from THE GRAVE ON THE WALL
Featured Image: The author’s grandfather, Midori Shimoda—who was born on an island off the coast of Hiroshima in 1910, and immigrated to the United States in 1919—returned to Japan only once, in 1983. Here he is in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, with the Peace Flame, Memorial Cenotaph, and Memorial Museum behind him. Photograph by June Shimoda.
We crossed two streams on our way up Mount Misen. Yasu said the sound of a mountain stream is seseragi. The man selling soda and ice cream at the top of the mountain was asleep. A small deer was resting near a large rock between a cypress and a cedar. To the north, Hiroshima Bay and the city of Hiroshima. To the east, the sea to the horizon, islands forming shadows on the sea of sovereign, unmoving clouds. Somewhere in the sea was Kurahashi, the island where my grandfather and great-grandmother were born. I felt overly self-conscious, as if the island could see me. I turned several circles, to see if one island stood out. They all did. There were so many islands, so many shadows, I was sure I was looking not at my ancestral island, but through it. My eyes were not ready. To speak of it as my ancestral island felt (feels) absurd. After all, it had taken decades to visualize Hiroshima as a living, transcendent city curved along a bay, not an abstract shape attached to the weighted pronunciation of a name. It had taken decades to learn the seven rivers formed one, rising and falling with one tide. Hiroshima was a small light in an enormous cloud, the cloud periodically burning away to reveal the light even smaller and clouded from within, like a color that cannot be seen if stared at directly, only while looking away.
The breeze stirred the deer. The deer lifted itself slowly then disappeared behind the large rock. The man returned to his soda and ice cream. Hiroshima Bay was ornamented with oyster rafts resembling bleached xylophones.
We descended the mountain. Crossed a bridge, painted vermilion to ward off evil, and returned to Itsukushima. It was early evening. The sun was going down across the Ondo Strait. We walked into the tide toward the torii gate. Seaweed was bright green on the sand. When the tide is high, the gate floats above water. The tide was low, going out.
We asked everyone we met in Hiroshima: Are you going to the memorial?
And everyone we met answered: No.
Shirakami Shrine is on the northwest corner of Peace Boulevard and Rijo-dori. Shira is white, kami are divine spirits. In the age when Hiroshima cut a quicker descent to the sea, the northwest corner of Peace and Rijo-dori was a reef projecting into the bay. White paper was mounted on the reef to warn incoming ships.
A young woman was walking down Peace Boulevard. Her face was white. A waxy oil, then a white powder mixed with water into a paste, painted just short of her hairline. Her eyes were focused on the trees on the small mountain at the end of the boulevard. At the top of the mountain, in the trees, was a museum, which was showing (not that she could see it) Yoko Ono’s The Road of Hope. A young man, standing on the sidewalk outside Shirakami Shrine, was staring into the viewfinder of a black camera. The young woman entered his view. He looked up, and stepped forward into the young woman’s focus. He asked if he could take her picture. She hesitated. A moment of genial unease passed between them.
The camera opened a cave. The young woman approached. The mouth evoked the precise, watchful appetites of all life forms in the dark. The woman did not alter her expression, but receded further into the whiteness of her face, which burned itself onto the raw surface of the young man’s soul. He took several photographs, rapidly, bowed, then the young woman passed on.
No record remains of shipwrecks on the reef. The shrine maintains the image of white paper spelling out a sequence not entirely dissimilar to surrender, by which incoming ships once pulled up their strength, and floated, eyes closed, into Hiroshima.
AUGUST 6, 2011
The day has not ended. Every story, every testimonial, begins with it having been a day like any other. Blue sky, clear. But it was also a day like any other because it was a day in an endless series of days in which the sun rose, and the people with it, to war. Blue sky, clear, not because these are details of a day like any other, but because they were the final details.
At 8:15 and 15 seconds on the morning of August 6, 1945, a United States B-29 Superfortress dropped a uranium bomb on the city of Hiroshima on the island of Honshu. Little Boy exploded 1,903 feet above Shima Hospital, on the east bank of the Motoyasu River, incinerating, in less than a second, 80,000 people.
