Ringing the Peace Bell

It was a day that promised rain and the onset of autumn, but the rural train station was filled with people en route to weekend destinations. Still exorcising remnants of sleep from my body, I dropped a hundred yen coin into a vending machine and watched the slim, shiny can of sweet coffee fall from the depths of the machine. The signature Shikoku train song blared out of the loudspeakers signaling the arrival of the early-morning train bound for Takamatsu. I was headed to the city of Hiroshima for the weekend from the island of Shikoku where I had been teaching English for the past few months.

After three hours of slicing through the verdant Japanese countryside, the train pulled into the bustling Japan Rail Station in Hiroshima. In Japan, the city of Hiroshima has two meanings, one couched in the other. The Hiroshima we see today is a city of islands, a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis. The other “hiroshima” is the legacy of atomic destruction. As I stepped off the train, I already could feel the heavy ghosts of the old bomb-struck hiroshima slipping up through the glittering skyscrapers and modern, Western coffee houses of the new Hiroshima. The city seemed too new, devoid of the timeworn temples and shrines that usually co-exist with the convenience stores, glittering neon signs, and high-rise office buildings.

I did not know how to prepare myself for Hiroshima, because I knew that I would see everything around me through the lens of that cataclysm. Not only would the twisted branches of the phoenix trees — the vegetation that emerged out of the radioactive ash of the blast — be reminders of war, but the whole city would seem a phoenix city ever marred by its own ashes. Later that weekend, I would worry that the city’s call for peace is languishing in the Peace Park in the city’s center while the world’s most powerful entities play at war. But when I first arrived, my mind was focused on remembering the past, making sense out of a war that has not yet strayed far from history’s conscience.

I considered my visit to Hiroshima to be a sort of pilgrimage, one belonging to the secular religion of history rather than to the metaphysical world of spirituality. It would help to define my relationship with Japan, and with that of my own country. It was also a pilgrimage of remembrance. Bernie Glassman Roshi of the Zen Peacemaker Family speaks of remembering as an act, not only of recalling, but also of piecing together the fragments of history, as if it was a living entity, the parts of which are in need of reconciliation with one another — re-membering history. This re-membering is especially salient when recalling the post-war history of Hiroshima because the city was literally dismembered by the atomic bomb. Remembering, as Glassman Roshi explains, is a powerful act, an act that can call to mind the piecing together of bodies — bodies of those in danger of being lost to history, bodies of knowledge, and in this case, re-envisioning as whole the bodies of those lost in the blast.

The mere prospect of witnessing the remnants of this horrible moment in history summoned the heavy sadness of the past, but I began to view this pilgrimage as a duty. Stepping off the train at the station, I was laden with the sense that witnessing the damages inflicted by my country was one of my responsibilities as an expatriate United States citizen in Japan. I felt accountable for taking some of the weight of history into my own hands, or into my own eyes, so that with the arrival of each visitor, the city would not have to hold quite so many ghosts. The heavy memory of Hiroshima’s history set against the realities of the bustling city it is today is one of the disturbing realities that makes the experience of visiting even more powerful.

I arrived in downtown Hiroshima just before noon. One of the city’s many streetcars brought me to the central shopping area just east of the Peace Park. Something about passing through a shotengai, or shopping arcade, before witnessing the remnants nuclear warfare was unsettling. Young people were perusing the shops in their finest fall attire, and fellow tourists were bumbling around in the crowd, weighed down with cameras and rain-gear. Watching the crowd on my way to the peace park, I already was steeped in thoughts of war, even before I approached the striking twisted steel and brick skeleton of the building known as the Atomic Bomb Dome.

Circumambulating the dome became my first act of re-membrance. Stepping around this structure so deliberately, I was reminded of pradakshina, the prayerful passage around an important Hindu shrine. I consciously enacted my prayer for peace and re-membered a moment in history when I began to view my experience of the dome as an act of pradakshina. The Atomic Bomb Dome is a scar made permanent by the decision to maintain the ruin of a building disfigured by the bombing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Somehow I imagined something more alien, because that is how the part of me that does not want to acknowledge the reality of war wants to imagine the bomb. It is easier to imagine the past as science fiction than as a part of the everyday world in which I live. The crumbling edifice that I saw in the Hiroshima Peace Park was not science fiction. It was real, even if this preservation of this dilapidation looked otherworldly.

