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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hiroshima Journal

-- By Tom Phillips

Hiroshima is the only city in the world with a trolley stop called "Atomic Bomb Dome," and I shuddered inwardly every time we passed it.  It's by the shell of a building just a quarter-mile from the bomb blast, a building that somehow remained standing, though everyone in it was killed instantly, vaporized by the heat. 

Later it survived an effort by the local government to tear it down, to remove a symbol of the city's destruction.  In the end Hiroshima decided to leave it standing, as a reminder -- a rare public protest in a country that usually prefers to cover things up. 

For my pastor wife and me, Hiroshima was a duty call. As Americans, we wanted to pay our respects the victims, and take the measure of what we did as a nation.  Before going to Japan, we read John Hersey's classic "Hiroshima," an account from survivors of the bomb.  In the days after the attack, the city's rivers were choked with corpses of horribly burned people who had plunged into the water.  All over Hiroshima, people lay down and died, their skin peeling off their limbs.  And the atomic bomb was a time bomb as well.  Survivors were disfigured, and suffered for life from the effects of radiation. The last of them are dying out today.  The only one we met was a fellow who sold a guidebook at the atomic bomb dome.  He called himself as an "in utero" survivor -- his mother was three months pregnant in Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.     

Nearby, the horrors of the attack and its aftermath are on display in the Peace Memorial Museum, which we visited with hordes of Japanese school children.  I felt queasy, not just because of the harrowing photos and artifacts, but because as an American I half-expected a dirty look or suspicious glance. 
A-bombed tricycle
No such thing materialized.  Maybe it was just Japan's culture of extreme politeness.  But a Japanese-American friend told me that most Japanese people are grateful to the US -- not because we bombed them, but because of what we did in the aftermath.  Following Japan's unconditional surrender, we could have demanded reparations for everything we'd lost. We could have occupied Japan for decades, and treated the people as slaves, just as they had treated the conquered peoples of Asia.  They probably expected it. 

Instead, we did the opposite -- keeping our occupation brief and benign, helping Japan rebuild, making an ally out of an enemy.  After the most inhuman war in history, America managed to turn around and deliver one of the great ethical lessons of all time; renouncing revenge and the spoils of war in favor of our own enlightened self-interest.  The results were spectacular -- mutual prosperity, and a partnership that shows no sign of wearing thin 70 years later. 

After making our way through the museum, under the kindly eye of the victims' kin, Debra sat down and wept for about a minute.  I sat next to her, and welled up in shame and confusion.  All the contradictions and paradoxes of two great civilizations are on display in Hiroshima.  But one message comes through: Peace.
-- Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips