“Let us be alert—alert in a two-fold sense.
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
Since Hiroshima we know what is at stake."
-Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I arrived in Hiroshima looking for a party. It was August 6, 1966.
I was 23 and starved for American jokes, American English, American company. For the last year I had been living with a Japanese family and teaching English in Wakayama, where the only other American women were an older teacher and a pair of middle-aged nuns. Hiroshima seemed the elixir for my loneliness, a relief from the awkward mannerisms I had assumed in an effort to fit in with my Japanese hosts. I knew the city would be crawling with foreigners coming to observe the anniversary of the event that had made Hiroshima an international household word.
I, too, wanted to pay my respects to the city we had blown to smithereens. I was too young to remember the bomb but had grown up with Quaker pacifists who could not forget it. Most of my parents' friends were conscientious objectors who chose prison and government work camps over fighting "the good war." As a high school student I had made my own small anti-war statement by refusing to evacuate my suburban Philadelphia classroom during air raid drills. At Wakayama University I flaunted my pacifism by singing a Pete Seeger anti-nuclear tune in Japanese. I thought I knew all about war and its horrors.
In Hiroshima I set out on my own, amazed by the glass and steel high-rises that grace the broad avenues of the rebuilt downtown. Unlike traditional Japanese streets—raucous with boys on bicycles delivering udon noodles in porcelain bowls—Hiroshima was cosmopolitan. And it was filled with foreigners. I gravitated toward the English speakers, enjoying the escape from being the American professor, the anonymity of being one of many young blondes. By the time the memorial celebration got underway I was freelancing my fluent Japanese to American and British TV crews covering the day as if it were an athletic event.
I might not have noticed the woman with the cropped hair and ill-fitting gray silk dress if a cameraman hadn't zoomed in on her. She was stooped, seated in a cobblestone courtyard on folded legs before a black-and-white family photograph flanked by vases of golden chrysanthemums. In my eyes she looked old but she could have been as young as 40—still old enough to have survived August 6, 1945 as an adult. It may have been the other foreigners and their cameras that emboldened me. Forsaking the respectful distance I generally accorded my Japanese hosts, I moved within 35-millimeter range and clicked off a shot. She noticed me, hissing her disgust. Embarrassed, I apologized.
Apparently stunned that I had understood her, she stared hard at me as if trying to reclaim her privacy. I expected her to slip into the deference I had come to expect for uttering even the clumsiest phrases in Japanese. Instead, she took me on.
In the shadow of the bombed-out hulk of the six-story Atomic Dome—one block from the Peace Museum that entombs the outlines of children's bodies, radiated into the sidewalks where they happened to be walking to school when the bomb hit at 8:15 a.m.—there in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, I became this woman's token American aggressor. It was my government, my president who unleashed the horror of the atom bomb on Japan, she told me. It was my country, my people who turned her home into an inferno roiling with flames that seared the living and the unborn alike. We—I—had murdered her daughter, her only son, her aged father and over 100,000 members of her national family. Her voice swelled from tight-lipped anger into furious rage before it struck a high-pitched frenzy, keening from word to word.
A small crowd gathered. Other mourners joined in. Soon the words of the woman on folded knees were part of a chorus lamenting their untold losses, grieving their fear of helplessly handing down contamination to their children and their grandchildren's children.
I listened. This was a voice I had not heard from the generous families who had invited me into their homes. I had not heard it from my students, a cocky new generation bent on shucking the humilities of their elders and the memories of a war that ended before they were born. The Hiroshima mourners vented a national anguish and a pointed blame I could not have imagined behind the stoic silence I’d become accustomed to in Japan.
Finally spent of words, the woman in gray bowed deeply to her photograph and flowers, gathered them up and walked off with a curt nod in my direction. The crowd drifted into the sea of people milling around the Peace Park. The TV crews had long since left. I stayed seated until my bent legs revolted.
August 6, 1945 forever changed the world. Hiroshima is witness to our capacity and our willingness to destroy. I left the city humbled, my pretentious pacifism eclipsed by survivors destined to see that blinding flash replayed over and over again in horrific silence, a ghastly tape without a soundtrack.