For a year and a half when I was a kid, my family lived in Iwakuni, a city not far from Hiroshima. My father worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the huge Marine Corps Air Station there. We lived offbase in a cluster of Western-style homes that were clustered on a gravelly hillside.
By the time we moved to Iwakuni in 1965, Hiroshima had been rebuilt as a thoroughly modern, thriving city. Like all of Japan, the area seemed to be basking in the anticipatory glory of the global coming-out-party that would be the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The country was buzzing with excitement in its cities, and with serene contentment in the countryside. At least, that’s how it felt to a six-year-old boy.
I recall I had American friends who, like me, were children of GIs, as well as Japanese friends. I remember riding my bike around the neighborhoods, stopping at a local family-owned shop for candy or frozen pineapple treats, and playing marbles with a bag of my glass balls that I carried with me, shooting them into a circle scratched into the gravel.
I have lots of memories of visiting family friends in Hiroshima, of crabbing in Hiroshima Bay, of visiting the famous Kintai Bridge (built with no metal nails for most of its existence). And, I have vivid memories of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
Today, the Peace Park includes a lot of memorials – some are recent additions. When I was there as a boy, the things that made lasting impressions included the statue of Sadako, the young girl who died of Leukemia caused by radiation years after the end of World War II, who was trying to make a thousand origami cranes so she could might live. A folk tradition told that a wish would be granted to a person who made 10,000 cranes. The statue was unveiled in Children’s Day, May 5, 1958, three years after she died.
Another vivid memory was the arched cenotaph built in 1952 which contains the names of every person killed by the atomic bomb, and the Peace Flame that was lit in 1964, which seen through the arch, lined up exactly to show the skeletal A-Bomb Dome of the building that was at ground zero, 160 meters from the explosion at 8:15 am August 6, 1945. That bomb killed 70,000 people instantly and up to another 70,000 subsequently died of radiation sickness and related causes, like Sadako.
The point of the Peace Park is clear in the message on the cenotaph, which translates to, “Please rest in peace, because the mistake will not be repeated.”
The inscription purposely avoided saying “we shall not” or “they shall not” repeat the mistake. This caused a controversy when the cenotaph was completed – Japan’s right wing read the text as an admission and apology for the country’s wartime aggression. Decades later in 1983, a plaque was added to clarify the intent of the original message:
“The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima — enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.”
President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima also won’t include an “apology” for the bombing of Hiroshima, and a few days later, Nagaski. He’ll be there not to dwell on the past, but to condemn the future use of atomic weapons, a timely message for all of the world at a time when several rogue nations including North Korea are threatening to use one, and when a resurgently militaristic Russia talks of a new “cold war.” I grew up with the chill of the Cold War dividing the world, and President Obama is doing the right thing by speaking out against atomic warfare in the place that suffered its horror.
Americans should applaud the symbolism of friendship that the President’s historic appearance in Hiroshima affords to the Japanese. He’s acknowledging the past but looking to the future.
The stories of the past are preserved in Peace Memorial Park, and anyone who visits will not forget the terrible destruction that nuclear weapons can cause. Let’s hope the President’s visit will inspire the lasting peace proposed in the cenotaph’s inscription.