Its past considered, things get weird when you have to take refuge from radiation in Hiroshima. It is a beautiful, lively city, with wide roads and the centre for Mazda production, but – as the Lonely Planet Guide does not fail to point out – it will always be known mainly ‘for that terrible instant on 6 August 1945 when it became the world’s first atomic bomb target’.
It was not so lively when I visited it, though. Hiroshima or not, Japan became a grieving country, still counting its dead. And amidst nuclear fears, this was the very place which could understand its consequences.
After spending a week in front of the television watching the smoke coming up from the Fukushima Daiichi plant reactors, I was not so eager to undertake any trip at all. My day plan was, like, to stay in a hotel room in Yamaguchi, with my head under the duvet. But Masahito, our friend (and an absolutely lovely guy), offered to drive us, so I remembered that I always wanted to go there and should grab the opportunity when it presented itself.
Being physically in the same room does not mean we actually are in the same place. Usually, we are in our different worlds, belonging to different networks. But there are times when you look at the people on the street and you know exactly what they are thinking about. It is like you are suddenly all in the same mental space. I have observed it after 9/11, and last April in Poland after the presidential plane crash. Here, I could almost see the melting reactors in people’s gaze. There is something very positively collectivistic in this kind of togetherness, even if the situations that throw us into it are usually rather grave. But the atmosphere could not be a happy one, even when we take into account that the usual atmosphere in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is not cheerful at the best of times.
People were crying. The exhibition was horrible and sad: children’s charred little school uniforms, fingernails, pieces of flaying skin, broken sandals, bicycle and a helmet – all that was left of three year old Shinichi Tetsutani. Ironically, the codename for the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima was ‘Little Boy’ – it was just three meters long and less than a meter in diameter (in contrast to the ‘Fat Man’ that landed three days later on Nagasaki). We were staring at the replica as you would on Ebola: how can something so small be so deadly?
Also, there were life-sized wax figures of people escaping from the ruins, their hands stretched, their skin flapping like a torn shirt. Because of the lack of medicines, cooking oil was put onto the wounds. On the survivors’ drawings you could see what kind of hell Hiroshima became that morning, with the ‘procession of ghosts’ wandering in shock under the black rain. Now, we all know what has happened. But to see these artifacts with your own eyes, in the very place of the disaster, is a totally different experience. Naked facts you have always carried in your brain suddenly acquire flesh. Even, if all we see is a shadow – like the one left on the exhibited stone steps. The person evaporated, the shadow remained. I imagined myself sitting there, waiting for Sumitomo bank to open, not even dreaming that in a minute or two everything will end for me, and the rock steps I am sitting on will be put in a museum.
Or a wrist watch, which stopped at 8.15. It makes you think – only five millimeters up, and things would be fine again. Why did the hand have to go down?
There is a place in the Museum, where you are allowed to touch melted roof tiles, deformed by the explosion. Why is it so fascinating? It was a bit strange to see people in their face masks, taking into their hands things that were probably still more radioactive that anything coming out of Fukushima. Alice Sebold, in a book ‘Lucky’ (1999) describing her rape, noticed that being a victim is like being a celebrity: people want to be associated with you, and they suddenly remember that a brother of their friend’s cousin was in the same group in school. I was horrified and very upset. I felt compassion. But at the same time, I could not help thinking that I came so far, to such an important and famous place. And to think I have almost missed this trip!
For the whole time in the Museum my husband, Masahito and I had not spoken. The exhibition about radiation sickness was the most difficult to watch. People were anxiously peering at the chart with the radiation levels explained, calculating – as I imagined – micro and milisieverts in their heads. The same chart had appeared on the BBC site three weeks after we visited Hiroshima, after Fukushima’s status has been upgraded from 5 to 7. But the living hibakusha (被爆者, ‘explosion affected people’) are still dealing with the consequences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How must it be for them?