At 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 2011, a bell was struck in the Peace Park, between the Tenma and Motoyasu rivers. The bell’s reverberations were heavy and thick. 60,000 people in the park were spellbound, could not move. At 8:20, the mayor recited testimony from a woman who was sixteen at the time of the bombing:
. In that soundless world, I thought I was the only one left …
. Suddenly, I heard lots of voices crying and screaming …
. I did manage to move enough to save one young child …
Masahiro Fukuhara and Nanoka Fujita mounted the stage. They were sixth graders—Masahiro at Misasa Elementary, Nanoka at Koi Elementary—and had been chosen to be the Children’s Representatives of the memorial ceremony. Their task was to deliver the Commitment to Peace. They stood side-by-side and fixed their eyes on the sky beyond the museum.
. On March 11, countless lives were lost in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
. Even now, many people are still missing.
Their voices were plangent, definitive. They sounded like they were delivering soliloquies off the edge of a cliff, their voices echoing canyon walls. I thought of the young boy standing up to the spirits of the peach orchard in Kurosawa’s dream (I can buy peaches at the store! But where can you buy a whole orchard in bloom?) Masahiro and Nanoka’s message was of sorrow and hope, but they were speaking to the ruins. Adults, what can adults provide? What can adults instill in the faithful and faithless alike that the thousands of disappeared and disappearing witnesses cannot? The morning was a ritual, but Masahiro and Nanoka, their voices pitched into the sky beyond the museum, reinforced the fact, by way of the sun and heat—eyes closed, sweating, clenching their fists—that we were gathered in a burial ground. It was as if they were saying: if we understand, if we are courageous enough to raise our voices above the bodies of the dead …
The long slender basement auditorium of the Memorial Museum was full, but during the intermission between Japanese and English, it emptied, and only a small number of people remained. Ten westerners, Americans mostly, moved to the front to listen to five hibakusha—two women, three men—share their stories. Listening to them, I thought of Masahiro and Nanoka, who were, in their youth, emissaries from both the moment in which the five hibakusha, in their youth, were arrested, and the future, in which they would be sharing their stories. I opened my notebook and wrote down as much as I could, because I knew I wanted—that I would continue to want—to return, every year, to their stories, to what they had come such an extraordinary distance to share.
Keiko was eight at the time of the bomb. She spoke the longest. Her story began with a refusal. People were dying all around her—burning, thirsty, in need of water. She gave them water from the family well. They drank the water, vomited, died. She knew she did not kill them, but felt, it was me! It was easier for Keiko to take responsibility for their deaths, to implicate herself in the nightmare, than to try to explain what she could not. Her story began when she decided she was never going to tell anyone. She called it her invisible scar.
Isao was thirteen at the time of the bomb. Shoso and Keijiro were sixteen. Sumiko was seventeen. Shoso said he hated America. He took our hands in his and thanked us for being there. I felt in his hands the burden of his hatred. I saw on his face the complexity of his hatred being unresolved, open.
SHOSO HIRAI (16)
My father and younger brother were killed instantly … My older brothers were in China as soldiers … But the air raid alarm was soon cancelled … As soon as I touched the door, I was hit by a strong blast … It became dark all around me … Every path that lead to my house was engulfed in flames … I thought, There must have been a big disaster in Hiroshima … We spent the night at the farmer’s house … It seemed as if we had just walked through the Gate of Hell … We carried my father’s bones back home.
SUMIKO HIROSAWA (17)
But at this moment, everybody is happy now … But, everything had to go away anyway … But, what did you want to know? … But, everything is okay now … It was a long time, but it was okay … It took a long time to make the rice and the vegetables, and they came to pick them up … It was the farmers that took care of everybody … We had to help ourselves, but it was okay, we had the farmers.
KEIJIRO MATSUSHIMA (16)
That springtime, my father died … Beautiful, shining in the morning sun, white-silver planes … The whole world turned to something like an orange world, a sunset world … I felt like I had just been thrown into an oven … Hundreds, hundreds of thunders at the same moment … No one screamed, no voice, no sound … I was just crawling around on the floor … Everyone felt one bomb was dropped here beside me … Their hair had stood up straight, charcoal-gray skin, and their clothes were torn and singy … I could see red muscles under the peeled skin … Their faces were like baked pumpkins … Exactly a procession of ghosts … They were still able to walk, that’s good … For many days these bodies were floating in the river, up and down, with the movement of the tides … Real Hell … Real Hell … I decided to leave Hiroshima, and I wanted to go to my mommy’s home … My whole city of Hiroshima is dying, maybe I was a little sentimental at the moment … I began walking to my mommy’s home in the farm country … So, you can tell a man’s fate … And even today, there are many old women who couldn’t get married, they are living very lonely lives … Well, that’s almost all I experienced, so I say that’s all … I had read an article in Boys Magazine about A-bomb, and as I was crossing the bridge, I thought about that article … I was a smart kid, but it didn’t help … I will also have to disappear soon.
