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Emily Strasser: Letter from Hiroshima

On the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, the granddaughter of one of the scientists who made the bomb pays a visit to ground zero.


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Photo of Hiroshima taken by the author.

By Emily Strasser

Today marks seventy years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On this day seventy years ago, my grandfather was working in the top-secret lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee that was responsible for enriching the uranium that fueled the Hiroshima bomb. If he understood the extent of the project before news of the bombing crackled over the radio that day, I’ll never know. He would continue a career in nuclear weapons, as Oak Ridge was enlisted in the feverish race to build bigger and bigger bombs. How much his eventual mental and emotional collapse was fed by guilt, I can only guess. Oak Ridge taught secrecy. George died nearly four years before his daughter-in-law, my mother, held me in a Chicago living room and wept in a state of postpartum despair over the possibility that she had brought a daughter into a world doomed to nuclear annihilation.

Now I am twenty-seven, one year older than George was seventy years ago, and today, I am in Hiroshima.

How do we walk through a landscape that has seen this sort of death?

Here it is bright hot summer, the air so humid I am instantly soaked through. The Peace Park, just blocks from the explosion’s hypocenter, is lush and green and thrumming with cicadas like I’ve never heard. I stand in front of the cenotaph, a stone tomb containing nearly 300,000 names of deceased A-bomb victims, those who died on August 6th and those who’ve died since; one volume is dedicated to, “a multitude of those whose names remain unaccounted for.”

It’s in the shadow of a saddle-shaped arch, which frames the Flame of Peace and the skeletal ruins of the now-iconic A-Bomb Dome behind. I watch as other visitors take turns posing in front of the arch. The gesture strikes me as strange, but I don’t know how to be in this place, either.

When a survivor, Sadae Kasoaka, tells me of that day, she closes her eyes and claws the air with upturned palms.

To the north is the Memorial Mound, a grassy hill covering the ashes of the unclaimed dead; bottles of water left in offering rest at its base. Many died crying out for water.

Maybe it’s the heat or the jetlag, but I’m starting to get confused. There is the Peace Fountain and the Peace Pond and the Children’s Peace Monument and I begin to feel the way I do if I say a word over and over and over again until it becomes unstuck from its meaning, a strange sound lost to the cicadas’ buzzing.

These rivers were choked with bodies. I know this, but such facts feel remote from this place.

Clusters of uniformed schoolgirls race around to each monument, taking turns reading explanations aloud in bright distant voices.

I am drawn north through tree-shaded pathways by a long, low tolling. A boy and girl, in a blue baseball cap and straw sun hat, are laughing as they run up and down the steps to the Peace Bell, tugging the rope that swings the heavy metal clapper to make it ring again and again.

Two people who I guess are their grandparents watch in amusement from the stairs while, partially hidden through the trees, a man and woman film the scene with a large professional camera and telephoto lens. As the family begins to leave, the cameraman approaches and speaks to the grandfather. Receiving permission, he positions himself on a ladder beside the bell while the children stand fidgeting, holding the rope together. Finally in place, the cameraman gives a signal, and the children swing the clapper, then put their palms together in prayer and bow their heads, standing still as the deep reverberation lingers. In the lotus pond around the bell, the frogs croak irreverently.

When a survivor, Sadae Kasoaka, tells me of that day, she closes her eyes and claws the air with upturned palms. “I was standing in front of a glass window. It flashed red. It was a beautiful color, like the sunrise mingled with orange. With the flash, the glass broke, and shattered in pieces.” Out of a folder full of maps and photographs, she pulls a crude silhouette of a man cut from black construction paper, pasted on a white background. This, she tells me, is what her father looked like when he stumbled home that day. When she touched his skin, it peeled. Lifting a strip of the black, she reveals bright red beneath. He died two days later. Her mother arrived home in a paper packet, just hair and ash.

Kasoaka-san didn’t speak of her experience for more than half a century, until renovations at her grandchildren’s elementary school uncovered human bones that had been buried just as long.

Most survivors, hibakusha, do not speak, and never will. My interpreter, by her own reckoning, has translated thousands of survivor testimonies, yet her 94-year-old mother, who lost her entire family, still cannot bear to tell the story of that day.

In the postwar years, hibakusha were abandoned by the Japanese government and treated as research subjects by American scientists. A-bomb orphans and others left without health or family made homes in a sprawling slum in the heart of the destroyed city, kept from starvation by gang bosses and crime. Many were shunned by employers and potential marriage partners, who feared crippling health problems and deformed children. Some moved away, where their pasts were not known. Some still hide from the shame.

You wouldn’t know it, though. At the Peace Park and museum, you can listen to seemingly endless video testimonies by survivors, which all follow the same, ritualized pattern, beginning by stating their distance from the hypocenter on the morning of August 6th, and ending with a plea for world peace.

The story is presented without context; “the bomb was dropped” the plaques say, without reference to who or why.

