Wednesday, May 28, 2008

No Good War, No Bad Peace

Harper, by Deana Brown while babysitting

This morning she met with Yuki Tanaka at the Hiroshima Peace Institute. He translated Howard Zinn’s book War and Terrorism into Japanese. Joseph Gerson from the American Friends Service Committee gave her Yuki’s name and Yuki showed her Joseph’s book – Empire and the Bomb. Yuki tells her to check out the MIT website Visualizing Cultures. He doesn’t seem that interested in her project, but more in telling her everything about himself. She is quite interested in his story - he is working on a book about the early stages of the Japanese Peace Movement, married to an Australian woman who has two artist parents. . They live apart – seeing each other every 6 weeks or so. She asks him to go to lunch and he takes her to a noodle shop. As soon as she sees what he has – a steep bowl of cold soba noodles, grated daikon, wet and dry seaweed and a cool sauce to be poured over it, she wishes she had not ordered the hot udon noodles with goba tempura even though it is very good.

She walks over, again, to the Peace Memorial Museum and decides to go in this time with the hundreds of school kids. She can barely see the soft and thin clothing on display, the black rain on a white wall, the utensils and melted bottles. The schoolchildren take notes. The U.S. dropped the A-bomb to “justify expenditures.” Dummy A-bombs were called pumpkins. There were children called bomb orphans (who shined the shoes of westerners). The ABCC (Atomic Bomb Casuality Commission, now the RERF) was formed in 1947 and the Japanese people had this to say about it, “They examine us but they do not treat us.” Hibakusha say simply, “I met with the A-Bomb.” As of 2007, there were 251,834 Hibakusha in Japan, 78,111 in Hiroshima. “A woman passed water from her own mouth to mouth of her mother before she died.” – Yoshio Hamada (text describing the print he made as an Atomic Bomb Survivor). There is no such thing as a good war or a bad peace.

She gets caught in a downpour when she comes out and gets a taxi to the YMCA where she reads Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage and the Modern Japanese Woman by Sumie Kawakami for an hour while waiting for her children. Harper is so glad to see her that Harper runs across the room and hugs her so tightly, patting her back, making her so very happy. Guthrie barely noticed that his mother had arrived. They had their daily ice cream in the fluorescent vending room downstairs while waiting for the taxi. “Taxi, taxi, riding in the back seat….” Over and over again is the song the kids have made up since being here and she worries that they are driving the taxi drivers crazy. Once home, she rushes to get ready to meet Yoshie, an adjunct professor in the art department at Hiroshima City University and a curator at the Hiroshima City Culture Foundation. They meet at SATY, the big department store at the bottom of the hill. They take the elevator to the 7th floor for tea. Yoshie becomes her guardian angel. Yoshie keeps saying how much she loves helping artists. She was once a curator at the Hiroshima Contemporary Museum. Yoshie connects her with a “Hiroshima Interpreter for Peace” because she thinks she will need one. She agrees. Yoshie tells her about Masao Okabe who did big rubbings (frottages – which has a double meaning in Japan of rubbing against another person in a sexual manner) of stone walls from Ugine Station in Hiroshima that were exhibited in this year’s Venice Bienale. Elin looks at his work online and can not believe it – an entire room of rubbings of atomic things and a wall of negative photographic images of plant specimens in lightboxes! She wonders if she should even do her project. He is so famous. People will think she copied his ideas and work. She knows her work would be different in some way but how? Yoshie will try to introduce her to Ms. Kamiya, curator at the contemporary museum and will bring her out to the university to meet colleagues, students and to give a lecture on her work. She rushes home in the rain to get there before her kids are asleep.

Monday, May 26, 2008

We know full well......

There is something comfortable about being voluntarily uncomfortable – a stranger with no parasol in a country of full sun where most of the women wear long gloves and visors while carrying umbrellas; an American carrying a bulky black backpack and a big Nikon camera in a thrift-shop sailor dress in a sea of school uniforms and wispy summer layers; a working tourist who does not speak the language. It was the first day of her children’s YMCA International Kindergarten so it was the first day she could walk around the city on her own, finding black and white film for her “real” camera, a cutting board, a UV umbrella, postcards, taking pictures of groups of schoolgirls singing at the monuments in the Peace Memorial Park, “In the searing flash, I became a picture. Blasted by the heat, I melted into the wall. Blasted by the wind, you disappeared into the earth.”

