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tale of two cities
Twenty-eight years ago, when She Who Must Be Obeyed and I visited Hawai‘i for the first time, we spent a goodly chunk of one day visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial: the site where a devastating attack by Japanese forces compelled the United States to enter World War II.
It was a moving and sobering experience. Standing there over the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, oil from which continues to seep to the surface of the harbor, brought tears to our eyes. And as if that were not enough, there were veterans of that terrible morning among us, men grizzled with age and care, who were there to tell their own stories of what they saw, what they lived through on that day.
Seven years later we were back at Pearl Harbor, this time with Elder Daughter and the Mistress of Sarcasm in tow. Having been there once before did not make our second visit any less moving. In fact, now that the novelty of being in Hawai‘i was gone, we could focus more on the emotion of being in a place where so many lives had been lost, where such destruction had taken place.
It was a little strange to note the astonishing number of Japanese tourists … even more than had been there in 1985.
Back in the early 1990s, when the Japanese economy was flying high and Japanese sararimen were beginning to feel their oats, many of them dared to actually take vacations instead of working 24/7. Hawai‘i was, for them, a favorite destination for obvious geographic reasons … and Pearl Harbor, being of significant historical and touristic interest, was a frequent stopping place. They were, by and large, young people, people for whom the events of December 7, 1941, were the dry stuff of history books.
I could not truly begrudge their presence there, if for no other reason that the events of that day created the world we live in now, a world that includes a newly-rebuilt Japan arisen from the destruction of war, a Japan that has worked its way into the position of a first-world economic colossus. Learn about history, I thought, seeing them. Understand what happens when national interests collide. Understand that when you fuck with the bull, you get the horn.
Fast-forward sixteen years.
When Elder Daughter invited me to build the itinerary for a father-daughter trip to Japan, I knew it would have to include a stop in Hiroshima. It wasn’t only that I had known the story of that ill-fated city — the first city ever to suffer a nuclear attack — since I was a young Snot-Nose. It was because I wanted the other Bookend.
Bookends. Pearl Harbor at one end, Hiroshima at the other, enclosing a four-year shelf containing tomes filled with misery, death, and devastation. It was important that I see both ends of that terrible War-Shelf.
Five years ago this April just past, we were there … in that very place that, on this day in 1945, was kissed by a man-made sun and turned into a charnel house.
Hiroshima is a City with a Mission these days. Its chief industry appears to be the promotion of world peace and disarmament, a sermon this city’s history uniquely qualifies it to preach.
The Peace Museum does not soft-soap Japan’s militarism or the events that led to the United States involvement in World War II. It appears to adopt a cool, analytical stance with respect to its portrayal of the events that culminated in Hiroshima’s selection as the first sacrifice to the Nuclear Gods. Factors such as good weather and having suffered no prior bombing damage were critical. Low clouds saved Kokura from being Target #2; Nagasaki got that bomb instead.
There are plenty of Western visitors to Hiroshima, and among them many Americans. Americans are not resented here, so many years after the Bomb — as is the case elsewhere in Japan, we are astonishingly well-liked. Maybe not a mirror image of things in Hawai‘i, but close enough.
The Genbaku Domu — the Atomic Bomb Dome, the former Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall that was one of the few structures standing after the Bomb dropped — stands as a mute witness to terrible events, surrounded by the new city grown Phoenix-like around it. The vast number of people who died that day were victims of a chain of events that had been set in motion well before the attack at Pearl Harbor.
I will not second-guess the people whose decision it was to drop that Bomb. The alternative, best as they could envision it, was a bloody, drawn-out invasion of the Home Islands, an invasion that would have killed far more Japanese than did the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Japanese lives were not the main consideration at that point. Victory — and American lives — were.
We looked past the thousands upon thousands of paper cranes, the uncountable memorials, the silent specter of the Genbaku Domu, to a vibrant city where the Hiroshima Carp were beginning a new baseball season and where we were greeted with smiles. We sat down and enjoyed a hole-in-the-wall lunch of okonomiyaki (a thin pancake covered with soba noodles, Hiroshima’s famous local oysters, bean sprouts, sweet soy sauce, and a thin omelette) and jizake (the local brew), and thought … of bookends.
- All photos belong to the author.