We live in tumultuous — and, possibly, perilous — times. Our government and society at large is more divided than I can remember, even during my childhood in the 1960s. Race and gender issues fill the headlines every day, and that’s just looking at domestic headlines. It’s not “fake news” to say that our country is struggling today, on a variety of levels on a variety of topics.
The United States’ international standing is diminished, too, because our government has made some moves that have been very unpopular worldwide, such as officially naming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and planning to move our embassy there, and blocking travel (and immigration) from a handful of Muslim-majority countries.
The U.S. has also turned its back on a handful of treaties and positions we’ve led for decades, including pulling out of the Climate Accords, renegotiating NAFTA, the Iranian nuclear agreement and dropping out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have made us a part of a multicountry Asian trade pact. Now, those Asian countries are creating their own open trading deals, and China has established itself as the most powerful force in the region.
Most alarmingly, there’s a new nuclear threat in the world: North Korea.
North Korea’s unpredictable, immature ruler, Kim Jong-un, claims to have the ability to fire nuclear armed missiles that can strike the U.S. — not just U.S. territories like Guam, but the mainland states. We’ll see if his claims are true, but the fact is that Americans are living under the threat of mushroom-cloud destruction for the first time in a generation, since the Cold War ended in the 1980s.
President Donald Trump has used inflammatory language that pushed Kim into conducting a series of missile tests and underground nuclear tests. Some of the test missiles fell into the sea between Korea and Japan, and a couple of ballistic missiles flew over Japan into the Pacific. One flew over southern Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, and I thought about my mom’s hometown, Nemuro, which is located at the southeastern-most tip of Hokkaido.
Even if a nuclear war doesn’t break out with North Korea, a conventional war of ground troops and short-range missiles would be devastating to the entire region. Japan is within easy reach, and Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is a mere 35 miles from the border with the North, and only 120 miles from Pyongyang, the North’s capital. Many thousands of Americans — both military and their families, as well as civilians — live and work in Seoul and throughout South Korea. Ditto the presence of many Americans, from military and businesspeople to students and tourists, in Japan.
Japan is now buying missiles that can strike North Korea if it’s attacked. The U.S. and its allies have stepped up military drills in the region.
With our president and North Korea’s “Dear Leader” waging a war of words, tensions are high that fighting could become a reality. A United Nations envoy who visited North Korea said that “time is of the essence” to calm down the rhetoric and potential for war. Even China, Kim’s staunchest ally and economic lifeline, is now preparing refugee camps within its border for North Koreans who may be fleeing the possible coming conflagration.
The possibility of nuclear war is a clear and present danger in the world, in a way that is much more vivid than in decades. Like Americans were taught to “duck and cover” and families built nuclear fallout shelters during the Cold War era, Japanese citizens today are living through drills on what to do if a nuclear attack is imminent. What? This is like a nightmare scene from a “Terminator” movie.
The Japanese are very aware — the most aware of anyone in the world — of the horrors of nuclear war. It remains the only country ever to suffer the effects of nuclear bombs. The Atomic Bomb helped end World War II, but it came at a terrible cost, vaporizing much of two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945.
And though the Japanese may be living in fear now, I’m hopeful that the worst will not happen.
There are reports that North Korea may be negotiating via Russian back channels to avoid this disaster, which certainly gives me hope.
I visited Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park as a child, when my family lived in Japan. As an adult, I’ve visited the park and its powerful museum with my mom and my wife and in-laws.
It’s a solemn, yet hopeful place. The arch of the cenotaph monument that covers the name of every victim of the bomb that exploded over Hiroshima is set so that when a visitor pays respect to the dead, the view through the arch centers on the dramatic skeletal dome of the one building that remains from that day, which was left as a memorial at ground zero.
The museum shows in stark displays various photos, artifacts and re-creations of the fiery destruction that Japan’s civilian citizens (and many Americans, including POWs, by the way) suffered. Odd pieces of humanity survived — a bento box, a tricycle, scraps of clothing with the bodies they covered long gone.
There’s also a statue of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who lived a little over a mile from ground zero when the A-bomb exploded; at the time, she was 2 years old. Even though she survived the bombing, Sadako died when she was 12, due to radiation-linked Leukemia. As she fell ill, she made origami cranes, trying to fold 1,000 of the birds, which in Japanese folklore means “long life.” Her story was memorialized in the book “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” Children throughout the world now make strings of 1,000 cranes and send them to the Peace Park, where they’re stored in display cases surrounding a bell and statue of Sadako.
Sadako’s spirit of hope helps me be hopeful for the future today.
This year, Denver’s new Consul General of Japan, Hiroto Hirakoba, attended a ceremony at the former Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, once home to the Enola Gay bomber that dropped the A-bomb over Hiroshima. There he gave a crane that was folded by Sadako, and donated by her nephew, to be displayed in the Wendover museum. The Consulate also planned to donate a crane to the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where the A-bomb was developed.
I also have hope because of a touching documentary film I saw last year, “Paper Lanterns,” which is still making the rounds at festivals and private screenings. The movie’s director, Barry Frechette, films a Japanese man, Shigeaki Mori, who was a kid when Hiroshima was bombed, on his journey to find the fate of a group of American POWs who were killed in Hiroshima that day. When President Barack Obama made his landmark visit to Hiroshima in 2016, he hugged Mori during the ceremony, a powerful scene that brings closure to the film and its subjects.
And finally, I’m hopeful because most of the world is united against the use of nuclear weapons. The Nobel Peace Prize this year was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an organization working to get the international community to ban nuclear weapons entirely.
The Nobel Peace Prize announced its award to ICAN was “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
I hope people are listening, both in Washington, D.C., and Pyongyang.
So, in spite of the worrisome news, I’m hopeful that our country — and the world — will survive and be safer than in the past.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
Gil Asakawa is chair of the Editorial Board of the Pacific Citizen and author of “Being Japanese American” (second edition Stone Bridge Press, 2015). He blogs at www.nikkeiview.com.