She cries several times while in the Peace Memorial Park – once while listening to the English audio at the Tower for Mobilized Students, and throughout the two devastating documentary films she watches in the museum: A Mother’s Prayer from 1990 and Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Harvest of Nuclear War from 1982. (Se decides to leave the museum after these two free films and to return another day. There is only so much of this despair that she can absorb, especially when she needs to pick up her kids at the end of the day.) Both films have footage of a two year old girl heaving and crying out for her dead mother and roving shots of the dead, skulls, burned bodies, keloids, deformities, destroyed cities, everything completely obliterated and yet, and yet, the miracle of some kind of survival for some. A young girl fans the ashes of her father in an urn, wishing to cool him. He was a fisherman and died three days after being exposed to the atomic tests on the Bikini Atoll. In Hiroshima, all things atomic are connected. Sadako, the girl who died of leukemia while folding thousands of her medicine wrappers into paper cranes; another girl who was damaged by radiation at the moment of conception would never understand the damage. “There is no cure for the atom bomb. The eternal prayer of Hiroshima, motherland of peace, is for a world without nuclear weapons to be secured.”

She is stunned by the moving footage of grasses, flowers and ladders, and yes, even people, burned white onto the surface of wood and stone, negative shadows like Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of Victorian flowers, like Adam Fuss’ silk Shaker ladder. Carol had written more eloquently about all this in her essay Blossoming Bombs and she just could not believe that she could feel any more than she had already felt about these absences, these atomic ghosts. She not only wants to make cyanotypes, but also do rubbings of flowers, grasses and ladders. She still has not found an art supply store, even after walking around the city from 9am until 5pm with only one brief stop – an amazing lunch of eel, zucchini and pepper tempura on a bowl of perfect rice with miso and black tea, barefoot in a back room bar with only women.

It was only 21 days after the first atomic bomb test in Alamogordo, New Mexico that the U.S. dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima and then just a few more after that when they dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki. They wanted to see and study what the atomic bomb would do to people on the other side of the world. It was a criminal experiment. She wanted to listen to Joy Division’s Atrocity Exhibition and when she saw footage of the countless charred bodies and the emaciated survivors, she had flashbacks to other footage – footage of the concentration camps – another war, another war the U.S. was involved in.

The Japanese people have attempted to make maps from memory of the destroyed neighborhoods at ground zero – neighborhoods that were once full of artists and doctors, actors and writers. She was struck by the pinkness of one of the handmade Hiroshima neighborhood maps. It was the same pink as her own drawing of Hiroshima. She is troubled by the name of the park – “Peace Memorial Park” – as if peace has vanished and we can only remember it, not live it and she supposes that for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this is ultimately and absolutely true. She is troubled by the fact that such a brutal slaughter is the reason for this park where children sing and picnic and tourists come with paper cranes and cameras. Opaque cataracts; only plasma cells remain; to damage young tissue is to damage young lives; we have to bear the responsibility because we know full well……

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Being American

Dandelion About to Be Blown

She forgets to mention some spectacular moments: 3 women getting on the tram in traditional dress – stiff Japanese fabric with a wide sash bundled around their bodies, those odd white socks with toe sleeves for the special shoes, extra white faces – all on a bright hot day; the super skinny girls and young women with jet black over the knee leggings and stiletto heels or s&m shoes, short shorts, piled hair and leopard print shirts; the countless groups of young men in opaque black business suits and cool glasses with briefcases; people riding bicycles in full fancy dress – an umbrella stand for the umbrella to hold the sun and rain away.

They had their first disappointing meal last night. They joined Deena, an African-American undergraduate from Beloit College, who was lonely and in need of company, downtown to find dinner. (She has an internship here for the summer, speaks some Japanese, will babysit for us occasionally and lives down the hall in a single dorm room.) With the jet-lagged kids in tow, it was hard to find a place that felt right. They ended up at a restaurant with a big ceramic bear fountain in a sombrero out front. He “pees forever” is what the kids kept saying and they insisted on visiting him throughout the meal. They had fish pools inside that you could watch through the dirty windows – flinching shiny fish and hysterical lobsters in the hands of the chefs. The kids were starving and they ordered shrimp tempura for them and cold sake for themselves and wanted to order more but the staff did not understand. When the tempura was delivered, they ordered the rest: rice, mixed sushi, chicken yakitori. David kept telling her to calm down. She was being very American – impatient, complaining that this was taking forever. She couldn’t eat some of the sushi because it was too chewy and she had to admit that the sushi they had from the supermarket was much better. They took a taxi home and she fell asleep with the kids right away at 8:30.

