That was when I first read about what had happened in Hiroshima. I read it in that special issue of The New Yorker magazine that contained all of John Hersey’s report on the effects of the bomb on the city and its people. I read about it here in Tokyo as I was a member of the Occupation forces at the time.

None of us knew much about Hiroshima, since travel there was not yet permitted and the photographs and later accounts were still censored. Such was the Occupation attitude that even this issue of The New Yorker was banned. All of us were thus learning for the first time what had actually occurred.

There was no forgetting this. It was too horrible, too recent, too close. The atomic bomb, far from being a political plaything, was indeed evil, and all of us felt this — and the onus of having used it, no matter how many lives it hypothetically saved.

This then is one way to keep forever with us the memory of Hiroshima, to purposely deny ourselves the ease of forgetting and the comfort of rationalization. This is the way shown by Kikuko Otake in her account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as she experienced it.

She was 5 at the time. As an adult, she has written what her mother told her (hence the title “Masako’s Story”). The account was published in Japanese in 2003 as “Amerika e Hiroshima kara” (“To America From Hiroshima”) and it is this that is here adapted and translated — accompanied by an appendix with some of the original Japanese text. Its original reception was such that she realized that through a translation “many more people in the world would be able to understand the tragedy of Hiroshima.” The problem remained, however, of how to focus attention, and hence understanding, on a subject that had been as emotionally exposed as this one.

One way was to print the text a line at a time, like poetry. This is, in fact, what poets traditionally do when they attempt to slow the impatient and unfeeling reader. For example, this detail:

They were hairless, and burned so completely,

That their eyebrows had been roasted off,

Making it impossible to tell the bodies of the men from the women.

Read as prose, we might have been tempted to hurry over the scene and failed to appreciate the horror. Read as poetry with the requisite pauses and the distance that form dictates, there is no escaping the horror.

In addition, prose read as poetry creates objectivity. We rise above the transient and can view something like the eternal. Petty political concerns are dwarfed by the towering certainties of the actual. We are endistanced and consequently have a wider view, one that — however paradoxically — preserves the emotion since we must move closer in order to understand, to feel, to remember.

(Some of the devices are not that effective — the use of capitals for emphasis, the descent into tiny type to evoke despair — but this effort to halt escape and force attention by a designed lack of sensational vocabulary makes inescapable some appreciation of what actually occurred.)

Each year pushes the reality of the destruction of Hiroshima further into the past, further away from all of us. At the same time, anyone who fails to learn from history is doomed to repeat it. With the anniversary of the event upon us, here is a book to remember it by.