ARCATA, Calif. — The time again has come to remember the use of atomic power on Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Each year at this time, newspapers, books and a variety of media services spend time remembering the events of Aug. 6 and 9, 1945. But why do we remember these things?
Is it morbid fascination with grotesque violence? I certainly hope not. My own experience with the people of Hiroshima and with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum teaches me that there is a specific and noble purpose for remembering what happened.
My understanding of the Japanese response to Hiroshima is that it is remembered in order to understand the profoundness of the tragedy and to prevent the tragedy from ever happening again. The quiet remembering of one’s ancestors, the quiet remembering of the souls of the many, many victims of the atomic explosion in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is done to pay respect to each of those lives. The remembering is done to try and express a profound respect for human life and to try to express a desire that we as a human community do not ever again do what we have done.
The Japanese are not naive. They realize their own guilt in the events leading up to and including World War II. I have heard some of my Japanese friends speak of the length of the shadows of their own sins, and how it prevents them from speaking out more forcibly against the violence that continues in our world.
And so they remember. In the shadows of their own guilt, they quietly remember in order to show respect, to do their penance, and to pray that we don’t do this again. There is no desire to get even. There is no getting even. There is no justice that can be earned for either the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the victims of Japanese violence throughout Asia. And so they remember, hoping that by remembering we will come to the realization that we can’t do this anymore.
As an American, I find this act of remembering on the part of those involved with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum very noble. As Americans we have frequently remembered in order to get vindication. “Remember the Alamo,” “Remember the Maine,” “Remember Pearl Harbor,” “Remember 9/11.” These are the slogans that we have taken to wars. These slogans have been the inspiration for a nation to retaliate to violence with violence. We have remembered in order to get even, or more than even. This is a less noble act of remembering.
I have recently had the honor of publishing a book in which I share the story and poetry of a very talented hibakusha, Hiroko Takanashi. Hibakusha is the word preferred by those who survived the explosion. Having survived carried a degree of guilt and by using the word “hibakusha,” those who survived can be referred to with the same word as those who died in the atomic blast. The word simply means a person who experienced the atomic bombing. Many died, some lived.
Many of Hiroko’s haiku talk of this style of remembering. For all hibakusha, remembering itself is a difficult and unpleasant task, something they would prefer not to do. They are at times asked by people like myself, to remember, in order to help spread a message of peace to a world outside of Japan that is ignorant of the events of Aug. 6 and 9, 1945.
Hopefully, this remembering will create a conversion in our world. A conversion from hatred and the violence justified by it, to understanding and compassion. I was able to witness a conversion of this type personally. I will communicate it here and finish.
My mother had lived through the Depression and World War II. She had been taught of the necessity of the atomic bombing, how it had saved lives and ended the war. I watched with my own eyes the change in my mother as she walked through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. She looked at a scaled model of the city before and after the explosion. She looked at the clothing and personal articles of the people who were burned to death in an instant. She saw the indescribable destruction of an entire city and its civilian inhabitants. At the end of a full day of going through the museum we found ourselves outside, in the park that lies under what was the center of the explosion. There is a stone under an arch on which the following words are written:
“May they rest in peace, may this mistake never happen again” (my translation). The owner of the “mistake” has purposely been left out of the original. I was not able to pull my mother away from that little stone. Her tears would not stop, nor would she be budged. On that day at the museum, the subject of Hiroko’s first haiku, “The atomic museum, the cries in the heart’s ears, the scent of the lily” my mother had undergone a conversion. Hers was a conversion toward compassion for something she had once felt it was appropriate to hate. It was a conversion to love something that she had once been taught to hate. She would never again speak of saving lives through the use of atomic (now nuclear) weapons.
I’m not sure if there is a more accurate description of what real conversion is. This is precisely the experience that the founders of the museum were looking to inspire in its visitors, a conversion to compassion and understanding, and an intolerance for hate, revenge and violence. Hatred, revenge and violence are precisely the things that were the reason for the pain felt by the entire human community in August 1945. This conversion only happens when we remember properly. When our purpose for remembering is appropriate, our human community will grow together. Remembering is important and must be done properly.
Eric Freed is a Roman Catholic priest in the diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif. He directs the Humboldt State University Newman Center and teaches mythology and Christian textual and historical traditions at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., where this article was written.