The Hiroshima Connection

A man’s real possession is his memory. In nothing else is he rich ,in nothing else is he poor.

—Alexander Smith

The night before leaving Tokyo for Hiroshima, where I was to spend most of the month of May collaborating on a BBC film based on my book Death in Life, I had a vivid and disturbing dream. I was the head of a team of doctors about to examine a desperately ill child. We knew that the little boy would die, but our examination seemed important for some obscure humanitarian purpose. The child’s father, also a doctor, stood protectively at the bedside as I approached, introduced myself and my colleagues, and reassured the little boy that I would not hurt him. Beginning the examination, I observed a large swelling that protruded from around his eye, and asked: “Does your eye feel as though it is swollen?” Before the child could answer, his father responded in a pained, angry voice: “Of course it feels as though it is swollen—you can see that!” I felt upset by the father’s answer and very uneasy toward both father and son as the dream faded away.

The dream expressed, among other things, my own painful uncertainties about approaching Hiroshima once more. After all, we know that people died in the tens or hundreds of thousands, suffered from grotesque immediate radiation effects and are still suffering from deadly delayed effects, and that survivors’ psychological suffering, compounded of fear and taint, reflects their uniquely intense, many-layered, and above all, unending encounter with death. As the father of the little boy in the dream—the other doctor, Hiroshima’s own spokesman—said to me, in effect, the distortion and death are fully visible to anyone. Additional examinations—more questions—these only humiliate further.

At the heart of the dream is my inner question about the “humane purpose” justifying the examination—or, in more general terms, the possible connection between Hiroshima and humanity.

I was aware of considerable uneasiness at returning to Hiroshima, eight years since my last visit, and thirteen since my original six-month study. The images in the dream reflected conscious anxieties about again approaching survivors, or hibakusha (“explosion-affected persons”); about spending my energies going “backward” rather than “forward" in time, while wondering whether I had anything more to say about Hiroshima; about the vicissitudes of historical memory—in them, me, and everyone else. How could I not question this further pursuit of a thirty-year-old memory—of what Elie Wiesel has called “a memory of a memory.”

Arriving in Hiroshima. I found that there, too, the “don’t look back” impulse was strong. The dynamism of the rebuilding process had been clear enough during my two earlier stays, but now the city seemed to have “taken off” into the postmodern future—high-rise, automated buildings everywhere; frantic vehicle and human traffic; a glittering consumerism propagated by the large department-store chains; and a greatly enlarged amusement section, with attractive bars and restaurants and gaudily beckoning nightclubs, strip shows, and sex stores featuring “toys for adults.” All this may not be the “real Hiroshima.” but when one looks at it together with its business-industrial underpinnings, one can begin to understand how the atomic bomb experience can (and for many in the city has) come to be viewed as an embarrassment, best ignored. As for the survivors themselves, they are, as a group, aging, dying off, becoming an increasingly small minority (90,000 in a city of 500,000) whose special history must begin to fade even where it is not actively swept away.

I felt the strangeness of my meetings with survivors—thirteen years of silence between two intense encounters. It was like stepping out of a time machine—young men projected into balding middle age, teen-aged girls into settled housewives and mothers. Part of that time-machine effect was the dramatic change in economic status that at least some had experienced. One man, who had shown unusual dedication in helping people at the time of the bomb, and whom I had known as a middle-aged laborer, is now an old man in a very comfortable sitting room lined with the golf trophies of his son, an independent businessman in whose house the laborer lives out his retirement. Another, with injuries affecting the use of one hand and extensive keloid scars, whom I had known as a street vendor of postcards and atomic bomb mementos, now proudly demonstrates his small, aesthetically pleasing, and well-stocked bar. Like many hibakusha I talked to, they told me of having focused for some time upon everyday existence—being comfortable, earning a living, getting on. While not without resentment toward the Hiroshima majority who had never known their pain, they nonetheless felt their own need to let go of the past—or at least to concentrate sufficiently on the present to try to make up for what they had lost. One woman, also still carrying a keloid scar, but proud of all she had done to reconstitute her life, expressed a general sentiment when she said, “I would like my mind and spirit to be the equal of yours.”

None of this is surprising. One could hardly expect people to wish to remain fixed in time for thirty years around an event that signifies only pain in the extreme. The change, over the thirteenyear period of my particular time machine, was exemplified by a survivor who, as a young clerk during my first stay in Hiroshima, spoke disapprovingly of the children that he observed swimming in a nearby river; “Those who went through the bomb would never swim there. I remember passing that spot and seeing dead bodies floating on the water—burned and black dead bodies. Whenever I see that part of the river, I recall that scene.” Now, however, “My thinking has changed.

