Hey guys! We’re back with another OWLS post. For those of you that don’t know, every month we (the OWLS team) dedicate at least one blog post around a central theme. This month’s theme is strength.
I’m going to do something a bit unorthodox this time.
Normally, I would talk about an anime, but I don’t think even the most well-crafted show has ever tugged at my heart quite like my trip to the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima.
Seeing the Dome has been something I promised myself I would see ever since I started studying Japanese. I’ve studied history. I learned all about WWII in school. I knew what happened on August 6, 1945 at 8:15 AM local Japan Time. But I really didn’t understand what it truly was until I saw it.
My wife and I were sitting quietly on the train. It was an unusually cold day in April, so cold, actually that the cherry blossoms hadn’t even begun to bloom. We had just spent all morning sightseeing the shrines of Miyajima and were onto our final destination before we headed to Shikoku.
I knew what we were about to see. I knew it was probably going to be overwhelming. How would I react? It’s something I always wondered.
The train finally came to our stop. As we got off, I looked around at a major metropolis. Tall buildings that cast shade over every street, crowds of people jumping between restaurants, taxis filled with salarymen hurrying off to their afternoon meetings. Baseball ads were on display in every store featuring a team that looked like they ripped off everything, from the logo right down to the mascot, from the Cincinnati Reds. The Hiroshima Carp had just won their first Central League Baseball Pennant since 1991. When I looked closer, I noticed everyone was wearing Carp gear. Businessmen donned Carp ties, women had Carp scarves wrapped around their necks, even the homeless wore Carp baseball caps with pride.
Such a great city!
Hiroshima was full of energy, and I found myself falling in love with it. But I knew the Dome was just around the corner. My wife looked at her phone and pointed to the next block ahead. I looked to where she was pointing and noticed the top of the dome poking out over the trees.
I suddenly felt my heart sink into my stomach. I tried to muster a “Ryoukai!“, but I had a massive frog in my throat, so I simply nodded in acknowledgement.
As we finally approached the Dome, an incredible force came over me. It was like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. This was the spot where the atomic bomb went off. This was the epicenter of instant death and destruction for tens of thousands of people. This was where the course of history changed. The frog was still firmly lodged in my throat as I stood in complete silence, unable to comprehend the magnitude of what was right in front of me. All I could do was think “Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Be strong…”
After my legs started working again, my wife and I started to make our way to the Peace Memorial and Museum.
I turned around to get one final look at the Dome and noticed a crew of BBC journalists leaning on the fence surrounding the ruins of the building. They, too, were speechless. The cameramen all had their cameras on the ground, mouthing very long, exaggerated wows while the field reporter stood in the middle of the sidewalk, his arms hanging lifeless by his sides as he stared at the ruins in complete silence.
We finally made our way to the cenotaph at the front of the Peace Memorial. Here, many Japanese were laying flowers in front of the monument and praying. Off to the side, schoolkids were vowing to fight for a peaceful future while asking people to sign anti-nuclear weapon petitions.
We stayed at the Memorial for a brief moment before heading into the heaviest part of the trip – the museum.
The atmosphere was incredibly quiet at the main entrance. Everyone seemed to be preparing for something horribly tragic. The dome itself was somber, enough to leave anyone speechless, but what was waiting in the exhibit was something far more powerful. Tickets purchased, we made our way down the hall and into the exhibit. “Don’t cry. Don’t Cry. Be strong…” I kept saying to myself.
What I had just walked into was a firsthand account of Hell.
The hall was covered in life-sized photographs of survivors of the blast. Parts of their limbs were missing, skin and muscle melted, bones disintegrated, patches of their clothes fused to whatever remained uncharred on their bodies. Behind them were ruins of homes, schools, offices. Things that stood in tact literally seconds ago were reduced to nothing but ash in the blink of an eye.
I managed to take a few pictures inside the museum. I feel like they can explain what happened much better than I can. But beware: some of these are graphic. If you don’t think you can handle it, then by all means, please scroll through (I promise this has a happy ending!). You’ve been warned.
These were the only pictures I managed to take. I couldn’t bear to focus too long at each piece of the exhibit. But there were also sections dedicated to the children who died of radiation poisoning, displaying graphic images of the progressions of their sickness, their preserved 1,000 origami cranes, letters they would write, letters written to them, their eulogies, etc. Expanding on radiation, they also dedicated a section to all the medical side effects suffered by the victims. Images of physical deformations, severe burns, and flesh completely ripped off of entire sections of bodies covered the walls of this exhibit. Finally, interviews of the survivors were played as we made our way out of the exhibit. They described their perspectives of the horrors, but also urged the younger generations to seek peace. It was absolutely surreal.
I finally managed to muster my first word since laying eyes on the Genbaku Dome.
There was really nothing else to say. I had been surrounded by the remains of what was literally Hell on Earth all afternoon. As an American, I felt like I truly understood the great responsibility of what it now means to be the most powerful country in the world. This was more than just a bomb. This was as close to the power of god that humans have ever been.
My wife then reminded me that we had half an hour to catch the bus to Shikoku. But I wanted to see the cenotaph again. I wanted to show my respect to all those that had lost their lives one last time.
As I walked up to the cenotaph one final time, I was able to make out the writing on the stone’s face.
安らかに眠って下さい 過ちは 繰返しませぬから
Please rest in peace for we [humanity] shall not repeat the error [the evil of war].
I nodded to my wife, and we started off toward the bus station. As we walked along the back side of the memorial, on Aioi Bridge (the original target of the atomic bomb), I looked out onto the landscape. Lined up along the river were cherry blossom trees (not yet in bloom). Along the river were groups of people laughing, having picnics, and enjoying the beautifully clear day. Off in the distance was the Genbaku Dome.
Then it hit me. The force I had felt when I first laid eyes on the Dome wasn’t terror, or fear, or evil.
No. What hit me was the incredible force of humanity’s greatest strength – forgiveness.
The people of Hiroshima, and all of Japan, have, since that day, transcended hatred. The grief will forever be embedded in Japan’s DNA, but the people have continued to endure it. They have proactively pursued harmony and everlasting world peace.
The meaning of the Genbaku Dome was clear. I smiled for the first time that whole afternoon, staring at the incredible scene before me. Then, I looked over to my wife, a Japanese citizen. A Japanese citizen married to an American military member.
“We need to get going. My family is waiting for us,” she said.
Don’t cry. Don’t…
I felt a tear roll down my cheek.