By: Dustin Nguyen, Bridging Scholar
As a student studying abroad, I spent four of the most breathtaking and profound months of my life in Japan. I left that country filled with unforgettable memories of awe-inspiring places and bonds with people that will last me a lifetime. Though I have more to talk about here than can be contained in such a short response, I do want to focus on one particularly inspiring experience: my trip to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is an awe-inspiring city with an effective blend of natural beauty and urban delights. To think that a city could be devastated by a force as powerful as an atomic bomb and rise from the ashes to become a sprawling, modern center like it is now is almost beyond comprehension. Walking through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and looking at the diagrams of pre-bombing Hiroshima really drove the point home. You could clearly see all the landmarks that we walked by during the drive over represented distinctly in the diagrams: the bridge, the river, the city center the dome. All of these were reduced to rubble after the bombing and yet here they stand: rebuilt and improved. Granted it has been almost 70 years now since the bombs were dropped, but even so. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the immense strength and unity it must have required for the Japanese nation to have taken a catastrophe of this magnitude and turn it into a monument for world peace.
I had been put into a tour group in order to see the museum as efficiently as possible, but when I got the chance, I slipped off and took a detour by myself. It wasn’t because I wanted to leave the museum or anything, quite the opposite. I really wanted a moment alone to see the peace memorial without the distraction of chatter and hubbub. From inside the museum, I could see the memorial cenotaph. At the time the area surrounding it was empty and I wanted to get down there and explore it in solidarity. Walking up to the cenotaph itself, I took careful notice of all the architecture of the monument. From marble tiles to an elegant fountain, the beautiful construction of the monument was an odd contradiction to the unsettling truth it sheltered. Here, the world buried the souls of thousands of A-bomb victims; their names, inscribed onto a couple of granite plates and then sealed in history along. As I gazed into the memorial, transfixed upon the tomb, the thought that these very souls would never live, laugh, or dream ever again evoked a heart-wrenching pity from me. So many lives just carelessly tossed away; human lives cut short through no fault of their own. The insanity of all it disturbed me, but the humanity in how the Japanese were able to build on this tragedy, erect this beacon of hope and move on, inspired me.
The saying goes that there are no lessons learned in victory, only in defeat. For the victims of the A-bomb tragedy and their families, this seems so very true. All of the features of the monument served as a reminder to never repeat this mistake again. In the waters surrounding the pond, there were plaques that had messages translated into several languages, eulogizing the victims and offering apologies for their deaths. All around the memorial there were inscriptions of the word peace written in a multitude of languages. The Peace Flame stood as a constant reminder that as long as there were nuclear weapons in the world, there could never be true world peace. As I stood there, silently observing and taking this all in, waves of conflicting emotions clashed within me. There was frustration. There was patriotism. There was guilt. There was anger. But most of all, there was a deep, profound sadness that persisted throughout my entire detour to the cenotaph.
I watched an old couple walk up to the front of the memorial. The wife of the man held
his hand as he shuffled toward the flowers placed at the base of the memorial. This man, as fragile and aging as he was, was making his daily trip to the memorial in order to pray for the spirits of his fellow man. I watched them, touched at the entire ritual. They stepped forward in unison, clasping their hands together and then bowing for a good two minutes. Afterwards, they muttered something unintelligibly and solemnly departed. As they walked away, I could feel a sense of serenity between the couple: a feeling that they had put to rest not only their own spirits, but the ones of the deceased. Looking back to the now empty memorial, I was inspired to follow their example. I would, too, pay my respects for these people.
With heavy heart and a distraught mind, I marched to the front of the memorial and slowly raised my hand to my forehead in the American salute. I must have stood there for maybe ten minutes, my body invigorated from the significance of the ritual. However, my heart and my mind received no such reprieve. Standing there with my eyes closed, I listened to the whispers of nature around me: the gentle summer breeze blowing the trees, the buzz of all the wildlife in the area, the swishing of the water from the pond beside me. They brought to mind the silence that must have enveloped Hiroshima the moment the bomb went off. They brought to mind, the silence of the survivors, unable to come up with the words to express what they’d just experienced. They brought up the silence of 50,000 souls who no longer had a voice in this world. And it was these poignant thoughts that finally pushed me to my limit. I don’t know for how long it was, or when it had started, but I was crying. Standing there with my back erect and my arm in salute, I was crying. Even though I had lost no family in this event; even though I wasn’t even from this country, the human being inside of me felt the injustice of it all and wept. When the field trip was nearing its end, I remember being in my room, staring out the window, and feeling a sense of endearment to this place. Millions of people live in Hiroshima and go about their lives just like any other citizen of this planet, but they are special in that their home is entangled with the memory of one of the worst tragedies to occur in human histories. All over the world, there are advocates for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, but they all look to Hiroshima to lead the charge. For these citizens are the ones who must live with actual memories of an atomic bombing. They are the ones who have the first-hand accounts and can truly describe what it feels like to lose a loved one to nuclear weapons. Reflecting on this notion in my room, I was truly thankful that the people of the city could share their experiences with me. Though it wasn’t always easy to swallow all the emotional turmoil that went with this visit, I left Hiroshima a better person. To this day it will remain one of the highlights of not only this trip, but of my entire life. To Hiroshima, I left a prayer, but to me, it left something even more profound. To me, it left the strength and resolve necessary to pursue a peace: a peace it was robbed of: a peace that needs pursuit: a peace that is the right of every man, woman, and child in existence today.
I left Japan a changed person. It is one thing to read about a tragedy in your books, but it’s another to see the names of the dead etched onto a stone tablet; to reach down and sift through the gravel that marks their graves. Moments like these are the ones that breathe new life into your being and remind you just what it means to be human. To all my benefactors and supporters, I’m eternally grateful that I was able to come to Japan and have this experience. My only wish now is that others too can come to this beautiful country and have the same happen to them.