My own rhapsody in August
The clouds were few and the view of the city from above was clear. It was the right kind of weather. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 in the morning, the bomb was dropped and hiroshima, the target, became the first A-bombed city in the world. After three days, the next atomic bomb was detonated above Nagasaki.
Of the two cities, I would get to know more Hiroshima.
It was in February, when I arrived in Hiroshima in the late ’70s. All of nineteen years of age, I was an avid student of war doing my student exchange program in Tokyo when I saw a letter from Dr. Tomin Harada. It was in August and the good doctor was again writing his letter to remind everyone in Japan the events that took place in 1945.
Dr. Harada was a Japanese surgeon who was one of the pioneers in the treatment of diseases and other afflictions caused by radioactive exposure. In the ’50s, he had this project of bringing the plight of the hibakusha (lit. a person affected by the heat of the radiation) into popular consciousness. At one time, he took with him the so-called “Hiroshima Maidens,” victims of radiation, for treatment to the United States.
It was my simple letter to Dr. Harada whose address appeared on the Japan Times and his quick response that brought me to Hiroshima in the depth of winter. For several months, I worked as volunteer at the World Friendship Center, which was in an old Japanese home. For my board and lodging, I had to clean the Japanese garden regularly. I got more in return: free entrance to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and entry to the Atomic Bomb Survivors Hospital where the victims of residual radiation continued to suffer and, who would eventually die.
In that hospital, I first saw the huge glass jar filled with paper cranes. The senbazuru or thousand origami cranes, while part of the Japanese folk belief, became part of the story of Sadako Sasaki. She was a young girl who developed leukemia, part of the succeeding generations of nuclear bomb victims. Believing in the legend of the thousand cranes, she began making paper cranes with the hope that when she completed them, she would be healed.
Sadako died in 1955. From her death sprung other legends. One was about her inability to complete the making of a thousand cranes because she had become weak to even fold a paper. This prompted her friends and classmates to make more paper cranes. The other story was that she completed the one thousand origami forms of the crane but realizing how she remained sick, she went on to create more.
It was a sad winter; my youth, perhaps, allowed me to survive the chill of that season and the stories told around diseases and dying.
Nagasaki would be in my consciousness much later.
In November 24, 2008, I travelled to Nagasaki from Tokyo, courtesy of my Japanese brother-in-law who converted to Christianity and became a passionate student of Christian history in Japan. We were to attend the beatification of 188 martyrs. They came from different parts of Japan.
While I was excited to be part of this singular event, I was also a bit apprehensive knowing that, for the first time, I would demonstrate my faith in a culture that generally was secular. Arriving in Nagasaki, it was heartwarming to see streamers and signs welcoming “Christians” to the city. With an ID provided by the Tokyo office for us, things became even more moving: the notices in bus and trains announced free transportation for all Christians there in the city to attend the beatification.
For the students of history, recall the story of Kakure Kirishitan, or the “hidden Christians,” who kept to themselves and said their Masses in silence for hundreds of years till the ban on Christianity was lifted in Meiji period, in 1873. Most of them came from the areas around Nagasaki.
Unforgettable at the end of the beatification ceremonies were the unfolding of a painting showing all the 188 martyrs, the release of the doves and the pealing of the famous “Bells of Nagasaki.”
The bells came from the Urakami Cathedral, which was destroyed when the second bomb exploded a thousand feet above it. Built by the “hidden Christians,” the church became a symbol of the unwavering faith of believers in Japan.
Takashi Nagai, a Japanese physician and diarist would write in 1949 a book called, The Bells of Nagasaki. When the book came out during the American occupation, there was a move to ban it. A solution was to have an Appendix containing information on the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Philippines.
It was on our last day in Nagasaki, when the rains gave way to a crisp autumn air, that we visited the Atomic Bomb Museum and the Peace Park in the city.
We were at the so-called ground zero. Around us were various monuments coming from different countries. The most monumental of these statues is the ten-meter tall homage to Peace, depicted by a man his right hand pointed to the sky to remind us of the horror of nuclear arms and the left spread horizontally, calling everyone to be calm. There were the smaller statues. One was that of a little boy holding a dove above his head. It bore the title, “That Summer.” Then there was this figure of a woman, her face quiet yet strong in the ending of that day. She carried a child whose left hand dangled lifelessly, while below trailed her gown, its creases were silent streams bearing flowers of perfection in a seemingly endless procession to eternity.