Mention August 6 to most Americans, young or old, and my guess is you’ll get a blank stare. “What about August 6?” Mention Hiroshima and you might get a second blank stare. Most Americans can’t name the date that the first atomic bomb was dropped, Aug. 6 1945 on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped, on the southern port city of Nagasaki. Today is the 65th anniversary of that bombing, August 9.
Tens of thousands of civilians were killed instantly in both bombings, some leaving just shadows like stationary, permanent ghosts on walls next to where they had been standing. But because of the raging fires caused in the blasts’ aftermath, and the deadly radiation poisoning from the black rain fallout that followed, up to 166,000 people in Hiroshima, and 80,000 in Nagasaki were killed within a few months. People who survived the blast suffered injuries, burns and deformities; some are still dying today from cancers that lay dormant for decades.
In Japan, the atomic bombings are national tragedies that are commemorated to this day, much like we probably will commemorate 9/11, fifty years from now.
But here in the United States, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have over the years become historical factoids, questions on tests, for most people. Sure, there are recent Japanese immigrants and U.S. anti-war activists who remember and mark the anniversaries, but for most Americans — even, I’m afraid, most Japanese Americans — there isn’t much thought given to the devastation suffered by either of those cities so long ago and far away.
In fact, this year’s commemoration in Japan was the first to ever feature a high-ranking American official, Ambassador John Roos. It’s shocking to me that we haven’t sent officials to attend this most solemn ceremony in the past, since we’re so much a part of the reason for the ceremony.
Every year, the mainstream media pays much more attention to the Dec. 7 anniversary of Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawai’i. I’m not saying that Peaqrl Harbor shouldn’t be remembered. And, I accept that Americans’ sentiments lean towards attacks by others on our soil, not the wartime acts we conduct on foreign soil. That’s natural.
But it does seem out of scale to me that Aug. 6 and 9 go by year after year with very little acknowledgement of the dates’ significance. Those bombings led within a week to Japan’s surrender, ending World War II. But the atomic bombs aren’t even celebrated for that patriotic reason either.
My theory: Americans who know better and do remember are somewhat nervous and embarrassed that we used such an awful weapon to end the war, and our country spent the next generation in the chill of the Cold War, with nuclear weapons pointed across continents. The terrible consequences of those bombs are tough to be reminded of every year. Maybe some of us would rather forget on purpose.
But I’m afraid most American just forgot because they weren’t taught much abut the bombings (except the patriotic fact that they ended the war), or perhaps they were never taught at all, like how they were barely taught — if at all — about the internment of Japanese Americans during that war.
That’s why you’ll get blank stares. And that’s why, a politician like Democratic state representative Nick Levasseur of New Hampshire could quip, when asked earlier this year what he thinks of the popularity of anime, â€œAnime is a prime example of why two nukes just wasnâ€™t enoughâ€¦..â€
Say what? He really said that? This awful, incredibly insensitive remark popped out in such an offhand, casual way that it’s astounding to think it was even lurking near the surface of any lawmaker’s mind. Maybe a middle school student (and a racist one at that). But not a person in a position of responsibility who represents the people of his district, and who should know better.
I’ve been thinking abut the fading institutional memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because I was asked last week by a reporter from the Japanese edition of the Wall Street Journal for my thoughts on Japanese Americans’ and other Americans’ perspective on the atomic bombings. Misako Hida is based in New York, and writes a column for WSJ-Japan. If you read Japanese, here’s her column about the atomic anniversaries. (I wouldn’t recommend trying the various online translation tools, or Google Translate, because Japanese still comes out pretty garbled when it’s translated into English.)
I had never thought about how Hiroshima and Nagasaki are perceived and remembered in America. But it reminded me of the powerful memories I have of visiting Hiroshima when I was a kid living in Iwakuni, near Hiroshima. Iwakuni is home to one of the largest U.S. Marine Corps bases in Japan, and my family lived there for about a year and a half. We took the train to visit friends in Hiroshima a few of times, and I remember crabbing in Hiroshima Bay.
