Every year thousands of people flock to Hiroshima, Japan, to remember the victims of the first atomic bomb. On August 6th, paper lanterns are lit and released into the night with the names of loved ones and wishes of world peace and nuclear disarmament.
If you visit Japan during this time, you should plan on attending this ceremony. Even if you are not a history buff, there is a lot to learn about Japanese culture during this event.
This was one of the hardest posts to write about my trip, not only because its political polarization, but also because it was the first of my experiences during my trip to Asia in which I was able to learn more about history and the dynamics of this conflict across Japan, South Korea and China.
This day had a huge impact on me personally and even almost a year later, I still can’t put into words all the lessons that begun this day.
Takeaways from the Hiroshima Peace Ceremony:
A siren that changed everything
I have always loved being transported into a different place or period of time through books, but as amazing as the literary experience can be, it can’t replace a first hand experience. On the morning of August 6th, 2015, while walking to the ferry that would take me to Hiroshima for the day, I experienced a dreadful event: bomb warning sirens that blasted over island-wide speakers across the bay in the sleepy little island of Miyajima.
I have lived through hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, ice storms, but I have been fortunate to never have lived through a war.
But on August 6th, while a mock siren marked the anniversary of the first atomic bomb that killed over 160,000 people, I felt fear and vulnerability as if I was experiencing an attack. Those seconds that were followed by deep silence and prayer around me, transported me to the past and into the shoes of the residents of Hiroshima and neighboring cities as they would witness for the first time in history the terror of nuclear power.
A different perspective on history
We are all taught a different version of history based on our location, our country’s involvement in the events and cultural/political accepted views of the past.
The history we are taught in school can only be expanded upon or challenged by curiosity and exposure to new facts. Combine that with the local immersion that travel provides and you got a good combination to make your own conclusions of world events. Travel allows you to see things from a different lens.
Being raised in Brazil, a country that has not seen war since the late 1800’s, much of what I learned about the World Wars was basically a summary of who, why, when and where. The World Wars never really held my interest. It wasn’t until I attended college in the US that I found myself immersed in a particular group of European and American friends that loved to discuss history, that I began to understand what a big deal it was for multiple generations of the countries that had been directly affected by it.
During those long discussions, the World Wars were still an European/American thing. Very little was said about the Asian countries’ involvement. There was a lot I didn’t know. Being in Asia during the 70th Anniversary of the end of the World War II was an unexpected way to get immersed into different perspectives of what happened and to learn about conflicts that are still being played out on the other side of the globe. You can read about how China celebrated the anniversary of the end of the war here.
A lesson on personal responsibility
In the US, memorials are built as a way to remember and honor the lives of those who fought or lost their lives to unspeakable acts. That is how I’ve always seen them, so it was a surprise to me to read an article about the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and why the Japanese government decided to leave the bombed building standing. The article stated that it was to honor the memories of the victims, but it was equally to remind the Japanese people of the consequences of wars.
This statement alone speaks volumes to how the Japanese see their actions and involvement in the war. This humility in defeat and personal responsibility mindset is weaved into much of the Japanese culture and has been a driving force behind Japan’s development into the nation that it is today. However, there is a cost paid for war that lasts for decades, specially in Asian cultures, where the past is never too far away. For many, this is a part of their history that brings a lot of shame and although Japan is trying its hardest to look into the future, it is still dealing with the aftermath of invasions in China and Korea.
A disconnect in cultural behavior
We have all been guilty of committing a travel faux pas, regardless how experienced we are as a travelers. That is a part of traveling that enables us to learn. Sometimes we need to observe others to realize a disconnect in our cultural behaviors. When I attended the Hiroshima Peace Ceremony, I was struck by the oddity of how Western tourists behaved in front of the bombed ruins of the only surviving building in Hiroshima: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
I felt odd and uncomfortable watching people taking selfies and pictures with smiles on their faces as if they were at a tourist landmark like the Tokyo Tower, while some Japanese citizens carried large graphic pictures of children who had died in the bombing.
I asked myself, would those same tourists take that same picture in front of the World Trade Center memorial or the many holocaust memorials throughout the world?
I also thought about how one country’s feeling towards another today and their position of power at the end of the war shaped their reactions. How did residents of Hiroshima feel watching Americans acting so casually in front of a place which was bombed by the United States or inversely how Americans would feel by Japanese tourists taking smiling selfies at Pearl Harbor? I think both of these things happen, but I had never given it any thought.
The questions didn’t stop there.
I would ask myself later – when I encountered some hostility in South Korea* for simply looking Japanese – do these feelings extend past nationalities to race alone?
*Additional context: Japan invaded South Korea and committed various atrocities while in power.
I was left with many questions to ponder for the rest of my trip and months after coming home. I had never paid attention to acts like these and I don’t think the tourists had any ill intentions by taking the pictures, I don’t even think they realized it how it could come across. I myself may have committed faux pas like these in the past and not realized it.
Somehow these disconnects in cultural behavior were more accute to me while traveling alone, without the familiarity of friends/family. Have you had a similar experience?
A lesson in hope
I debated attending the Hiroshima Peace Ceremony because it didn’t sound like a cheerful way of spending a day in Japan, but I am glad I resisted the urge to only look at the beautiful. By doing that, I gained a valuable lesson in hope.
I cried my eyes out listening to the children in the choir plea for peace across the ruins of the Dome and gawked at the hundreds of paper cranes created by school children in Japan signifying peace. I lit my paper lantern and sent my wishes of peace into the river of Hiroshima and watched as people from all ages and backgrounds did the same. I thought I would leave Hiroshima with a heavy heart, instead I left it with a heart filled with hope.