Once again the kids woke up at 1am and then were up for good at 5. She got up with them and they all ate granola with yogurt and watched Puff the Magic Dragon on YouTube. They called their guardian angel, Susan – a biostatistician from Minnesota, in Hiroshima with her husband Andy and their 3 year old daughter Josie. They made a plan to meet at the mushroom fountain that looks like stainless steel buttocks by Jeff Koons, in front of Hiroshima Station where one can take the bullet train that goes 150 miles per hour. It was drizzling so they took a taxi. As soon as they met, Guthrie and Josie began chasing each other in circles with glee. They took a free shuttle to the biggest mall in town so that the kids could play indoors with abandon in the top floor play area – 5$ for 45 minutes. She and Susan went to find a baby monitor and some of the required items for the YMCA. She ended buying a splendid ladybug swimsuit with matching bathing cap, crazy towels that snap around the chest, a raincoat for Guthrie, cloth lunch bags, cups and silverware for the kids. Susan is going to look for a baby monitor at the PX on the base because it will be cheaper and in English.

She was overwhelmed by the enormity of the mall – at least eight floors and super western, but also by the incredible sense of design of practically everything she looked at. Even the Babies R Us commodities looked different, better – nostalgic patterns, fine cuts, layers of cloth, wild toys and marvelous bags. She always felt trapped and tempted in malls, as if she didn’t have enough time or money to fully experience it and certainly not enough good sense to just stay away from it all together. She could probably get all this stuff downtown, which she would try to do tomorrow. They had burgers, fish sandwiches, chicken nuggets and French fries at Freshness Burger.

She is struck by the monolithic concrete buildings everywhere. There is very little beauty in the architecture here - drab grey, dirty neon, lots of electrical wires, slow traffic, crowded blocks. She understands that this was all built after the bomb that destroyed everything that used to be here and that was what the time dictated – 1950s modernism, a concrete jungle, brutalism, bunker mentality. Deena said, “They all drive these ugly boxy cars.” She didn’t respond because the boxy cars in shades of avocado green and pale grey were some of the things she loved seeing – flashes of old-fashioned style. She also noticed that when she made statements about the U.S. atomic bomb or happened to mention her past protest at Fort Benning against The School of the Americas to other Americans, they did not respond. An American in Japan, she did not feel like an American.

She keeps wondering if everyone here, from here, living here, thinks about the A-bomb on a daily basis. Do they worry that there may still be contaminated soil and poisoned air as a result? How can they not harbor an immense hatred or distrust of Americans? Spending time on the web yesterday, trying to find an art supply store in town, she found a traveler’s guide to Hiroshima. It said something like, “If you are feeling especially uncomfortable about being an American in Hiroshima because of the A-bomb, or are having a difficult conversation about it, say something like, ‘well, don’t you think the Japanese would have dropped the same bomb on us if they had gotten to it first?’” What good would that do? Seems as if the war just continues on different levels, with a lesser intensity. The travel guide also claims that the Japanese have “gotten over it and love Americans.” I don’t know. People look tired.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Taxis, the YMCA and Anticipation

Dandelion About to Be Blown

Her children woke up at 2 in the morning and then again at 5 – whispering, cawing, saying they were cold and wanted to get up. Her husband and she were sleeping on the other side of a discolored plastic accordion screen that divided one large dormitory room into two. Their apartment was actually through four other doors, practically in another building, but this seemed the best sleeping arrangement unless they all wanted to be sleeping on top of each other in the one bedroom. Probably 95% of previous visitors were single or retired men or men who traveled and worked, leaving their families at home, which is what they had encouraged her husband to do. They told him of the rainy season, about the cockroaches and centipedes and that there would not be enough space for them all. So far, not a drop of rain, no annoying pests yet and they had so many beds that three were being unused. Everything is sticky from underuse, bad cleaning and the humidity. She was surprised to find the laundry that she had left in the washing machine all dried and folded when they returned from their first adventure into the city. The maids had also put clothespins on the clothes she had hung out to dry, taken out the trash and had performed other generous surprises.