If you want to meet a hibakusha one on one, you can reserve one (or two, or five—how many do you need?) at the museum for a fee of about $50 each. The fee is understood here as a gift in exchange for the gift of their story, but for me, the process only heightens the sense that I am stepping into a highly choreographed dance.

For this anniversary, all the English-speaking hibakusha have been booked up for public testimony. I understand why the stories start to sound the same. How deeply exhausting must it be to perform your trauma to strangers again and again? The storytellers speak so that the world will know the reality of what happened here. So that there will be no more Hiroshimas. And it is undeniably moving to hear the direct testimony of a survivor. But really—do we not already know that the damage brought by nuclear detonation is incomprehensibly horrific? How many more times must we make them tell us?

Threaded through by seven tidal rivers fanning out to the sea, this city is clean and modern, if not exactly beautiful. Elegant women bicycle in skirts and heels and children play baseball on a Saturday morning. One evening at sunset, I watch two girls in kimonos by the river below the A-bomb dome, laughing as they take selfies.

What bones lie in this earth still?

When I tell hibakusha that my grandfather worked on the bomb, their forgiveness is quick and complete.

In post-war occupied Japan, American officials censored information related to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and particularly to the disturbing, ongoing effects of radiation, under the vague justification that such material might “disturb public tranquility.” The Peace Park, with its fountains and bells, seems similarly inspired. The horror feels distant and contained.

Even in the museum’s main exhibit, where you can see the torn and bloodstained uniforms of schoolchildren, the story is presented without context; “the bomb was dropped” the plaques say, without reference to who or why. It is “like the scene of a natural disaster,” observes Ran Zwigenberg, who studies the process and politics of atrocity commemoration. Unfortunately, during this 70th anniversary, a time of extremely heavy visitation, galleries detailing a wider historical context are closed for renovation.

When I tell hibakusha that my grandfather worked on the bomb, their forgiveness is quick and complete. He was only following orders, they say. Many of the scientists felt guilty after Hiroshima. This, of course, is too easy. If George was so tortured by Hiroshima, why did he continue his work? If there was guilt, it was slow and toxic, buried deep and never spoken.

But forgiveness is part of the narrative here. Robert Jacobs, an American professor at Hiroshima City University who studies the social and cultural effects of radiation on communities, explains to me how official channels constrain the types of stories that will be heard by outsiders—“If you were a hibakusha in this town, and you were giving testimony, and you talked about how angry you were at the United States for killing your family, you wouldn’t be asked to give testimony. So there comes to be an accepted narrative.” It’s a subtle process, one he says is complete here. Censorship may be long internalized.

What makes me saddest is to think of all those who’ve never spoken—of how they watch this pageant of peace while, 70 years after the worst thing that ever happened to them, the world is far more capable of destroying itself than it was on the day a nuclear bomb tore apart their lives.

This story is not finished. Today, children from Fukushima, now refugees in other provinces, are bullied in school, and their parents’ cars are keyed on the streets. They are victims of the same misinformation and belittlement that left their predecessor hibakushas isolated. Today, the global inventory of nuclear weapons hovers around 15,000, and the weapons themselves are many thousands of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Maybe the hibakusha are not angry, but I am.

My mother met my grandfather just once before he died. She was a budding anti-nuclear activist, nervous to meet her boyfriend’s father, the retired nuclear weaponeer. But her Chicago friends who’d come along for the ride, fiercely intellectual and unconcerned with gaining George’s approval, set him pointed questions in low voices. He, in red suspenders and a striped shirt stretched over a hefty beer belly, was unperturbed. He told them no country should possess nuclear weapons, and that the US should disarm even if the effort was unilateral. She remembers him as the most anti-nuclear person she’d ever met at the time.

Today, representatives from ninety-six nations will gather in the hot August morning to observe the ringing of bells and the releasing of doves. There will be speeches reaffirming commitments to world peace and nuclear disarmament. At 8:15, the park will fall silent for one minute, to mark the moment of the bomb’s detonation.

Let’s have that silence. But after that?

“I have my happy life now,” Kasoaka-san tells me. With four healthy grandchildren in their twenties, she has finally stopped worrying about how her radiation exposure will affect her descendants. For her, and for the others, I want all the happiness, all the peace, this place can provide.

And yet, for the rest of us, peace may be the wrong word for what we need. Peace, here, seems to be mistaken for tranquility. The world should not come here to be soothed. How can we be shaken?

Emily Strasser will complete her MFA at the University of Minnesota in May of 2016. She is the winner of the Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest 2015. Her work has appeared in Guernica and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. She is working on a book about the intersection of family and national secrets in the nuclear city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Her time in Hiroshima was made possible by the Hawkinson Foundation for Peace and Justice, the University of Minnesota Graduate Research Partnership Program, and the Walter H. Judd International Graduate and Professional Fellowships.

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