Hiroshima and Nagasaki: A Lesson in Surviving Trauma

Standing at the summit of Mt. Inasa, you would never guess that the city below, famous today for its “10 Million Dollar Night View” was reduced to an irradiated hellscape only 68 years prior. Really, if it weren’t for the frozen stopwatches, the one-legged Torii gate whose twin collapsed in the blast, or the carefully-preserved Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, you would be hard-pressed to find any evidence of the indescribable horror that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of The Second World War.

Maybe this is why I had no idea what to expect in going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki during fall break. I’ve been to Ground Zero. I’ve seen that a city and its people can push forward in the face of great tragedy, and that moving on doesn’t have to mean forgetting. Still, I couldn’t help but question how that dual desire to persevere and preserve could survive a nuclear bombing.

What struck me most immediately about both cities however, was that rather than place blame or call for an apology or possible retribution, they simply lay history out as it is: Here’s how America developed the bomb. Here’s how the allies decided on Nagasaki as a target. Here’s what a child dying from radiation poisoning looks like. The harshest words come from victim testimonials, but even those don’t spare Japan from criticism. For all the examples I’ve heard of Japanese historical revisionism, I was surprised to see clear testimonials about how Korean slaves working in Nagasaki factories received none of the very limited medical treatment available and were in some cases left to have their eyes eaten by crows in the aftermath of the bombing.

What I realized after my travels, however, was that neither Nagasaki nor Hiroshima is interested in remaining pigeonholed by its history. And by that I don’t mean they’re actively ignoring or erasing what happened there – far from it. What I mean is, while the memorials and museums are deeply concerned with explaining the history and honoring the victims, every plaque, park, and display casts its final gaze towards the future. You can see this desire to turn suffering into meaningful change in the Nagasaki Peace Park’s central statue, a figure whose right hand points upwards towards the bomb’s mid-air explosion and whose left hand stretches horizontally toward a peaceful future. The statue at once reflects upon the past while inevitably focusing on the future.

This kind of approach represents the solution to a potential problem that many of us face at some point: how do you break away from trauma without acting like it never happened? This dilemma extends beyond just nations or cities. Religious groups, political parties, even individuals struggle with moving forward without simply moving on.

In many ways it’s similar to the National September 11 Memorial. Though the central goal is without a doubt the creation of a collective, permanent space for honoring the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the memorial also seeks to demonstrate the basic strength and decency of all people. As the memorial mission statement puts it, the space “attests to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirms an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.” Despite all the suffering, politics and raw emotion, these memorials seek to remain universal.

The eventual message of both bombing memorial sites is that the terrible suffering endured by the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can only be honored by endlessly working to protect others from the same fate. It’s why the Mayor of Hiroshima sends a letter of protest anytime a nation conducts a nuclear test, and why school children from all over the world send senbazuru – wish-granting chains of one thousand paper cranes – every year to both cities. It’s also why, as an American, I didn’t leave feeling like I was supposed to hang my head in silent guilt. Instead, I was floored by the idea that the memorials’ visitors, be they American or Japanese should take whatever sadness or resentment they feel and turn it towards creating a better future.

The Amherst community is currently facing its own collective trauma. At once we are trying to move forward, to finally make our community a safe and just place while recognizing that new victims continue to come forward to share their stories of sexual assault. We owe these people more than just acknowledgement or their day in court. Rather, we have to take this collective pain and suffering and turn in towards creating a better community, one that remembers its grave errors but in the end stands as a beacon of hope to the world. And to that end, I think we might learn a lot from looking to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.