Her husband David got up with Guthrie at 5 and watched Rangers Rangers on the laptop. She and Harper slept until 7. They had a much better morning than the day before. David and Harper played tent and took a bath while she and Guthrie played cards – war. She let him win and he was so happy. They walked down the switchback road through Hijiyama Park, passing temples and arriving onto the busy road where they waited for a tram. It was hot and bright and they realized how lucky they were to be living in the middle of one of the only big parks in the city. The trolley was only one car and kids ride for free. They took the 2nd tram and got off where they thought they should to be close to the YMCA International Kindergarten. They walked the wrong way a couple of times and Harper fell out of the stroller when her mom hit a curb. They had expected it to take 20-30 minutes to get there but after an hour and a half, they were exhausted and frustrated – kids hungry and tired, sore feet, eyes tired of squinting. Finally, they found it. They had to wait for quite a while for the YMCA Assistant Principal to register them and give them a tour.

They took the elevator to the 2nd floor and had to take off their shoes. Everyone is barefoot on the soft wood floor. Harper’s classroom of 2-3 year olds was full of mostly Japanese children (others were from Siberia and India) decorating a picture of a D made out of a deer on paper with colored plastic squares – they use a special phonetic system consisting of the alphabet made up out of animals. They kids learn gestures and sounds. They were almost ready for lunch – kiwi and orange, miso soup and rice, chicken or fish and potatoes. They each have to have a lunch bag with a place mat and silverware inside. The parents take it home every night to wash it all. Each child also has a range of required uniforms and things: a special vinyl backpack; a perfectly measured towel with a loop stitched into it for hanging; a swim suit and bathing cap with a towel for another “swimming backpack”; white YMCA caps that must have elastic stitched in to go under the chin in case of wind; special outfits for field trips – to plant sweet potatoes, see a Japanese garden, visit the tree frogs; bike shorts, t-shirts and sneakers for every day and more formal shorts and jackets to arrive in. Their heads were spinning with all the formalities and procedures but they were amazed at how clean everything was and how well the kids spoke English. Except for the early morning and after 2pm hours, everything was done in English. Guthrie’s classroom was also nice – full of kids making paper badges and also getting ready for lunch. Every room has a piano – which all the Japanese teachers play – lots of books, supplies, play space, low sinks and long tables and chairs. Once a week they go to the pool for swim lessons and there is a big playground on the roof. Beginning in June they have wading pools and sprinklers up there. The kids were very excited about it all and can’t wait to start on Monday. The parents decided – at least for now –to take the kids to and from school by taxi. The hill is way to steep and dangerous for bikes – although everyone says that bicycles truly have the right of way here and they saw plenty of Japanese people biking up and down the hill. Renting a car would cost them his summer salary and she didn’t dare drive on the other side of the road in a foreign city where she wasn’t able to read the road signs.

They took their first taxi home. The drivers all wear white gloves and the seats are covered with white lace. They had tuna fish sandwiches, crackers and apples for lunch and the kids are supposed to be napping. Harper is out cold but Guthrie is fidgeting and fake coughing. She writes because she thinks she SHOULD –to remember everything, to share the experience with friends, to perhaps stumble on some ideas for art. So far she is only absorbing, getting settled, observing and finding her way. She needs to find an art supply store so she can get paper and ink or pencils to do rubbings. The first one she wants to do is of the big sign for RERF – in both Japanese and English – a Japanese-U.S. Cooperative Radiation Effects Research Foundation. They will think she is crazy and she may wait to do it until it is dark and most of the researchers have gone home. They were all quite amused when they saw the courtyard tarp pulled back at dusk the night before, revealing a tennis court upon which two couples played. The courtyard sits smack dab in the middle of the compound – a ring of white buildings that all look like half-circles sitting on the ground on their flat bottoms – like barracks or storage units. She also needs black and white 120 film for her Mamiya 6x7 camera so she can take what she plans to be haunting photographs. The kids love watching out for the wild cats – strays with bloody wounds on their necks, limps, various disfigurations or odd features – crazy fur, wild eyes, plump paws, skinny backs.

She wants to walk along the river and roads and buildings and neighborhoods and see it all, rub it all, photograph it all. She wants to get inside, to find the spoiled objects that will leak onto x-ray film – leaving ghostly explosions of light in the darkness, to place flowers on the little cyanotype paper she brought with her that will leave white shadows.

