At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hiroshima and Nagasaki mon amour/広島、長崎、 我が愛

It's been three years since I moved to Japan. I keep reminiscing on my first year, despite the fact that it was probably one of the hardest years I've experienced since I arrived. Three years ago, this would have been my second week in Japan. I remember how intolerably hot Ishigaki was, to the point that I rarely went outside during the midday and I stopped wearing makeup because none of it would stay on my face due to the extreme amount of humidity in the air mixed with copious sweat pouring off my body. It was a difficult transition, to see the least. During that second week, I woke up early one morning - I was getting up around 5am due to time zone adjustment. It might have been midday, I think perhaps a Monday, so I had to go to work that day. Around 8:15am on August 6th, as I was in the kitchen cleaning up the morning breakfast dishes, a siren went off that eerily reminded me of sirens that one hears in movies about WWII. I didn't understand what it was and within the minute it stopped. I eventually asked someone about it that day and they said it was a signal to mark the memorial of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. They told me to expect another siren on August 9th as well to mark the bombing of Nagasaki. It was the first time I thought about the bombings outside of the scope of a textbook or literary book.

When I was in high school, my English literature class incorporated Japanese literature into the curriculum. We read translations of Kawabata Yasunari, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, and Ibuse Masuji. The book by Ibuse was "黒い雨" or "Black Rain". We read it and it was the first time that I saw a different perspective on the bombings than what had been taught to me in my history classes in grade school. I had never held to a very strong nationalistic belief system, so I suppose this book was able to open my eyes in seeing how the bombs caused such great suffering to innocent people, many of who had really no direct involvement in the war itself. Yes, there were soldiers and military related industry in those cities, but the majority of the people, including non-Japanese foreigners living there, were living their lives as one lives by day.

This is not a post that excuses Imperial Japan of its tremendous destruction and war crimes. Absolutely not. I know that the Japanese government and its military were not innocent victims in the war.  One of my ancestors went MIA and died somewhere in the Philippines because of this war.  The Japanese will even admit that they were the aggressors and that something went terribly wrong with their government at that time.  I also recognize that people argue that these bombs brought a long, drawn out brutal war to a swift close. Yet, it's also been argued that these bombs were like no other thing that had existed in this world before and that most Americans, because the photos and films were suppressed, had no clue the extent of the suffering that the people in those cities faced immediately and for many years afterwards. I have the privilege of looking back from a time in history that is not in the midst of war in Japan. It's easy for me to draw conclusions about the morality and ethics involved in the fates of these two cities.   Had I lived during that era, I may have had a different opinion. Or perhaps, if I had lived during that era in one of these two cities, my perspective on these bombings would be extremely different from even the one I have now. Because I cannot know what it was like and I cannot experience it, it is a part of history I can only write about with words that cannot even come close to communicating the enormity of it. I can only write about it in a quasi-philosophical way for my personal blog, which I can write about far away from either Hiroshima or Nagasaki in both location and time.  I have never even visited either of these cities.  There's plenty to write about in relation to this part of history. Many people already have. I can't match them in their factual knowledge, so I won't try to give a history lesson here.  But I've been thinking about some questions I posed this year on the 6 August to myself in relation to how people remember horrific, traumatic events:
Who gets to remember? Who owns these memories? Who is entitled to the shaping of their narratives, and thus the way they will be collectively remembered? How can one world-altering event of unspeakable, unknowable levels of suffering of fellow human beings become something that is shaped as necessary?
In a separate discussion related to language and translation, in conversation with a Japanese friend, I brought up the film "Hiroshima Mon Amour" written by Marguerite Duras and directed by Alain Resnais.  He said it was a great film and I told him I had studied it in graduate school as my focus was on collective trauma and memory.  The film addresses memory and the inability to grasp or recall a past traumatic event, to put it into language. Language fails in doing this, it can only point to the idea of it, but not the actual thing itself.  Human memory fails as well.  The human brain is designed to forget.  The opening lines are "You saw nothing in Hiroshima...nothing" spoken by the Japanese architect.  The French actress replies, "I saw everything...everything...the hospital, for instance that exists for real in Hiroshima.  How could I not see it?"  Then she goes on to talk about visiting the museum.

This is about as close as one can get to understanding what happened, but it is not the actual event.  Those that know it, that saw it fully, did not survive.  There is a play by the Japanese-born American playwright, Chiori Miyagawa, that is based on a deconstruction of this film.  The play, "I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour" re-examines the concepts of memory and narrative, especially in relation to who gets to remember and whose narratives are missing in relation to this part of history.  The play is set within the same world of the original film, with the Japanese architect and French actress having their affair and discussing memory, but instead of moving towards the European narrative of WWII, as Resnais film does via the actress, a third character is introduced.  This character is a Japanese woman who was killed immediately by the bomb.  Her ghost narrarates the gruesome facts of the aftermath of these weapons, and the people whose lives were ruined because of them.  The play accepts that this is part of history, but it gives a voice to those who were silenced.

When I was thinking about how to write this post, which I felt oddly conflicted about, I first felt that the entry point into it was not via the larger discussion regarding history, but via a photo another friend of mine posted from the Zinn Education Project   It was a photo of a small tricycle that had been ridden by a three year old boy on August 6th, 1944.  This boy's story is well known in Japan.  The story of the boy and his tricycle made me cry.  Yet, I don't know him and never will because he died.  His short life ended with great suffering and all he was doing that day was enjoying his tricycle, which the caption of the photo said that he loved very much.  He had no notion of war or even of death.  There are many stories like his, some of them deleted from history altogether, some of them from those who survived.  I write this for these fellow human beings, who were doing nothing but living their lives in those cities in the era of a very large war that their country had started.  I can't bear witness to something I never experienced, that took place decades ago, but by recognizing that no one should suffer from atrocities like this, I can try to not lose my humanity.  I write this also because the current government is moving forward on revising Article 9 in the constitution and just introduced the largest Japanese warship since the 1940s, on the anniversary of Hiroshima.  If anything, one should write about the people of these two cities to remind those in the Japanese government that the pain, the heartache, the sadness that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced should not be forgotten, especially in light of the buildup of a new war cry.

Addendum:  Howard Zinn wrote a very important essay on the topic of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as non-atomic the bombing of civilians.  It was published in The Asia-Pacific Journal:  Japan Focus.  I recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment