Monday, June 16, 2008

Michiko, Sadako, Hypocenter

The word for dandelion in Japanese is tampopo. The word for god and paper is pronounced the same way in Japanese - kami.

Basement in one of the few buildings that
withstood the A-bomb blast, where one
man survived.

"Comfort Soul" Stones at the Monument
to Korean Victims of the A-bomb

Another amazing day in Hiroshima, despite her and the two children waking up with countless itchy and red bed bug bites. She takes the kids to school and asks Sasha, Guthrie's teacher, about the bites on her tummy. Sasha takes one look at her belly and says, "Bedbugs. You must set off a bomb to kill them today." She calls her husband and asks him to have someone at RERF take care of it. She worries about it off and on during the rest of the day because every time she pauses in the hot, bright, blinding sun, she has to scratch the bites on her neck, shoulders, arms, legs, belly, everywhere.

After dropping off the kids she quickly walks over to her favourite A-Bombed Eucalyptus tree in Hiroshima Castle park to collect more fallen leaves and bark that smell so damp and medicinal. She sent off all the ones she collected before - one in each brown envelope with "A leaf from an A-Bombed Eucalyptus Tree, Hiroshima, Japan," written across the front in pencil. Across the back were alternating texts: May all nuclear weapons be dismantled; May we bring an end to war; May we know a better world; The geiger counter ticks as I hold it out to gravestones in Hiroshima; There is no such thing as a good war or a bad peace; A young girl fans the ashes of her father in an urn, wishing to cool him; There is no cure for the atom bomb but to abolish it.

She had arranged a guided English tour of Peace Memorial Park for 10:30 in the morning with Michiko from the World Friendship Center. They meet in the lobby of the Peace Museum and begin their tour, their friendship. Once again she is struck by the kindness and generosity of strangers. The tour is supposed to last 1 and a half hours but they end up spending the entire day together. Michiko knows everything about Peace Park, the A-bomb, survivors, victims, Japan's history, the peace movement. She freely shares it all as a volunteer with the Quaker organization World Friendship Center - a non-political, non-religious organization. (She wonders how this is truly possible, especially for someone like Michiko - a Christian and anti-war activist.)

Michiko is beautiful. She can not believe Michiko is 60 years old. She looks no older than 40. Her energy is amazing, soaring, open and from the heart.

Most of the following is taken from her notes while Michiko talked. The Peace Park is very close to the hypocenter which is marked by a simple granite monument and explanation text in front of a hospital. It was a hospital before the A-bomb and it is still, rebuilt of course. The hypocenter neighborhoods were the most thriving. There were six neighborhoods, many temples and shrines, businesses, entertainment houses, and homes. After the A-bomb, when practically everything in this area was levelled and everyone died, there were few resources to rebuild. Hiroshima asked the central government to restore Hiroshima. Four years later, in 1949, the Hiroshima reconstruction Law was passed. The Peace Park is an expression of lasting desire for peace. Human bones were found everywhere, unidentified, they were cremated.

Hiroshima was occupied until 1952 by the U.S.-Allied Forces. People came back to Hiroshima because they knew nothing about the radiation. The occupying forces maintained a high level of censorship and incorrect information. A-bomb survivors built about 450 shacks that had to be destroyed in order to make Peace Park. It took time to remove these shacks but the government built simple homes for the survivors that ultimately were removed as well in the 1970s for museums and shopping centers.

They stand at a Chinese Parasol Tree that survived the A-bomb elsewhere and was transplanted to Peace Park. The obvious injury faces away from the hypocenter because trees must be replanted in their original direction. There is also a second generation Chinese Parasol Tree beside it. The quick regeneratiom of plants and trees, seemingly perfectly healthy, was an encouraging sign to the survivors after the A-bomb. She is struck by the large and beautifully shaped leaves and hopes she can do a rubbing of the damaged trunk of this tree and have a leaf to x-ray and make a cyanotpype of. Survivors are now planting seeds of A-bombed trees. She wonders if the seeds or trees have been tested for radiation.

Supposedly Hiroshima City tested the area on October 1, 1945 and they were surprised by the low level of radiation - probably due to the typhoons shortly after the A-bomb that washed so much away - lives, shacks, soil, poison. Hiroshima City now claims that the level of radiation in Hiroshima is "as low as somewhere never bombed." She does not believe this.

Michiko has a friend who is a Hiroshima Maiden - a woman severely scarred by the A-bomb. This friend, who was 15 at the time of the bombing (so is now 78), went to RERF for tests in 2006 and they discovered a contaminated tooth. She donated it to RERF. She has had breast and thyroid cancer, a stroke, and such bad keloids that she has undergone over 15 operations at Mt. Sinai hospital. She lost her fiancee, was bullied and discriminated against. While at Mt. Sinai, she stayed with a Quaker family who apologized to her for their government's criminal actions. That apology helped to cure her emotionally.