The physical act of visiting monuments constructed to re-member the past, especially a wartime past, always conjures up a slough of variegated emotions. The only thing I could think was my country did this. I do not want to be a member of the piece of my country that did this to the world, but I very much want to be a part of my country. Living abroad granted me some perspective on what it means to have a homeland, a familiar terrain that I can return to. I want there to be a place that will always have the comfortable scent of home. And that is what the thousands upon thousands of people who were affected by the bomb did not have. Those who survived Little Boy’s landing emerged from the blast into an unfamiliar terrain.

I navigated the monuments in the Peace Park following the route marked on the map I picked up in the tourist center at the entrance to the park. After walking around the the dome, I made my way out of its orbit to visit the monument to Sadako, the child famous for her attempt to make 1,000 paper cranes before she died of leukemia. Sadako may have fallen short of her goal, but the thousands of paper cranes that people left in the park that looked like the doppelgangers of autumn leaves are powerful tokens from those who yearn for a more peaceful world. The gnarled phoenix trees scattered throughout the park are the reminders that life can re-emerge from a place that was destroyed, but also that the homeland that this city was before the bomb was never the same after every inch of ground was pummeled with atomic fire. Despite proclamations that the ground would be barren for years after the blast, plants did re-grow, and these strange and miraculous phoenix trees promised a life after the bomb.

The deep, resonant tone of the Peace Bell reverberates throughout the park. Its ring cultivates a memory of war and projects a plea for peace into the future. Each time someone rang the peace bell in the park, I was filled with a penetrating sadness, not only for what happened that day in August 1945, but for what happens every day. Many who visit the park ring the peace bell to call upon the gods of peace, just like the devout ring the bell at a Japanese Shinto shrine to draw the spirits to attention. As I struck the heavy metal bell etched with the image of a world without national boundaries, making my entreaty to stop the creation and use of nuclear weaponry around the globe audible, I could not help but wonder what it would mean to cultivate a more peaceful world. Looking upon the monuments and remnants of destruction in the park through sad eyes made me want to believe in the concept of peace.

Walking through the peace museum, my last stop in the park, was like visiting the caverns of someone else’s nightmare. Now the history contained in the museum belongs to all of us whether or not we are citizens of the United States, or Japan, or any other country. The museum reveals that this horror is everyone’s legacy, that warfare, specifically atomic warfare, is more terrifying than the remnants of children’s tattered clothing, fingernails, skin, and charred lunch boxes housed in the museum. The artifacts are just remnants of the horror. The museum pieces the fragments back together so we can envision a sort of wholeness out of this horror, so that the stories can carry a message into the present and into the future, and so that we can gather our own experience of what it means to be responsible, not as humans who are directly implicated in the bombing, but as individuals who are today living on the bedrock of the future. Like many other visitors to the museum, I left my words in the book at the door to help sift through the thoughts the museum evoked and to leave a mark signifying that I took a piece of history into myself the day I entered the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

Walking back through the shopping arcade after leaving the museum, I felt as if I had stepped into a different realm where past, present, and future meet, and then re-entered the everyday world where people were shopping and eating and preparing for a night of revelry. It was almost too difficult to contemplate the crude juxtaposition of reverence and sadness that I experienced in the park and the fast, modern world immediately outside. They were separate worlds in my mind. I tried hard to see them separately, and then to see them together to make sense of the place, the world, and the circumstance I found myself in. This was just another place to visit, but at the same time, it was different. I was somehow implicated in this past that the park and the museum recognized, and in this present as well. I was ordering coffee and waiting to meet up with a group of friends for dinner where we would taste regionally celebrated culinary delights in Hiroshima’s famed okonomiyaki building.

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