YOKOTA AIR BASE – The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Atom-Bomb Dome are places I’ve always wanted to visit, both to see, and in some way, understand what happened there. Yet, when I consider there are Japanese living today who experienced World War II, it puts a different light on the fact that I can even travel the country freely.
Recently, I made the trip with my good friend and his mother. When we arrived at Hiroshima Station after six hours on the Shinkansen, or the bullet train, the people there seemed very similar to those in Tokyo. Everyone had the quiet and polite public behavior I had become accustomed to.
The first place we visited was Genbaku Domu, or the A-Bomb Dome: the remnants of a building that managed to withstand the atomic bomb which the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima City at the end of WWII. The dome spoke for itself: a simple, crumbled reminder of what happened. It is part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial grounds, which also includes a forested park, an arched monument and a museum. Mosaics composed of thousands of paper cranes are on display, forming images and words that call for peace. Inside the museum there are many graphic images and stories that are not easy to look at. The stories are vividly recorded, not only in words, but in school uniforms shredded from exposure to the bomb, in photos of burn victims and in beams of blasted, melted steel taken from destroyed buildings.
As a traveler from the U.S., I don’t think it’s possible to explore the memorial and museum without asking “How do I feel about this?” The other question that seems to linger in mind is “How do they feel about us?”
As I was leaving the A-bomb Dome, I saw an elderly man walking down the path, followed by three cats. As a photographer, to me, the cat-man looked like a great opportunity. When he sat on a stoop and began pouring milk for the cats I bowed slightly and said “Excuse me,” in Japanese. I asked if I could take a picture, but he didn’t respond. After trying to get his attention a few more times it became clear that the language barrier was not the problem. Who knows what exactly the man was thinking but his reaction didn’t seem at all surprising. I left him with his cats and kept exploring.
Later, at the train station, my friend and I met three American exchange students who told us their experience at the museum. A European woman leaving the museum had yelled at the students and asked how the displays made them feel.
The students responded with the same sentiment that I had already heard from others that day: we had not even been born during the war and had no power to effect it.
Everyone I talk to, Japanese friends and Americans alike, seem to feel that today no one can change the pain that happened on either side of the war. All we can do is consider what happened and try to stop it from happening again.
The Japanese school children seemed to have a different attitude than the cat man or angry woman. Some shouted “Hello!” as we passed going to in from the memorial. They were excited when we answered with “Konichiwa (hello)!” We also talked to several other Japanese people in passing, including a parking-lot operator who invited us to inspect the high-tech mechanisms of one of Japan’s unique car-storage systems. Most of them enthusiastically mentioned President Obama’s recent trip to the Peace Memorial.
My buddy, Joeseph Galloway, 730th Air Mobility Squadron jet propulsion technician, didn’t hesitate to make friends with anyone he found something in common with. Just like he does everywhere else he goes, he found cool cars and started talking to the owners. Fumiyo, an older gentleman, seemed excited to open the hood of his Nissan 180sx, talk, and invite Joe into the driver’s seat. The next day was a similar experience with the owner of what seemed to be a 1945 Nissan Skyline.
The Japanese say that they have three faces: one to show the world, one to show friends and one to never show anyone. Who can say if any of the friendly faces we talked to were hiding other faces? Maybe; maybe not. In my experience, showing friendship and taking an interest in people is the only way to break down barriers. Two people from worlds apart with very little shared language can still talk about something that they both love. We may not be able to remove pain from the past but we can move forward by building friendships and taking responsibility for the future.