Howard Zinn’s wife died last week, Roz Zinn. She emails the famous and most kind historian she will ever meet to send her sympathies and love and is astonished that he emails back with love and joy that she is in Japan – a place that every time he was here he found it extraordinary.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Magpies, Butterfly Wings, Bamboo

Dandelion About to Be Blown

She kept waking herself up on the last leg of the flight when her neck would fall too far forward and snap back up. Each time she would notice her 2 year old daughter’s sleeping body – curled up against the arm rest, her messy head on her lap, her plush toys, blue bear, lambie and bunny, fallen to the floor or damp beneath her. Her husband and 5 year old boy sat across the aisle, both slumped in aerial slumber. As they started their descent into the Hiroshima airport she couldn’t believe what she saw out the window – scattered mountains of green, a low red sun on the horizon, the city built between the hills. It reminded her of Cuba, of Brazil, of China. Somehow it seemed impossible for this city to exist this way after it was leveled by the Little Boy so many years ago. She reminded herself to find a copy of Barthes’ Empire of Signs because she sensed that his sense of placelessness was something like this. This is Japan but what is Japan?

She had asked several Japanese people how to pronounce Hiroshima. Is it Hiro-SHEE-ema or Hir- OH-shima? She always got alternating answers.

Andy - finishing his MBA online and married to Susan who helped them prepare for this trip via email with a million useful suggestions and tips and experience - met them at the airport and drove them to their apartment. While driving through the city full of Pichinko Parlors and neon; quiet business and curving highways, he says, “They love malls here. This is a country of mass consumerism.”

When you level a city – literally destroying everything except for a couple of buildings in a city of over a million – killing 100,000 people instantly, you would leave a population wanting things – beds, clothes, their children, toys, technology, anything to hold onto. She felt guilty and just wanted to go take pictures even though everyone knows that pictures do not alleviate guilt or fix things. Photographs only show the same thing again and again, proliferating the problem or making the problem pretty. (Pictures of every building with titles of what used to be there. Pictures of flowers whose seeds are perhaps poisoned with radiation.)

She had never expected to live in a building built by the US military right after the atomic bomb was dropped - built for soldiers and American scientists to study the victims of her country’s crime. Perched on a hill overlooking the city next to the Museum of Contemporary Art, it was an old compound – a little rusty and abandoned even though plenty of people still worked there on the Atomic Bomb Casuality Commission Study. The people of Hiroshima did not like that the compound was up there – so out of the way and difficult for the survivors to get to and on such precious land. As far as she could tell, the American government had no plans to move it. Again, she felt guilty for even being here. The birds, with their deeper caws and present invisibility, woke her family up at sunrise and they ventured out onto the roof to watch the day begin. A tall blinking tower loomed over them and she knew she would be nervous about the children falling off the roof. Her daughter Harper already had a swollen lip from falling while running in her daddy’s pajamas and a black-blood-rimmed nose from her brother Guthrie accidentally whipping her with a soft Pokemon puppet.

Wild cats. Magpies the size of hawks. Bamboo, palm tree and magnolia ravines with s-curve walking paths that lead to the world’s longest and steepest escalator that takes you to SATY – a department store filled with boxes of sushi; hotdogs on a stick; seaweed wrapped around puffy triangles of rice filled with unknown things; bags of mayonnaise and ketchup; trays of cherries; aisles of snacks and clothes and households goods and flowers surrounded by windows behind which workers wear mouth masks as they prepare everything for you. She begins Cathy Davidson’s popular book 36 Views of Mount Fuji and is struck by its simplicity – basic feelings of a tourist with some of the language in a foreign land. She relates but she also does not. She is looking for something more and she knows she will have to find it herself or write it or make it or just believe it.

The Japanese woman all in folded black with wrist cuffs and a visor and green shiny patent leather heels biking up the steep hill to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation with a Hello Kitty shopping bag gets off her bike directly in front of this transplanted and dizzy family with their pink umbrella stroller, backpacks and sippy cups trying to find the playground. She tells this stranger that she is beautiful and she says something back and gestures demurely. They find the playground that was probably built at the same time as their apartment – the 1950s. It is empty but for an adult man swinging back and forth from a bar with his hands. He leaves shortly after their shrieking arrival. A man in uniformed blue with a bright orange baton comes to check the public toilet. Guthrie, her son, finds a butterfly wing and insists that she photograph it. She does. The path through the overgrown hill reminds her of the downhill serpentine path in Lyon and the cat sanctuary path in Firenze. The common denominator is her and she wonders how she can get out from under the weight of her own being. How can she just BE where she is?