But the most stark memory is of visiting the Hiroshima Peace Park, with its spooky skeletal “Atomic Dome,” the observatory building whose shell somehow survived the ground zero blast. I also remember the main monument at the park, its sweeping arc of a memorial always decorated with flowers from visitors.
There’s also the famous statue of Sadako Sasaki, the middle-school aged atomic bomb survivor who died of leukemia after the war, and whose story has become well-known the world over.
In fact, if young Americans know about the atomic bombs, it’s probably because of the story of “Sadako and the 1,000 Origami Cranes.” The girl made cranes in the hopes that making a thousand of them would save her life; to this day, well-wishers bring thousands of origami cranes to Sadako’s statue in Hiroshima’s Peace Park’s “Children’s Peace Monument.”
For Japanese, these are the iconic images that help them remember the horrible way that World War II came to and end. In the U.S. the memory is so dim that lawmakers might use the bombings as a punchline.
There’s another reminder for me this week of the atomic bombings: Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, the talented and award-winning Japanese American author of the 1999 novel, “Why She Left Us,” has written a memoir of the months she spent in Japan during 2001 and 2002 — and how the attacks on the U.S. on 9/11 changed how people spoke to her about their memories of being in Hiroshima in 1945.
I’ve just started reading that memoir, “Hiroshima in the Morning,” and I’ll post a review when I’m done with the book. It’ll be published in September by the Feminist Press.
There are lots of resources to learn more about the atomic bombs and the effect they had on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here are just a few:
Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Wikipedia entry)
Atomic Bombs (Japan-Guide resources list)
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Wikipedia entry)
Facts and Figures of the Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs (“Mothra” home page of a Hiroshima resident)
Via Vicky Murakami-Tsuda at Discover Nikkei, an interview with a Hiroshima bomb survivor (they’re called “hibakusha” in Japan).
Also on Discover Nikkei (a terrific collection of interviews, oral histories and artifacts produced by the Japanese American National Museum), an interview with Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.
Via Audrey Dolar Tejada, founder of Strange Tango: A sad and personal look at artifacts from the atomic bombings.
And here’s a German blogger Alex Vladi‘s video, “Three Minutes of Silence” (which he posted as a comment on Facebook in response to a post about my blog), shot at Hiroshima’s Peace Park today:
…you think Dec 7 will fade away? Not!
My classes from elementary to high school definitely skipped all the important-mostly tragic-histories of America’s minorities. It is one of the reasons why I want to become a teacher.. one of the reasons why I think education is the most effective way towards unlearning racism. No more blank stares please!
Hi PG — I’m sure you’ll make a great teacher, with your multiculti perspective. Thats wat we need more of in our schools.
Hey George, you’re right. Every Dec. 7 I still have that nagging feeling that someone’s gonna say something nasty and stupid to me, and have the creepy feeling that people are looking at me like I was responsible for Pearl Harbor. Have felt that way ever since I was a kid.
A couple of good articles that question American’s political rationalizations for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings
Of particular note is the analysis of America’s geopolitical agenda that drove this first use of nuclear WMDs in history.
65 years since the bombing of Hiroshima
Why World War II ended with Mushroom Clouds
History is written by the victors.
In my opinion, this is a major obstacle to American society accepting Asians. Americans just aren’t taught that Asians in general were victims of some of the most brutal European and American colonial endeavours.
Western history books do not teach that Japanese imperialism was part of a larger phenomenon of western imperialism – which was in many cases just as brutal as Japan’s. This part of our Asian history has been conveniently ignored because if the west ever actually acknowledged and accepted responsibility for its colonial atrocities in Asia, then they would have to accept that the use of atomic bombs was simply an emphatic re-assertion of western colonial dominance.
This is an interesting point, Ben. You’re right: Japanese imperialism is seldom linked overtly to the history of Western imperialism in Asia.
Is that the statue of Sadako Sasaki collapsed in the recent earthquake?
Hiroshima is pretty far south in Japan and wasn’t affected by the March 11 Tohoku Eathquake and tsunami. I think Sadako and her thousand cranes are safe. Thanks for posting your comment!