Over four decades before a President of the United States made a visit to Hiroshima I made my first visit to see the Peace Memorial Park at Hiroshima while spending a year in Japan as a student at Waseda University in Tokyo. As I began Memorial Day weekend 2016 in Portland, Oregon I followed the news of President Obama’s speech at Hiroshima and I remembered my speechless visit to the Atomic Cenotaph, Peace Museum, and walk through the park to the Children’s Peace Monument known as the Sadako Statue. I don’t think I said one word to my college companion for most of the time I was there as there were no words to exchange for the impressions we took in at Hiroshima.
For over 70 years the dates of August 6 and August 9 have been a time for remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the victims of the world’s first atomic bombings. The bombings have a profound connection not just to the end of a long terrible war Americans call World War II but to the post-war world in which I grew up. As a post-war baby boomer who grew up in Portland, Oregon I lived a couple of houses away from a man who witnessed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki from a distance of about 100 miles away. This American B-25 pilot flying over southern Kyushu his orders on that day were to avoid northern Kyushu and just after 11 am on August 9 he understood why he been ordered to fly far to the south over Kagoshima. Even though Japan was his enemy he wrote in his journal that he felt sorry for the Japanese people who had suffered greatly from the war that their leaders had initiated in China during the 1930s and finally against the United States on December 7, 1941. “Remember Pearl Harbor” and “Remember Hiroshima” were familiar phrases I heard growing up but the remembering of the atomic bombings was not something I thought about much for the first twenty years of my life until I made a visit to Hiroshima as a college student in the 1970s.
I attended Waseda University in Tokyo as a year-long exchange student and during spring break in 1975 I visited Hiroshima with another student to whom I had no words to exchange during our entire visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (広島平和記念公園 Hiroshima heiwa kinen kōen). We could not say words as we could not fathom the destruction recounted in the exhibits in the museum or symbolized by the Atomic Cenotaph or The Children’s Peace Monument also known as the Sadako Statue. It was a deeply saddening and disturbing experience not because we came from the country that had dropped the bombs but because we are part of a world where such unimaginable tragedy took place. It was the first of many such visits I would make to tragic places in this world that number too many and my visits include Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan, and to Nanjing, China and to Mauthausen, Austria among others.
Eight years later in 1983 I returned to Hiroshima with a US Congressional Delegation from Washington State on an official mission in which we presented a wreath of flowers at the Atomic Cenotaph and 1,000 paper cranes made by Seattle schoolchildren at the Children’s Peace Monument. The statue of a girl with outstretched arms with a folded paper crane rising above her is based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki (佐々木禎子 Sasaki Sadako), a young girl who died from radiation sickness that originated from exposure to the bomb. Sakako believed that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes she would be cured but she died before she could finish the task and her friends and other finished the 1000 paper crane garland called Senbazuru. Today the story has spread around the world and people from all countries fold paper cranes and send them to Hiroshima where they are placed near the statue. Unlike the first trip to Hiroshima that was so deeply disturbing this second trip was like a step towards hope that by remembering we can hope to change mankind for the better.