Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hiroshima and the limits of memory

A long time ago, going on 50 years now, I lived in Japan. While on R&R from Vietnam I met a researcher working at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima, Japan. He and I hit it off and spent a couple of days drinking and talking, and at the end he offered me a job when I got out of the military.

I don't think much about that time now, it's eclipsed by the times before and after it, and has been relegated to the dustbin of my memories. It should, I suppose, occupy a more prominent spot in the hierarchy of  the events of my life, but somehow it's escaped attention, or at least I've not given it it's due.

The recent 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima made me think of that time; but here in the numbing cocoon of food and sun that is LA, it required an effort to bring it back. I did have some photo's from the time I'd scanned over the years and put in a forgotten folder on my ancient laptop to help me.

I had scant Japanese language when I went there, and was forced to learn quickly; the department I worked in, the laboratory, had no english speakers. I worked as an 'Igor'....I don't know if any of you know what that is in lab-speak, but it was the only job I was remotely qualified for.

Over the several months I was there I met several survivors of the blast, it was only a little over 20 years since the event. I made friends with co-workers, not as many as I would have liked, but I was little prepared for the Japanese mind set that valued privacy above all else, and formality was the common denominator. It did not lend itself to quick friendships.

I live in a small town/village several kilometers up the coast of the inland sea, a place called Otake.




I took the train, something of a commuter into Hiroshima to work, first 3 then 4 days a week. 


The buildings were all Quonset huts, albeit large ones, and I understand they exist today.


It was over 20 years since the blast, but keloid scars were still apparent in abundance among the daily people who came for treatment and research. The most common disease we saw at the time was leukemia and various gastrointestinal diseases.



On weekends and frequent small vacations I took there I went to Peace Park often, the park at the epicenter of the blast. A museum with photos and artifacts is there, with several monuments dedicated to the victims. 




If you look closely you can see strands hanging from the underside of this structure; they are 'peace origami', cranes, made then by local children in memory of the thousands of children killed in the blast. 



When I took this one above, I didn't realize just how a common a picture it would be, the view of the dome left standing after the blast viewed through the arch.  It seems that it's been taken millions of times. 

I'm not interested in the discussion of whether or not dropping the bomb was a proper thing to do given the times and the war causalities on both sides. It doesn't matter to me whether it was justified or not. The fact is it happened, and we did it. We opened that door, that pandora's box, and it will, and should, forever haunt us and the rest of humanity.  









23 comments:

  1. Yes. Master.

    You were the lab "rat?" Or, more accurately, its gopher?

    You never cease to amaze me with the life you've led, Mike. You're experiences are awe-inspiring, to say the least.

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    1. Is that FRANK-en-stein, or FRONK-en-stein?

      Thanks Martha.

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  2. And yet, it is said, after Pandora open the box and let fly pestilence and chaos and death upon the world there was but one thing left at the bottom. That thing was called hope. Perhaps we require the suffering to truly cherish the aspect of hope.

    Enough philosophy...

    Those are chilling photos. Part of me thinks it would've been amazing to be around the survivors, but another aspect is frightened by the concept.

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    1. What I remember about many of the survivors was their stoicism in the face of what must have been unendurable pain. Even the ones who had been children.

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    2. Also, damn good comment, Robbie.

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  3. And no doubt China will be forever haunted by the appalling atrocities committed by the Japanese on Nanking. Something had to stop it, and I suppose we now have to accept that this was it. Hard to accept, even so.

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    1. Yes, well some would argue that Japan has paid for their atrocities done in China, the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia with the two atom bombs, and the fire bombing of Tokyo and other cities that killed more than the two atom bombs combined. That and what until recently seemed a dedication to pacifism.

      What then do we say about the US and your country? Have we here in my country paid for the near annihilation of the native cultures found by the first immigrants from Europe?

      And your country....how has it paid for it's transgressions against humanity? The British opium trade in the 19th century, the famines in India, the partitioning of India and the countless lives lost to that, it's treatment of people of the middle east when your country had annexed them to empire?

      I'd be careful about casting stones.

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    2. I didn't 'cast stones', I simply said 'it was hard to accept'. Please read fully in future.

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    3. Well, doubt that you or anyone will read this, but I don't like to engage in internet back and fourths....so. I used the term 'cast stones' at the end of my reply. Yes I did. And I do believe I read it all the way through the first time. The idea of your response I think I got....but the intro, the body, was about what the Japanese did in China, to wit, the rape of Nanking. Something had to stop it, and we, the US did.
      The thrust I believe of my reply to your comment was to ask your opinion of our respective countries roles in the actions we are deploring.
      You have not answered that yet, so I've replied to your red herring. How about addressing my thoughts?

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  4. A moving post, Mike. About the time you were in Otake, I had a discussion with Herbie, a friend and teacher, about the 2nd Coming. He said, "It's already happened, August 6, 1945, and the message was: Live in peace or perish." Herbie was in that war, gone now, and in all the years since, I've never found fault with his interpretation.

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  5. It is good you posted this old experience and used a good search title. This belongs in the archives of the world, including comments.

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  6. Fascinating and sad post, Mike. As the saying goes these days "thank you for your service."

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    1. I didn't mean it to be sad, Bruce. It more just 'is'. As to service, I gained far more from the patients at ABCC than I gave.
      Thanks for your comment.

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  7. That's an interesting post. On Hiroshima it takes a different route than the usual binary.

    Thought provoking. And elicited some interesting comments.

    And the pictures. I remember black and white film! It was a joy just seeing those. They're good pictures to boot. You have a good eye, as they say. I suppose your old negatives are long gone? Sometime if it comes to mind I'd be interested to know more about what it was like living in a small town in Japan. Was there shooting out the light on Saturday night? Catting the drag, like in my small town? (Driving up and down main street for people not from my small town).

    There must be Japanese equivalents in some form. Life in my small town (New Buffalo, MI) was pretty boring, which is not exactly how small town life is usually portrayed, especially if it's romanticized. (The almost cliche, bored young woman seeking to break out of Hollywood films notwithstanding). I wonder about the Japanese preference for privacy in all of it, and what you made of that.

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    1. The negatives are indeed long gone. Back then when I shot B&W I took them to the military base about 30Km away (recently discharged, had ID still, inactive reserve) where I could use the photo shop to develop them. I don't even remember how I stored them at the time. I had several cameras, both 35mm and 70mm, the most prized being a Leica M3 and a Mamiya C33, both long since gone. My stunning achievement photography-wise was getting one published in Stars &Stripes (!) before I was discharged. Among my fantasies back then was I'd be a professional photographer (I had just seen 'Blow Up").

      I'll think and try to remember what it was like living in Otake...probably email after I get back to Butte.

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  8. The more time we (humans) have to reflect on what we have done to each other the better the chances we have to stop. That is the hope part of the equation anyway.

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  9. After the Trinity test Oppenheimer said he'd remembered a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita: 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'

    I wish there was evidence to suggest we are growing more compassionate as a species.

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    1. The only thing I can suggest is that mankind has gone 70 years without using another one, and we managed the cold war without it. So I think there is hope.

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  10. Yes, it was a Pandora's box. I appreciate your memories from Japan--my parents moved to Japan in 79, when I was in college, and one of the Japanese men that helped settle my father was a child in Hiroshima

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    1. What did your parents do there, work? The majority of people I know that went there to work were ESL teachers.

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