This is an essay I wrote on my trip to Hiroshima this January.
|As the street car finally puttered to a stop in front of the remains of a domed building at the entrance to the Peace Park, I wrapped the string of my camera securely around my wrist and reached into my sweater pocket in the hopes of finding some kind of salvageable paper. At first I fished out a few bookmarks from various temples and shrines, a crumpled assignment sheet with drafts of haiku scrawled on both sides, and other smaller bits and pieces. After a little bit of rummaging, I found what I was looking for: a nearly square, waxed and mostly un-crumpled receipt. I held it between my thumb and forefinger, feeling its light weight and slippery texture. It would be a little flimsy, but it would do.
I looked at that piece of paper for a long time, disappointed with its fragility that mirrored my own shaky understanding of the events that happened in this place nearly 70 years ago. Before coming to Hiroshima, I thought of it only in terms of the books I had read. When I would tell friends back home that I was planning on visiting Hiroshima, the only way I could talk about it was by listing off a whole bookshelf worth of titles of both fiction and non-fiction works. I thought of Hiroshima in terms of words on paper, words that had often transformed themselves into images in my mind. While those images stayed with me, there was something one-dimensional about them just like the receipt I held in my hand.
I hopped off the street car, and one hundred and fifty yen clinked loudly as I dropped the coins into the slot to pay for the ride. Rising in front of us were the ruins of the Genbaku Dome—better known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. It loomed like a fossilized dinosaur skeleton over the entrance to the Peace Park. In a lot of ways, it is a fossil, the only ruins left just as they were after the bomb detonated almost directly above it (though it too was nearly demolished along with the rest of the remains during the reconstruction of the city). Scarred red brick walls and yellowed cement—both crumbled in places and pocked with shards of other buildings and debris—constitute the body that supports the actual dome’s fingerlike framework. It is a small building compared to those that have risen around it over the years, but the sight of it against the backdrop of a now flourishing city of Hiroshima is a powerful reminder of the catastrophic events that happened only a few generations ago.
I slowed my pace as I walked further into the park, still fingering the receipt in my hand and trying to absorb every detail: the blue-green water, the memorial fire that burns over the water, and especially the simple beauty and peacefulness of the area. In high school, I had read a lot about Hiroshima. It was one of those subjects that clung to me. I spent countless hours researching the events leading up to Hiroshima, accounts of what happened that day, and especially the stories about the aftermath.
I was always most drawn to those moving narratives, especially the story of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki, who is known for having tried to make 1000 origami cranes before her death from “A-bomb sickness.” Until her death, she clung to the hope that if she folded these 1000 cranes, she would be healed.
I stopped walking when I got to the Children’s Peace Memorial that had been built in her memory. Towering above the trees around it, the monument depicted the figure of a small girl standing triumphantly on top of a dome with an enormous crane raised above her head. Behind it, were huge transparent baskets filled with colorful paper. I wish I would have inspected further because I later discovered that those were actually containers for visitors to place their own cranes. If I had known that, I certainly would have lingered long enough to finish the crane I had started to fold out of the receipt, but since I didn’t know, I went on to the museum.
Walking into the museum was like entering a tomb of foggy silence. It wasn’t totally quiet, but the small sounds that did crop up once in a while seemed distant and muffled. No one spoke. I don’t think I even heard anyone whisper the usual “sumimasen” when closely crossing paths with someone else. They just moved.
As I walked through the dimly lit corridors of the museum with my paper quickly transforming into the bird, I stopped frequently to look at the artifacts and photographs while occasionally taking a peek at a series of television screens that were playing archived footage of test bombs illustrating the power of the atomic bomb as its destructive capacity spreads like a billowing wave out from the center point. On one wall, there were nearly a dozen large photographs of the mushroom cloud and on another hung before and after pictures of the city from an aerial view, a bright red dot indicating the hypocenter or the central area over which the bomb detonated.
The further into the museum I went, the more personal the artifacts became. A life-size diorama depicted three survivors—bloodied, disfigured, and covered in tattered clothing and flesh melting like reddish wax. I couldn’t hold their glassy, despairing gaze for more than a few moments, so I moved quickly past the display. Even further in, pictures of both survivors and casualties, many of which were those of elementary or junior high students, stared down from their places on the eerily lit walls. Below these photographs were diary entries, most from earlier the very day of the bombing.
All through the various corridors of the museum, physical objects bore testimony to the horrors their owners had experienced: a three-year-old boy’s charred tricycle and riding helmet, the singed uniform of a school child, a burnt school book or diary, and other everyday items that had survived the blast only in fragments.
Finally, near the back of the museum there was a small domed exhibit with a glass cone-shaped base. On top of the base, there were about a dozen of the smallest, most precisely folded paper cranes I have ever seen. They were all different colors and very carefully arranged on the clear platform. The display was so small that it would have been easy to miss. This, however, was what I had been looking for the whole time. These were the very cranes Sadako Sasaki had created, each fold neatly secured by the pressure of the small hand of a very brave eleven-year-old.
As I stood there creasing the last folds of my own crane, I could just imagine her slender fingers working easily with the origami paper, systematically folding over the neck and tail, pressing the paper into place, and finally opening up the wings to reveal a paper bird in flight. As she grew weaker and weaker, she would barely be able to apply enough pressure to the paper to keep it in its proper shape, but she would still be trying, always trying.
I could have stood looking at that one exhibit for hours, but, being pressed for time, I peeled my eyes away after only a few minutes and walked in silence through to the end of the museum without stopping to look at anything after that until I got to the part of the building with windows overlooking the Peace Park. I could see the entire park from that window and beyond it into the city that had picked itself up—literally—out of the ashes.
I walked back through the Peace Park, passing all the monuments again at a distance. I peered across the lake and I could just barely identify the place where Sadako’s monument—the Children’s Peace Monument—stood. I felt then that Sadako was no longer just a girl in a book I read; she was someone whose life I had brushed up against across the barriers of time and space through her cranes she left behind that I had, for just a few moments, been able to experience. Even though I am an American tourist and Sadako was a Japanese girl whose death rests on the shoulders of my own country’s actions so many years ago, there is yet a connection—a bond—between us that could not have been forged by simply reading about her. That bond, I realized also, is what the Children’s Peace Monument is all about and the reason why thousands of tourists from many different countries come every day and leave their own paper cranes for Sadako at the monument created in her honor.
Just as we were leaving, I looked down into my cold, reddened hand marked with big fluffy snowflakes and smiled at my own fully formed crane—transformed from flimsy trash paper into something not only three-dimensional but also beautiful.