Looking at Hiroshima: tough, touching

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Junko Kayashige is a friendly former teacher who wears sensible clothes and has a ready smile. We were standing last month by a broad model of the busy industrial city where she spent her early years.

"There! That's where my uncle lived," she says. "By that river, there!"

The house was only a mile from the point where, on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, the world's first atomic bomb exploded. Mrs. Kayashige was 6. That morning, she and her sister Fumie were visiting their uncle. There was an air-raid siren, then shortly afterward the "all clear" sounded. Kayashige and a cousin climbed up to a window to watch one last American plane fly home across the clear summer sky. That was when the bomb went off.

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Hiroshima was - and has again become - a thriving, modern city. Its geography is eerily similar to that of Pearl Harbor, cupped between a towering half-ring of mountains and the sea. In Pearl Harbor, in 1941, the Japanese sparked war with the US by bombing the American fleet there. In Hiroshima, in 1945, the US forced Japan's surrender by detonating a single, dreadfully explosive atomic bomb over the city. (Another bomb was dropped over Nagasaki four days later, before the surrender was finalized.) Though the US didn't know the precise effects the two bombs would have, American leaders expected they'd be spectacularly destructive, with no way of discriminating between military and nonmilitary targets. So Hiroshima's bomb was aimed at the city center's distinctive, T- shaped Aioi Bridge.

The blast knocked Kayashige and her cousin to the ground. When she came round, she found her uncle's house still standing. But its furnishings - even floorboards - had been sucked away. Outside, she found houses in ruins, neighbors, trapped and franticly shouting for help. Soon, fire rushed in from all directions. Terrified, she ran from the flames. Finding herself alone, she clambered over collapsed roofs toward the nearby river.

Later, she was reunited with Fumie and her parents, but her sister Michiko wasn't found. Her sister Hiroko, at school that morning, died from her burns Aug. 17. In the days following the blast, 80,000 other city residents died; over the years that followed, 200,000 more succumbed to the bomb's longer-lasting effects.

I've thought about Hiroshima since - as a young adult - I read John Hersey's account of the bomb's effects. This was my first visit, and my first impression of the city was surprise. Hiroshima is bustling and full of color. I guess I'd imagined it trapped forever in the sorrowful sepia of those 1945 photos. But just yards from the trams that trundle again across Aioi Bridge, the present city's skyscrapers hum with business, commerce, and culture. Multistory shopping malls spill over each other, and every rush hour sends thousands of office workers hurrying for the baseball stadium, the concert hall, malls, restaurants, or homes in distant suburbs.

Kayashige pulled few punches in telling about her ordeal. But she isn't a sorrowful person. She showed me the scars on her arm, but went on to talk about the painting classes she has taken up since she retired from teaching. We spent a morning visiting the Peace Memorial Museum, set in the green, monument-studded Peace Park near the Aioi Bridge. In the afternoon, she took me to a gemlike Buddhist garden and a lively art museum. She talked about a project she and her husband are working on, to assemble a photo montage that shows what 200,000 contemporary living people look like.

In the Peace Park, gaggles of students visit the cenotaph and the ghostly hemisphere of the "Genbaku" dome. All wear Japan's ubiquitous, trim school uniforms, though many of the girls have added fashionable touches like scrunched-down leg warmers (in mid-July), or pretty hair barrettes.

At the soaring monument to middle-school radiation victim Sadako Sasaki, students help teachers unpack piles of folded-paper birds, strung on looping strings that they drape around the monument. (In 1954, as Sadako weakened with radiation sickness, she followed an old tradition that said if she could fold a thousand paper cranes, she'd get better. After finishing 644, she passed away. Ever since, Japanese kids have folded birds in her memory.)

In the sleek Peace Museum, exhibits express how most residents have chosen to work through multilayered pains suffered from the bombing. It's a place of distressingly explicit historical record, but one that encourages understanding and civic engagement, not revenge.

In recent years, city bodies that run the museum and the park have spent time examining their own country's responsibility for the gross rights abuses prior to 1945. One multilingual panel prominently displayed in the museum explains: "Japan, too, with colonization policies and wars of aggression inflicted incalculable and irreversible harm on the peoples of many countries." Another says: "Hiroshima was dealt a severe blow by the atomic bomb, but Japan, too, inflicted great damage."

In recent years, too, Peace Park administrators finally permitted an association of ethnic Koreans to move into the park itself a memorial to the thousands of their countrymen who - here mostly as migrant or enslaved factory workers - died in the bomb blast. Previously, administrators had kept that memorial, with its disturbing reminder of how war-time Japan treated the Koreans, well outside the main park perimeter.

By increasing public acknowledgement of the past actions of their government, and of their forebears' frequent acquiescence in those actions, Hiroshimans have actively changed from passive victims of the bomb into more morally robust survivors.

As such, the calls that their city government has continued to issue for the dismantling of all nuclear arsenals, and an end to war among nations, have grown more powerful.

In the museum, Kayashige turns from the model of the busy city where she was born to a second model showing the bomb's immediate effects - a four-square-mile expanse of flattened, burned-out ruins of the houses, shops, and factories packed into the first model.

"Just one bomb," she says softly. "And a very 'small' one by today's standards. Think about it."

*Helena Cobban, a Monitor foreign-affairs columnist and author of 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace,' (University Press of Virginia), spent much of the summer in Japan.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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