I have three children myself, and I often go to the Peace Park with them, where we play together with the pigeons.” The symbolic shift is from the survivor’s indelible image to a state in which pleasure and play become permissible on the very ground of the holocaust.

Yet something more nags at each of them— something having to do with the meaning of their experience and the possibility of connecting it with a world outside (and yet not outside) of that experience. Even those most adamant about leaving the memory behind would always express qualifications. One woman spoke bitterly of her disappointments and missed opportunities for marriage because of her keloid scars, and insisted, “I don’t want to touch the past.” But a little later she said, sadly and softly, “And yet, having stayed alive for thirty years, I would somehow like to make use of my experience. I would like to leave something behind me, some trace.”

We all, of course, have similar desires. The need to leave a trace is part of the universal aspiration toward continuity and connectedness, toward what I think of as symbolic immortality. But for Hiroshima survivors, the trace one seeks to leave behind—the means of achieving what I am calling the Hiroshima connection—becomes mostly the story of one’s exposure to nuclear annihilation. That story, or rendition of the human actuality of the atomic bomb experience, is precisely the rare commodity they possess. They and others sense the universal value of that commodity, but for hibakusha its potential for human connectedness (even recognition) is inseparable from something close to ultimate pain. The very combination, as a survivor explained to me some time ago, creates an added source of humiliation: “I always say, if anyone looks at me because I received the Nobel Prize, that’s okay, but if my only virtue is that I was a thousand meters from the atomic bomb center and I am still alive, I don’t want to be famous for that.” To the perils of this double-edged historical memory and its double humiliation must be added that of repetition and “performance” in the telling of the story. The human actuality so desperately sought (and avoided) turns out to be as difficult to recreate as it is invaluable. The whole process is maintained by the survivor’s profound need to find meaning in his death immersion on the one hand and the world’s need for the Hiroshima story on the other-the latter always expressed ambivalently, fearfully, and very often aversively. Has there ever been a historical memory so complex and difficult in its relationships to “leaving a trace”?

There are, of course, certain survivors who give considerable energy and substance to that “trace.” For me, one of the most memorable experiences in Hiroshima was a visit to an orphanage headed by a hibukusha social worker. His preoccupation with helping abandoned children stemmed directly from an indelible image of a dying child with its dead mother, both almost totally burned, and of his own failure to rescue the child. Next to a small shrine he called “the sacred place of the orphanage,” mother and child were represented by an exquisitely simple sculpture consisting of two rounded pieces of stone, next to which was a third, somewhat more elongated stone, representing a dying man to whose plea for water the survivor had not responded. Part of his daily ritual consisted of pouring water over each of the three stones, as if to offer now what he had been unable to offer then. One has the impression that this ritual helped energize his “survivor mission,” his “Hiroshima connection” with the needs of the people of that city.

Others sought active connection beyond their city. An elderly poet, whose young son died in the bomb, told me how, thirty years later, “the dead still live in my mind.” In one poem he described how “the blood of men and women has soaked into . . . every grain of sand.”He sees himself as a witness whose mission is to make it possible for others to “feel close to these [atomic bomb] experiences.” He sought to make his poetry available to Hiroshima schoolchildren, as well as for translation into other languages, and one could feel his frustration—the survivor’s built upon the writer’s—at the limitations he encountered in dissemination and response.

Another man (whom I had previously described as a “zealot-saint”) has been conducting, for the full thirty years, an uninterrupted one-man campaign (following the death of a twelve-year-old girl from leukemia) against the bomb and its evil—organizing and leading a children’s group devoted to peace and to helping survivors; initiating a campaign that resulted in a monument to children killed by the atomic bomb, now standing in the Peace Park; writing letters to world leaders; and distributing paper cranes (symbolizing peace and long life) to Hiroshima visitors and correspondents. All this he did in his spare time, required as he was to gain his livelihood by working as a janitor in a school. Though undoubtedly a force in the city, his efforts were somewhat scattered and always desperate. Now, he told me, he was busy collecting atomic bomb accounts of the most neglected group of survivors, the Koreans, long victims of severe discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. A visit to his tiny apartment told everything: a mountainous clutter of A-bomb memorabilia—newspaper stories, pictures, albums, books, boxes with unspecified content, and, above all. hundreds of thousands of paper cranes. Clearly he would never relent, and one wondered at what point the absolute requirements of his kind of atomic bomb connection would literally crowd him out of his living space, just as it had already excluded everything else from his psychic space.

