In April, I went to Japan for three weeks for vacation. I chose a handful of cities to visit and spent few days in each. One of these was Hiroshima, where I visited the Peace Memorial dedicated to the people who were killed in the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945.
Before I went to the memorial, I don’t think that I understood the devastation of nuclear weapons. I knew that the bombs released enormous amounts of heat and radiation, and that the aftereffects of radiation exposure such as cancer were horrible. Knowing wasn’t the same as seeing photographs of the sick and dying, or the ragged, blood-stained uniforms the schoolchildren had worn, or hearing the stories narrated by survivors, most of whom had been children and are now old men and women.
The exhibit is constantly changing, especially as society changes and living memory fades. At the time, the main museum was undergoing renovation, but there were others nearby, including a special exhibit titled “The Twinkling Stars Know Everything,” after a collection of stories by the mothers and fathers of first-year students of Hiroshima Itchu Junior High School. The school was located only a kilometer away from the hypocenter of the bomb, and nearly the entire class died. They were only thirteen years old.
I learned about another collection of stories at the memorial and decided to read it: Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Originally published in The New Yorker, this book follows the lives of six people who were present in the bombing.
Of the six, the individual who most caught my interest was Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a 25-year-old surgeon who had just completed his training at the Eastern Medical University in China. I felt great empathy with this young physician, as I am similar in age and stage of training. Dr. Sasaki was working in the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima. When the bomb fell, he found himself to be one of the few uninjured physicians on staff, and soon he and the other physicians were overwhelmed by the thousands of injured who came to the hospital for help.
Quote from the book:
“By three o’clock the next morning, after nineteen straight hours of his gruesome work, Dr. Sasaki was incapable of dressing another wound. He and some other survivors of the hospital staff got straw mats and went outdoors — thousands of patients and hundreds of dead were in the yard and on the driveway — and hurried around behind the hospital and lay down in hiding to snatch some sleep. But within an hour wounded people had found them; a complaining circle formed around them: “Doctors! Help us! How can you sleep?” Dr. Sasaki got up again and went back to work. Early in the day, he thought for the first time of his mother, at their country home in Mukaihara, thirty miles from town. He usually went home every night. He was afraid she would think he was dead.” – Hersey, J. Page 25
I can hardly imagine how exhausted and terrified he must have been.
Hiroshima is one of the most striking and terrifying proofs of the horrors of war. But my visit there also showed me the greatness of the human spirit and the possibility of forgiveness and healing. At the memorial, I stopped to listen to a student choir – one of many which take place throughout the year, dedicated to the children killed in the bombing – when a Japanese man turned to me and attempted to give me a pamphlet. When I indicated that I could not read Japanese, he used broken English to tell me about why the students were singing. Then he asked where I came from. When I said that I came from America, he smiled broadly and said that he loved Americans, and that he hoped to travel across the world to visit our country one day, too.
Hersey, J. Hiroshima. Vintage Books, NY. Reprint edition, 1989.
Ikegami, N. The Twinkling Stars Know Everything. First English Edition edition, 1984.