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Day 6 in Japan: Hiroshima

Posted at 9:38 AM on August 1, 2005 by Brian Newhouse

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial The Hiroshima Peace Memorial
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) was the only structure left standing in the area where the first atomic bomb exploded on 6 August 1945.

Tired-Eyes Alert: a longer post than usual.

The first sound you hear when you get off the streetcar in central Hiroshima is the cicada. It’s not the same high-pitched squall that rises on Midwestern August afternoons, but a lower, more mechanical sound. Walking under just one tree gives you the impression of a scissors-testing convention in full swing, and you’re forgiven the upward glance to check if one of those little buggers has a bead on you. Magnify that sound a thousand times for all the trees that line the paths of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, and this is your unnerving welcome to the site where the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb 60 years ago this week.

Yesterday was a day off from choir singing. Funny, we flock from all over the world to the Symposium wanting to be moved by the sound of the human voice singing with other human voices. And we’ve gotten it in Kyoto. But too much of a good thing… So the organizers make sure to book an off day halfway through each Symposium with no concerts, no workshops, just a chance to rest the ears and look around. I took it as an opportunity to realize a longtime dream and ride one of the famous Shingansen ‘bullet’ trains. It took about an hour and a half to travel the 200 miles between Kyoto and Hiroshima to the southwest.

Hiroshima’s cicadas made doubly sure I left the Symposium far behind: their sound doesn’t so much enter the ear as press against your forehead. But a second sound stamped the experience even harder. It came no more than a minute after I’d gotten to the Peace Park. I’d started to read the sign—At exactly 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945, 70,000-80,000 people instantly…—and was suddenly aware that I wouldn’t have the first idea of what to say if a Japanese stopped me and asked me to answer for the atom bomb. What was I doing here? But right then there was a crash of metal on metal back on the street I’d just crossed, then a shatter of glass. I looked back and a motorcycle rider lay crumpled by a shiny black bike, facedown on the street, his headlight in pieces in front of him.

This is one of those moments I used to fantasize about in grade school. I will be heroic. I will know the thing to do. I will leap to it. I just stood there. Dumb as a pigeon, the guy only a few yards away from me, no clue what to do.

The driver got her car off the street and came running. I looked at all the other people standing next to me staring at this poor guy. They’ll know what to do. They’ll help. They live here. They speak Japanese. Nobody moved.

I’m not sure what happened in the next minute but I found myself kneeling over the guy, my only thought that I wished I’d heeded my wife’s sage travel advice: Always carry a packet of Kleenex. The driver helped the rider sit up but neither of us had a thing to staunch the blood that began to seep steadily from his nose and mouth. He spat and teeth skittered onto the pavement.

Cars began to swerve around us and right then by any measure I failed my sixth-grade fantasy: I timidly cupped my hand under the man’s elbow as the car driver helped him to the sidewalk where he plunked down again, head in hands. Finally, finally, there was a guy hollering into a cellphone for an ambulance. The bike was still on the street. This situation didn’t seem likely to improve any if the bike stayed there, so I righted it and rolled it onto the sidewalk, parking it next to its owner. That was all I did.

But an old woman, I imagine the driver’s mother who’d also been in the car, came right up to me and let fly with a flurry of Japanese. I have no idea what she said, but she ended in a deep bow. Her daughter now held a bloody cloth to the biker’s face and I made some lame motion toward her daughter that I hoped indicated that she was the only one doing any good here. But her mother fixed me with a stare and bowed, this time practically to her knees, her hands in the traditional Japanese posture of thanks but which to us looks like prayer.

While over her shoulder stood the remnants of the building they now call the Atomic Bomb Dome. It survived the 1945 blast that otherwise flattened everything else for a mile. Hiroshimans debated for decades whether to leave its skeletal remains as is or raze it, finally deciding that it could do more good right there. Now it’s an icon. And any American who looks on this thing and does not have it sear into the back of the eye better check for a pulse.

There this old woman stood, still bowed deeply in front of me, that bombed-out building right behind her. I’ve picked up only a smatter of Japanese words this week, nothing that could begin to convey, “Listen, my people incinerated 80,000 of your people in a flash on this very spot. Don’t bow. Not to me.” Instead I felt my cheeks turn red. I bowed ever so slightly to her, hurried off and back into the park.

But the cicadas and their scissors were still working hard there, their sound mingling now with an approaching siren—and none of this giving any quarter to an American a long way from home.