Three types of people can claim hibakusha status (Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law, 117, 1994): those who were in the two kilometer radius from the epicenters up to a week afterwards; helpers, volunteers and medics; and unborn children, carried by the above. This status entitles some survivors to a monthly allowance and – in special cases – free medical treatment, but it also became a stigma, followed by discrimination and rejection. They – and sometimes their children – were not hired and could not easily marry, as their irradiation was thought to be contagious and hereditary. They were socially excluded – and we are not talking only about the times straight after the war, where the knowledge about radiation was scarce. For those around Fukushima it hopefully should be different. Or so I thought, until I read in ‘The Dominion Post’ (14/04) about Fukushima escapees being turned away from the evacuation centres, and children refused treatment until their parents provide radiation screening certificates.
Radiation is psychologically difficult to deal with. We cannot see it, its long-term effects are scary, and there is no cure. I remember being given iodine after Chernobyl – but were we even in danger? And if so, did the iodine help? When confronted with an invisible threat, people start to panic. Kenji Sasahara, quoted in ‘The Dominion Post’ as head of the Minamisoma screening centre, noticed that ‘of more than 17.000 people who were screened there, no-one was at risk, except for three plant workers’. But the knowledge from the intellectual level does not always translate to our emotions, and an atavistic fear of the unknown takes over. Still, is there any justification for those who were queuing to buy iodine in Słupsk (Gazeta Wyborcza)? I am aware that the trust levels of Eastern Europeans are known to be low (at least according to the World Value Survey), especially after 1986. But, for God’s sake, people, you are almost ten thousands kilometers from Fukushima! What are those living in the safety zone to say?
Confronted with something we have no impact on, we often start to create an illusion of control and engage in magical thinking. It is a well known coping strategy, and one easy to understand. Everything is better than being powerless, and even if we know that our actions are futile, they somehow keep us sane. Sadako Sasaki, a girl suffering from heat radiation, held to the legend about the crane, which promised to grant one wish to all those who fold one thousand origami cranes. She started to fold them, using paper and medicine wrappings, until she died aged 12. You can see her statue in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. It is a sad view – still, she never gave up, even if her fight was lost before she began.
‘Origami for Japan’ is something I have seen in Wellington as well. Outside the ‘Japan City’ shop, or in the local supermarket, I came across young Japanese collecting money for the earthquake and tsunami victims, selling small paper cranes. Again, Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes to mind.
Shigeko Sasamori, interviewed by CNN (18/03), says she watches the news with the heavy heart. For her, and other hibakusha, it is like a nightmarish déjà vu, which awakens all the old fears. What for me is ancient history, confined to the museum’s walls, is everyday reality for them – after all, you cannot escape your own damaged DNA.
Before and after
So, we saw the museum. Then we walked in the Peace Memorial Park: a beautiful and calm place, with the Japanese flag on a mast, and a fire constantly burning since the 1964 – it is supposed to be there until there is no nuclear threat on Earth. Then there is a Cenotaph, with the names of all the victims listed, protected by an arch. The park itself has been built in the place where, before the bomb, the busy city district used to be. I am always curious how it must be for the young people to live in a place like this. Do you go roller-skating near the Peace Bells? Do you hang around with your date near the A-Bomb Dome skeleton? How to keep the memories of the past alive, and not being overcome by their shadows?
The Dome itself is an iconic building, and I recognized it from afar. I went all the way around it, my imagination going wild. When the evening came, it looked beautiful and ominous in the setting sun. That was the very epicenter, yet the building withstood, and is now protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Still, for all the sins of war, what shocks me most is the bigotry (interesting fact: Henry L. Stimson, a man supervising the Manhattan Project, and responsible for the choice of target cities, was a strict conservative, especially priding himself on never touching alcohol and not allowing divorced people into his house).
When evening came, we headed back to Yamaguchi. A few days later, we decided to wait for the situation to improve while travelling a bit more. We wanted to make some trips anyway, and it seemed that this was the right time. Of course, we were convinced that we would be going back to Tokyo. On the 21st of March we passed the radiation control checkpoint on the Korean border, and were let into Busan.