There is a monument to the poet Sankichi Toge. Even though the occupying forces forbid the use of the word "A-bomb" on monuments or otherwise, Sankichi Toge managed to publish poems and magazines against the A-bomb, renouncing war. In 1950, while in a hospital, Toge heard that Truman was thinking about using the A-bomb again - this time against Korea. He responded by writing A-bomb poetry, raging against war. He died during one of many operations. His fountain pen and hair are buried beneath the monument. (She plans to go find his books tomorrow.)

The Monument to Prayer simply says "Comfort Souls," which is what many of the monuments say. Michiko says there are three reasons for the monuments: to comfort the souls of the dead; to remember; and so we never repeat this episode. The Prayer Monument was erected on August 15, 15 years after the A-bomb to console the victims of the A-bomb: military servicemen; officers; policemen; teachers; mobilized students, midwives, nurses...praying for peace.

There are 258,000 names of A-bomb victims registered under the cenotaph. Each year on August 6, new names are added. The Flame of Peace is not an eternal flame because it will only burn until nuclear weapons are abolished. Hiroshima has 20/20 vision - a vision of a nuclear weapons-free world 75 years after the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. 2,000 cities outside of Japan participate in the annual conference of Mayors for Peace - an organization started in Hiroshima. During the 1970s and 80s Peace education was thriving. These days, Japan is becoming more militaristic and patriotic and the numbers of visitors to the Peace Park, especially of schoolchildren, are dropping.

The A-bombed gravestone of a government official is haunting. The stone ball on top of the gravestone was thrust upon the ground, half buried. Engraved on the ball is the Japanese character for SKY. Below it is WIND, but you can only see half of that word. The rest is buried. The Monument to Korean Victims of the A-bomb is impressive - tall, solid, standing on the back of an enormous stone turtle. In Korea they believe the dead pass into heaven on the back of a turtle. The turtle faces in the direction of the Korean Peninsuala - geographically so close to Japan, but worlds away on many other levels.

They decide to have lunch. Michiko wants to take her to a traditional Japanese restaurant and they end up back at that amazing restaurant she had dared to go into by herself her first week here. But this time they sit upstairs, on the floor, in a gorgeous dark and cool wooden room. They feast on a bowl of fish in tomato sauce, barley topped with taro root paste and seaweed, miso soup, cool Chinese noodles and carrots, salad, pickled vegetables and cold tea. It is a perfect lunch and she is happy to be able to take Michiko because she had forgotten to bring her book as a gift today. After lunch they find the FedEx/Kinko's to mail the A-bombed leaf-filled envelopes to NY for the Audacity of Desperation exhibition. It takes a long time and many forms to mail it so that it will get there by Wednesday morning at 10:30. She has no idea what it will cost.

They walk back to the Peace Park and visit the basement of the resthouse - one of the few buildings to withstand the A-bomb. Only those who speak Japanese and who know about this basement can go. You must ask and fill out a form. One man survived the A-bomb in this basement. He had gone down to get some papers. At 8:30 - 15 minutes after the A-bomb, he managed to be standing on the edge of the bridge, observing burning hell. You must wear a hardhat to go into the damp and dark cellar. Walls are cracked, large puddles soak the cement floor, rusty doors and wooden barriers stand as evidence of history, as witnesses to it. Some people have left paper cranes and other offerings here. It is haunting. She feels the weight of survival.

They come out into the blazing light and sit on a bench near the Sadako monument - by far the most popular in the park. People are always there - singing songs, taking pictures, ringing the golden crane bell, leaving paper cranes, praying, crying. Michiko asks her if she wants to know the real story of Sadako. Of course she says yes, but she wonders what she is saying yes to. Michiko had met Sadako's father 5 years or so ago, before he died. He tells her about how Sadako's mother held her tight in a boat as they tried to escape, but the black rain fell and fell, soaking Sadako's kimono. The black rain was radioactive poison. He told her that even though every story of Sadako - and there have been many; her story has been translated into over 30 languages - claims that she almost managed to fold 1,000 paper cranes - 1,000 being the magic number that according to Japanese tradition would allow your wish to come true, she actually DID fold 1,000 cranes and had begun to fold another 1,000! They talk about this decision - to tell the whole truth, the real truth, or half the truth. Does one offer less hope than the other? She is convinced that the whole truth should be told. The truth only makes Sadako stronger and the story even more moving, devastating, real. Folding 1,000 paper cranes will never cure leukemia, but one girl can change the world.

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