This post was written after a trip to Japan in August, 2012.
By the time we left the Hiroshima memorial museum the sun was starting to set. We had arrived late, rushing off the ferry from Miyajima, and two hours after entering were gently urged out by a recorded announcement. “The museum will be closing in 30 minutes … 10 minutes … 5 minutes. Please make your way to the exit.” We skimmed the final exhibits, unwilling to rush past the remnants of bombed lives – someone’s shoe, a child’s school lunchbox, a bicycle wheel – but left with little choice.
The three of us had drawn apart from each other inside the museum, like kites all tied to the same fence but pulled out by different winds. Outside we found each other again, but were still somewhat reluctant to close the gap, to break the heavy silence that falls across people when they are faced with the fact of violence so devastating it almost seems absurd. We wandered the large park that surrounds the museum in the growing dark, each of us full up with the things we had seen in the last two hours, seething with emotions that felt too complicated and overwhelming to be spoken. There was no right thing to say, no appropriate way to break the silence and rejoin each other on our holiday. None of us wanted to be the one to speak first, to utter the first sentiment that would inevitably be trivial and lacking in the face of all we had just seen. So for a long while we said nothing. We walked slowly through the park, past the memorial of cranes for a young girl killed by cancer, past the skeletal remains of a building, gradually falling back into step with each other. By the time we reached the bridge and the main road we were ready to start talking again.
After a few tentative exchanges as we walked back into the heart of the city I realised Michelle and I had been thinking slightly differently as we emerged from the museum. Michelle is American, from California, and her grandfather fought in the Second World War. While she agreed that the impact of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States was unspeakably awful, she also pointed out that those bombs had ended the war. Had ended the future suffering of countless others in battles that hadn’t yet happened. Had released prisoners from camps, had put an end to the Holocaust. And had, also, meant that her grandfather could come home.
Michelle wasn’t saying any of what had happened was right. What she was saying was that maybe not dropping the bombs wasn’t any more right than dropping them. But at that moment – in the early dark, in the heat, after another long day of travelling and walking and looking – I couldn’t believe she was saying what she was. After what we had just seen – the bodies, the devastation, the long-lasting consequences of radiation – how could she even entertain the idea that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan might not have been the wrong decision, even if it wasn’t the right one?
An argument erupted. As we walked through the neon streets – hungry and halfheartedly looking for somewhere to eat – we kept butting up against the same brick wall.
“Dropping the bombs was wrong,” I would say, “just wrong.”
“Yes,” Michelle would reply, “but was letting the war continue right?”
“There must have been another way.”
“But what if there wasn’t?”
And so on, voices rising, faces reddening, frustration and anger and sadness running high. Emma remained for the most part silent, here and there tentatively pointing out a restaurant we might eat at.
We realised about half an hour after leaving the museum that the disagreement wouldn’t be resolved. My mind was too full of the images of destruction, the personal stories of those hurt. Michelle was also too close, thinking about her grandfather.
We lapsed into exhausted, angry silence, drew away from each other on the footpath. I felt the distance between us – between me and this girl who was one of my best friends, one of the people who I feel really understands me – like a chasm. The streets were getting darker – we were moving out of the restaurant area and back towards the station, where our ryokan was. By now we were all starving, bone tired, collapsed emotional heaps. As upset as I was, I couldn’t let the gulf between Michelle and I grow any wider. I sped up to walk beside her again, and put my hand on her arm.
“I don’t want you to think I’m angry with you.”
Back by the station, on the top floor of a pachinko arcade, we found the best okonomiyaki of the trip. A street vendor style food court with bar stool seating and chefs who cooked your pancake on a grill right in front of you, pulling out a blowtorch to melt the cheese. We drank ice-cold umeshu – even Michelle, who I have never, ever seen drink before – and it warmed us. It was surreal to sit there, under those bright lights, with the alcohol buzzing in our brains. Hiroshima and its history felt at once very close and miles away.