Since many of the bombing survivors are now in their 70s or older, Japanese observers often worry the peace movement will die out with them and send the country back into a militarist phase.
But there was no sign of that in the stifling heat here Friday where thousands gathered to mark the horror of Aug. 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb obliterated much of the city, killing 140,000. Many elders – along with school teachers, church leaders and NGO activists from across Japan – could be seen showing children the peace monuments. Children passed out flowers to senior citizens, while the Japanese version of neo-hippy teenagers and buskers in their 20s and 30s played spiritual music on homemade instruments or made speeches against war. And for the first time Friday, a U.S. official was among the 74 international representatives at the official memorial.
Bolstered by streams of foreign tourists making the pilgrimage to Hiroshima on the bullet train, the Hiroshima youth seem to revel in the attention given their city, which otherwise lacks the celebrity scene and creative industries of Osaka and Tokyo, more than 800 kilometres to the east.
“I wasn’t here when it happened, but we kids have a long life ahead of us. We can’t let this happen again. ”— Anna Yanagida, age 11
Unlike their parents and grandparents, Ms. Sasaki’s generation is much more open about talking about the bombing of Hiroshima. “My grandparents wanted to forget everything. It was such a terrible experience for them,” says Ms. Sasaki, showing a foreign visitor around the park. “They never told us about the war. It was as if it never happened.”
Meeting a group of inquisitive students from Tokyo, Ms. Sasaki engages them in a conversation about how to change the world. “I wasn’t here when it happened, but we kids have a long life ahead of us,” says Anna Yanagida, age 11. “We can’t let this happen again.”
Miyamoto Waichi, 90, who lost his sister in the bombing, joins the conversation. “I used to go to a movie theatre right here,” he says, standing in the park under a palm tree. “This was a very lively shopping area. Everything we knew suddenly disappeared.” He says he only comes to the park once a year, on Aug. 6, to offer flowers to the souls of his deceased relatives. “It was terrible what happened. But we had to rebuild and move on.”
In Grade 6, Ms. Sasaki’s class visited the Atomic Bomb museum. “I was so scared in the museum, I couldn’t look at anything,” she says. “I just held my friend’s hand and walked with my eyes closed the whole time.”
As a teenager interested in American-style clothing and hip-hop music, she didn’t think much about the greater meaning of the Atomic Bomb Dome and other monuments. Passing them every day on the city’s trolleys, it was easy to take these internationally famous sites for granted. She and her friends regarded the Peace Park as a “date spot” for couples to hold hands among the bushy cedars and exotic trees. The park was also a good place to get away from the bustle of other parts of the city. “Time slows down in the park,” she says. “We enjoy hanging out here. Sometimes we forget what happened here, and how much people suffered.”
When she started working as a nurse at a local hospital, she came more into contact with the bombing victims, known as hibakusha, some of whom were slowing dying of radiation sickness dating back to 40 years before she was born. They were embarrassed about their conditions, and had suffered prejudice within Japanese society; men would refuse to marry women from Hiroshima out of fear that their offspring would have genetic mutations. Many of them were dying alone, having lost their family members in the bombing, and unable to marry and have children.
The sad state of her patients led Ms. Sasaki back to the museum. Older now, she opened her eyes to the horrors it contained: three floors featuring large, grainy photos of scorched people in melted clothing desperately begging for water. She couldn’t stop crying then, and she says now she cries on the morning of every Aug. 6 at the ceremony in the park.
Curators at the museum have dared to confront taboo subjects such as the Nanjing Massacre in China, censorship by occupation authorities who allegedly covered up details about radiation sickness, and the government’s refusal to recognize hibakusha until 1957. The writing in Japanese and English is blunt, with warnings about nuclear winter and an atomic Armageddon, and a globe showing how the United States, Russia and others have stockpiled nuclear arms.
Outside, in the park, Ms. Sasaki looks over pages of Japanese newspapers that depict the suffering of Japanese soldiers overseas, and blame the Imperial military government for sending them to fight without adequate food or weaponry. The underlying theme, which has become common across Japan, is that Japanese civilians were innocent victims.
But Ms. Sasaki says it’s wrong for Japanese media and leaders to blame other countries for their suffering. “We have to blame ourselves also, and take responsibility, which Japanese don’t like to do. We are always asking other countries to apologize to us. But we should apologize also. If we really want to make world peace, we have to have more events here, instead of just one day a year. We need to bring the whole world here to see how terrible war is.”