And then there was the retired professor of ethics who has become an almost legendary figure in Hiroshima, conducting his “sitting protest”—crosslegged, straight-backed, silent—whenever any country is revealed to have made a test explosion of a nuclear weapon. Concerning memory, he commented with the utmost simplicity: “I remember because I can’t forget.” His Hiroshima connection also begins with and remains grounded in the dead on whose behalf he sees himself sitting. But it must be hard for him to sustain his faith in the forward-looking purpose of his protest, that of initiating what he calls “a chain reaction of spiritual atoms to overcome the chain reaction of material atoms.”While neither international politics nor contemporary physics provide much hope for the realization of that purpose, the sitting protest nonetheless disseminates its own human currents.

One Hiroshima journalist made the metaphorical distinction between “masculine" and “feminine" hibakusha styles (whatever one’s actual sex): the masculine style, that of actively joining in with the economic boom and looking ahead toward renewal; the feminine style, that of remaining preoccupied with the bomb and with helping those in any way wounded by it. However dubious the metaphor, most survivors experienced considerable conflict about where and how to sustain their connection with the world. A truck driver with keloid scars, whose feelings of humiliation and extreme sensitivities had resulted in frequent job changes and considerable personal instability, put it this way: “There are two ways to think about the problem of remembering. One is to appeal to people in some form of peace movement. The other is to be silent and just go on living.”But in one breath, he said that, despite indelible images that will never disappear, “I must be a forward-looking man—I can’t always go back to the past,” and in another, he expressed a considerable resentment at the fact that “people tend to forget.”

A professor of sociology was critical of “exaggerations” concerning the bomb, and suggested that the Hiroshima connection ought to emphasize “a brighter perspective . . . that so many people can recover from total destruction, can rebuild from ashes . . . which says something about the human capacity for recovery.”Yet,. over the course of our talk, a different sense emerged. Not only did he characterize the atomic bomb as “a weapon of massacre,”but his own lingering fears undermined the “brighter perspective” he advocated. He is married to another hibakusha, and those fears seemed to extend endlessly over the generations: “I have always worried about aftereffects in my children. Up till now there have been none. Our first daughter married and had a baby . . . both her husband’s parents are hibakusha . . . just a normal baby. Everything is okay, I think. But I do worry a bit.”

These conflicts find bodily expression in ways that pose particularly poignant dilemmas for Hiroshima physicians. On the one hand, they have witnessed the most grievous kinds of suffering in their patients, beginning with the grotesque burns and acute radiation effects during the early post-bomb period, and extending to the subsequent increase in incidence of leukemia and more recent increase in many forms of cancer (for which the latency Period is greater, so that further increases can be expected). They have observed, also, the deathhaunted psychological state, induced by these increases and by possible genetic effects on future generations (though here, studies have so far shown negative results). Many doctors, therefore, support ever more comprehensive government programs of medical and other benefits for hibakusha. Yet the same doctors cannot help but become aware of the vicious circle of dependency that results. For instance, one doctor, recently retired from the directorship of a leading medical center and known for his compassion for hibakusha, told me: “For some hibakusha, especially older ones, the only purpose in life is going early in the morning to a hospital, waiting around for several hours, and spending the whole day in that way, with no other activity or goal.”To be sure, this sort of degrading medical immersion can occur under many kinds of conditions, but in relation to the atomic bomb it suggests a pathetic effort to achieve the Hiroshima connection through recognition of bodily impairment, through confirmation as a member of a death-tainted group.

No wonder people in Hiroshima constantly spoke of “munashi,” or “emptiness.” Used in Hiroshima, the word suggests that nothing has meaning: nothing connects. A professor of English expressed a similar sentiment when he said that, as a result of the bomb. “This is not soil in which things take root. Things do not grow well here.” He was referring to every aspect of cultural experience, including the capacity to evolve ideas and images that could connect with the outside. It was as if the original post-bomb rumor that swept Hiroshima—the rumor that, for seventy-five years or perhaps forever, no trees, plants, grass, or flowers could grow in Hiroshima—were proving to be metaphorically true for the vegetation of culture.

There is probably no hibakusha without a considerable element of munashi (nor is it totally absent in the rest of us), even if it is combined with pride in recovery and self-assertion. One woman, who reflected all of these feelings, went on to articulate the bodily taint surrounding the Hiroshima connection in its most bitter extreme: “I have no choice but to accept the fact that I am a hibakusha. But when I begin to face the idea of death, at least there I want to be spared from A-bomb disease. . . . The thought of dying of an ordinary disease is a consolation to me.”

Another contradiction around the Hiroshima connection is expressed by the angry frustration of many hibakusha at the “festival atmosphere” of the annual August 6 commemoration of the bomb, which seems to them to mock their suffering and “insult the dead.” A semiretired professor of history suggested an alternative form of commemoration: “On that day, all the doors in the city should be closed. People who visited the city would say, ‘I went to Hiroshima on that day. All the stores were shut. No one was to be seen.’ Hiroshima should be made into a city of the dead.”