ISAO ARATANI (13 at the time of the bombing)
Sweet potatoes were planted there, and we went to pull weeds … We heard an unusually loud propeller sound … Two or three parachutes … Heard the sound of full-speed engine … At the same time we were blown off the ground … We didn’t have any idea what had happened … Sky-scraping mushroom-shaped cloud … Walked like ghost … Skin had slipped … One of my classmates gave water to several victims, all of them died soon after saying Thank you … We tried to escape deadly exposure to the sunshine, which increased our pain … They tried to cool themselves by the rain, they drank the rain … Immediately after the bombing, 8:15 am, it was high tide, and the water was deep … They supplied food such as crackers and rice balls … The city was burned and reduced to ash in one night … And couldn’t even tell if the bodies belonged to man or woman … They died while standing … I remember the smell of cremation … We had a complicated feeling about the defeat, and also relief … We didn’t want to talk about our memories for many years … The Poplar Tree will Transfer the Story from Generation to Generation.
KEIKO OGURA (8)
I am the youngest who still remembers that day … Every year I stand on the riverbank … There were a bunch of bananas and oranges … My mother sold her wedding ring to the army … Americans had a tall nose … Shiny … Children had to bite [edible grasses] 100 times … They heard a kind of rumor that near Hiroshima City there had been a big fire … At midnight they tried to escape from the temple … That was the time the teacher decided to tell the children about the atomic bomb … Look at the Buddha—can you see all the faces behind the Buddha? Your parents are already in heaven … Only this year did I ask my brother how he spent his days in the temple … I want you to understand the invisible scars of the survivors, the invisible sorrows … I would like to tell my invisible scars from now on … On August the 7th I climbed up the hill near my house and saw the city … Behind the city I saw Ujina Port and the Seto Inland Sea … Everybody will be the victim soon … I want to say, I am sorry, we have the same destiny … I feel we are all connected by the sea … We couldn’t have time to sleep … We stayed up all night … All Hiroshima people were so sleepy that morning … Finally, my mother said, I want to die at home, not in a shelter … Father had lucky inspiration … I was hit on the road … I woke up in darkness, pitch darkness … So quiet … The thatched farmer’s house started to burn … Oily, gray, charcoal-colored rain … It was so sticky … There were so many traces of black rain everywhere in my house … It goes together for awhile, and then there was a curve … He wanted to follow the plane … He could see from the top of the hill, the top of the cloud, and its color was pink … It aches a lot to touch your body, so not to touch your body … I could smell the smell of burnt hair … The other side the victims there could barely move, they were moving so slowly … They died, squatting in a line on the road, on the stone steps … That was the beginning of my invisible scars … And that moment I decided not to tell my story to anyone … Everywhere there were hundreds of big flies … In the afternoon, they stopped moving their hands, and they were covered in black flies … And then I could see the Inland Sea, and it seemed so near, because there was nothing … We have a strong fear about our genetic problems … As soon as I saw the shiny wings of the Enola Gay, I was frozen, I started to cry …
We sat on the stone embankment above the Motoyasu, our legs hanging over the water. The Genbaku Dome was behind us. Thousands of people sat along the embankments on both sides. The water was dark, except for where it was illuminated by paper lanterns. There were thousands of lanterns, each a different color. The volume of love was concentrated in the colors massed and floating the river. Dark, but in pools and streaks. Prayers were written on each lantern: the names of loved ones, ancestors, wishes for summer. Then the lanterns were sent into the river. Each held a small flame. The lanterns, in their slow, tentative movements, became a community. Pink, tangerine skin, lavender, light blue, dusk, watermelon. They gathered and slid against each other, small fires streaked across the sky in the water. The sea pulled. White lanterns, pumpkin-yellow by candlelight, floated beneath our feet. Silent, bound together with the countenance of a family making its evening rounds, each member decorated, hearts, red suns, birds, stripes of color. Lanterns, moving in one long streak, gathered beneath the bridge, against the walls, in the shadowless water. A group of lanterns resembled a hive, each lantern guttering out, until the hive had been fully extinguished, the souls of the dead taking leave of their performance in the ceremony. Would the fires burn through the night?