Thursday, August 6, 2009

Creating Hope From Destruction: Hiroshima's "Religion of Peace"

It is almost a question that I dread: “Where exactly have you lived in Japan?”

The eight years in Tokyo and two years in Nikko are unproblematic. “It must be so exciting to live in Tokyo!” or “Nikko—how gorgeous. Cold though!” The pleasantries are nearly automatic; the conversational flow uninterrupted.

With Hiroshima, however, it is different. As I speak its name—even before the word has left my mouth—I can already sense the eyes of whomever I am speaking with dropping downward; the voice quickly tapering off. At once both awkward and yet steeped in unspoken knowing, both of us honor the tacit understanding to take the briefest of seconds and silently acknowledge the heavy burden that this city—indeed, even the mere mention of its name—now represents.

Sometimes, the moment passes and conversation resumes. On other occasions, however, the next logical question ensues. “How was it living as an American in Hiroshima?”

Truth be told, it was an incredibly wonderful experience. The people of Hiroshima were almost uniformly warm, gracious, and openly friendly—even to strangers on the street. When I visited the city a couple of years ago after a ten-year absence, my senses—now firmly accustomed to the frostily cordial interactions that occur between most Tokyoites (if they even occur at all)—were shocked into delightful memories of my previous experience living there, when interacting with others in this way was natural and spontaneous.

At the time, as a 21 year-old delving vivaciously into Japanese language and culture, I was shielded almost entirely from the lingering horrors of history in Hiroshima. Aside from my academic coursework in peace studies and attending several lectures given by hibakusha, I can recall only brief, fleeting instances of this shield being breached on any sort of personal level during my yearlong stay. One was when a close friend of mine—a wonderful woman who hosted me in her home every Friday evening for a shamisen (traditional three-stringed instrument) lesson—once grew serious and confided in me that she herself was a hibakusha, having experienced the atomic bomb at age 2, and still bearing miniscule scars in her forehead from where she had been hit by glass. Another instance was at the August 6th memorial, when an elderly woman came up to me and asked where I was from. After I responded honestly, she looked me up and down for a moment, seemed to ascertain that I was a peaceful person, made a hushed comment about how heinous the experience had been, and went on her way.

Other than these moments, however, the memory of the city’s history lay hidden away; deeply out of my reach. Life goes on, and indeed, Hiroshima is a city that seems overflowing with incredible energy and zest. And needless to say, for someone who has not personally experienced that which was suffered by people in the city in 1945, it is nearly impossible to wrap one’s mind around the enormity of the horror. Although we may gain some idea through visiting the city’s A-bomb museum or witnessing imagery, still it lies outside of the capacity of our consciousness to understand what took place.

This was particularly the case for me as a young university student, who at the time had yet to discover the spiritual consciousness that now informs the way that I look at the world. Perhaps—as someone who now aims to be in tune with subtle energies that lay beyond the boundaries of the straightforward, surface-level speech that I was raised to communicate with—the next time that I visit the city, I may be able to sense feelings and energies that are not directly expressed, but are nevertheless very much present.

Terry Tempest Williams, a brilliantly passionate writer and thinker who is herself a hibakusha who grew up downwind of the nuclear testing site in the American southwest and has lost family members to radiation-related cancers, said the following in “The Politics of Place," an interview by independent journalist Scott London:

“It's that paradoxical response of joy and suffering. One, as we were saying, cannot exist without the other. They mirror each other. They live in the same house. And it moves us to tears. I recently got back from Hiroshima and it was fascinating to me how the Japanese accommodate this paradox. We were talking about this word aware, which on the page looks like ‘aware,’ which speaks to both the pain and the beauty of our lives. Being there, what I perceived was that this is a sorrow that is not a grief that one forgets or recovers from, but it is a burning, searing illumination of love for the delicacy and strength of our relations…Perhaps Hiroshima has given birth to a religion of peace. Aware. The active soul.

Whether or not this may explain the openness and friendliness that seems to characterize human interactions in Hiroshima, I cannot say for sure. This deeply spiritual interpretation, however, I am sure embodies a powerful element of truth on a level that I am only just beginning to comprehend or even conceptualize.

Posted by Kimberly Hughes

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