But the most intense individual experience of munashi that I encountered was in a man I had met thirteen years before as a vibrant and original young writer (not himself a hibakusha but, through death and suffering in his family, very close to the experience), and who now appeared before me in despairing, stagnant middle age. He told me that over that thirteen-year period he had written almost nothing, and had spent his time instead “mostly getting drunk.” He explained that, until the early sixties, he found the human struggles revolving around disintegration and renewal in Hiroshima important and interesting to write about. But after that, the economic boom and the slogans of “doubling personal income and doubling productivity” were considerably less inspiring, and, in fact, something close to sacrilegious: “When we consider those who died, we should not permit ourselves to eat good food, to take sexual pleasure so freely. We should eat sparsely and be celibate. We should not permit ourselves happiness.”

Whatever the contribution of pre-bomb psychological conflicts to his present state, we can say that his death guilt, which had in the past been animating, had provided energy for his writing, had now become static and immobilizing. He went on to speak of the futility in continuing to document the horrors of the bomb because, in his judgment, such efforts were taken advantage of by the United States and the Soviet Union in justifying their own continuing world domination through a nuclear monopoly. And he condemned the inauthenticity of most versions of the Hiroshima connection because they suppressed an unpleasant dimension of the city’s experience—the stealing, murder, the criminality and moral degradation of every kind that took place during the months and years after the atomic bomb was dropped. As his parting shot, an ironic expression of munashi, he compared the relatively orderly behavior of survivors at the moment of the bomb with the absolute panic three decades later of the Hiroshima people—now turned “clerks and salaried men”—in response to the recent gasoline shortage. He seemed to be saying that Hiroshima’s story was more tainted than generally realized, and that neither he nor the city, in any case, had anything sufficiently heroic to convey to the world.

Yet this same man, after his long silence, was preparing to start writing again. He told me he was beginning to organize his thoughts for a story about a man obsessed with the “arrogance”— by implication, hubris—of surviving; and for other stories about what becoming a survivor does to human decency. He was, in other words, still struggling with a form of literary expression of the Hiroshima connection.

For the entire city, in fact, the other side of munashi was a sense of a new stage in Hiroshima’s relationship to the world. That sense was epitomized by a concerted effort being made by Hiroshima University to establish an Institute for Peace Sciences. I talked at length with the president of the university, who strongly supports the plan and likens the city’s situation after the bomb to that of the world after the death of Jesus Christ. He was saying that, with a cataclysmic event, everything depends upon the way it is experienced and the way the story is told. I took the comment as a suggestion less of precise historical analogy than of sensitivity to the issue of collective survivor mission following an ultimate death encounter.

This atmosphere emboldened me to bring up a subject so sensitive that it had, in one way or another, virtually been suppressed. I mentioned that students of the late Yoshio Nishina, the great Japanese physicist at the time of World War II, had recently published a valuable study of radiation effects as both a memorial to their teacher and an expression of their and his post-World War II commitment to peace. The study mentioned Nishina’s horror at what he found upon arriving in Hiroshima, two days after the bomb, as part of an official investigating team. But there was no mention, I said, of the fact that Nishina. at the request of the Japanese military, had himself earlier headed a team of physicists in a serious but unsuccessful effort to produce a Japanese atomic bomb. My Hiroshima academic colleagues readily understood my point—the universal impulse toward weaponry of ultimate destruction. Several of them, in fact, said they welcomed this kind of discussion because it helped Japanese to overcome their preoccupation with “victim consciousness.” And they went on to talk about exchanges, already initiated, between Hiroshima and Auschwitz. In a number of other discussions. I heard hibakusha make sensitive connections between Hiroshima and such events as the Vietnam War, India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the dangers of plutonium reactors for nuclear energy, and major international threats to the physical environment,

A distinguished historian, deeply involved in the Hiroshima experience although not himself a hibakusha, told me that the problem sometimes requires a “third person" (by which he meant someone who is neither a hibakusha nor a nonhibakusha), someone like himself, who did not originally experience the bomb, but took on the experience nonetheless. Such a “third person,” he implied, could combine detachment and concern. In my terms, that would be a survivor by proxy, a once-removed “witness,” which, in a way. I myself have tried to become. In a similar vein, the historian observed: “Just as the hibakusha are themselves disappearing, this is the time we must make their full story available to all of humankind.”

Is the Hiroshima connection being made? Not adequately. Yet in that city, as in Nagasaki, there exist our only collectivities of survivors of ultimate holocaust. Their “memory of a memory” is our own, bound up with our destiny no less than with theirs.