Caitlin Stronnel

 

Caitlin has lived in Japan since 1990. In 2008 she began studying political science at JNU in Delhi and is now pursuing her Ph.D. on nuclear power and people’s movements in India

The first time I went to Hiroshima was in 1984. The cold war was raging and the danger of nuclear war was very real. I was a high school student in Japan, on my school trip. Back in 1984, there were not as many ‘gaijin (foreigners)’ in Japan and ones like me, white, English-speaking, were all assumed to be American. So even though I was wearing the same Japanese school uniform as my classmates and spoke Japanese by then, I was assuming that everyone in Hiroshima, as with everyone else in Japan, would take me as an American. I was also assuming, considering the unimaginable horror that had been inflicted on their city, that anyone who had been through this would understandably feel intense anger and hatred towards the people who did it to them. I went to Hiroshima quite prepared for the people to spit at me in the streets. Nothing could have been further from what actually happened.

The moment I stepped into the Peace Museum with my Japanese classmates, tentatively, trying to hide behind my school uniform, an elderly volunteer guide came straight up to me and said, in English: “Good morning!” The first thing that came out from my mouth was “sumimasen” which has multiple meanings, such as ‘I’m sorry.’ I looked out from behind my long fringe and realized he was smiling at me. Smiling! He was old enough to have been there when the bomb was dropped. I noticed the scars on his arms and hands that poked out from under his shirt. “Welcome to the Hiroshima Peace Museum,” he continued, still with the same smile. “Many of the exhibits don’t have English explanations, so I will explain if you have any questions.” I felt rooted to the spot, unable to move or respond, but he gently led me into the first exhibition hall.

There were life sized mannequins with their clothes and skin hanging off, their hair frizzled, there was a wall of a building with a dark shadow imprinted on it—the man who had been standing there was vaporized and this was all that was left of him. There were many photographs of people with terrible burns, people lying in agony, dying of radiation sickness. There were scale models of Hiroshima before 8.15 am on August 6 1945 and immediately after. There were life-sized models of the ‘Little Boy’—it really did seem too little to inflict such terrible devastation. There was too much horror to really take in and as my heart moved into a darker and darker place, the gentle voice of my guide as he explained the events of that day, which he had lived through, became a focus for me, the comfort of which I remember to this day.

There was a small, seemingly insignificant display case with something inside which I could not identify. It was a square metal box, smooth but battered with what looked like tiny black pebbles that had melded together inside the box. I somehow found my voice and asked my guide what this object was. He explained that this was the lunch box of Shigeru Orimen who was a junior high school student. On August 6 he was at his work site (because, the guide explained, children didn’t go to school at this time, everyone had to work for the war effort). After the bomb dropped his mother searched frantically for him, and several days later she found and recognized this lunch box. It was being clutched to the stomach of a body, which was not recognizable. Shigeru’s mother had prepared the lunch for her son that morning using the rice from the first harvest of the fields that he had worked so hard to tend in the absence of his father and brother… Now it was the only remaining recognizable part of her son.
It was at this point that I suddenly felt an overwhelming wave of anger. I imagined, in my simplistic high school student mentality, how it would feel if one morning I sent my son off to work with his lunch, my son, who had done nothing wrong, indeed had been a hard worker in totally deprived circumstances due to the war, and he was killed so brutally, how I would feel toward the people who had murdered him. I actually felt the anger and…yes, hatred…that I imagined for Shigeru’s mother.

Then I looked at my guide, standing there calmly contemplating the tears now running down my cheeks—he too had probably been through similar experiences of excruciating pain and suffering and loss—and I asked him “how can you be so nice to me? How can you forgive what was done to you?” And he looked at me, looked into my wet eyes, looked right into my heart and said “Because we don’t want it to happen again.”

I have never been filled with so much hope for the human condition as I was by that guide. When human beings can come through an experience of extreme suffering, can be tortured at the hands of others, and not succumb to bitterness and hatred, but instead rise above their tormentors and, with their humanity still intact, commit themselves to doing whatever it takes to prevent others from having to go through the same experience, there is reason for me to struggle too. Struggle against the violence that is all around me as well as struggle against my own worst instincts within. In that moment I was shown that it was possible for human beings to be capable of the most utterly destructive, unimaginably cruel acts, but also that we are capable of the most sincere and beautiful acts of love.

I feel this in the aftermath of Fukushima. The atmosphere of the massive struggles that are now taking place on the streets of Japan in an effort to close down all nuclear power plants so that Fukushima doesn’t happen again, while there is certainly anger at the authorities and the situation that people are still in regarding Fukushima, the overwhelming feeling at these demonstrations is one of caring—for future generations, for the planet, for fellow human beings. People from Fukushima, in their appeals to the Japanese government and indeed to government’s around the world, take the position of people who have been through the worst, for whom nuclear disaster is not just a mathematical calculation on some scientist’s computer, but a disaster in the most real sense, that has devastated their families, their homes, their lives. And they appeal for an end to nuclear power, not just because of some technical analysis or scientific evidence, but because they don’t want any other human being to have to go through what they are going through and the only way to absolutely prevent that is to shut down nuclear power plants. Of course scientific debates must also be engaged in, but they are notoriously inconclusive, a bit like religion—you can choose which one to believe in. The reason why the message from Fukushima and Hiroshima is so powerful is because it comes from the hearts of the people who have lived through it. It cuts through the rhetoric and the petty differences between people and nations and is as pure and simple as the earnest wish that their suffering not be inflicted on any other human being ever again. They are speaking to each one of us and it is up to each one of us to acknowledge their concern, listen to their message and take action to support them and our own lives.