“I see those people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the news every year and I wonder why they just can’t let it go. Hasn’t it been long enough already?”
These words were spoken to my wife recently by a Japanese co-worker when we returned from Nagasaki. This attitude might seem startling to peace activists in Japan and throughout the world who participate in memorial events every year on August 6th and 9th, but it is a sobering reminder that many people in Japan and throughout the world have let the memory fade, not even knowing what they don’t know about the perils of nuclear weapons as they exist in today’s world.
In a consumer society based on employment in a military economy, the institutions people pass through in their formative years do very little to teach history, political consciousness or the meaning of citizenship. Whatever lessons exist are delivered as tedious, obligatory lectures, followed by multiple choice tests. Lessons might also have come from elders in the form of scoldings about how tough things were during the war, how “you youngsters” have no idea and so on. The only thing worse than no history lessons is bad history lessons. Japanese people, in particular, may be inured to them because of an overdose of obligatory exposure to the rituals of remembrance.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki also invoke uncomfortable feelings of shame about losing the war, and shame about responsibility for it. The hibakusha and all the memorials in the two bombed cities evoke these conflicted feelings, so many Japanese would rather turn away, just as many Americans would rather turn away for inverse reasons.
While living in Japan I have met people who talked about visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they never mentioned the atom bomb. The only thing they wanted to talk about was the local foods they ate, or maybe a visit to Dejima, the old Dutch and Portuguese trading post in Nagasaki that used to be the most famous thing about the city. They talked about these visits like they would talk about a visit to any other place. Likewise, residents of the two cities have millions of good reasons to appreciate everything that happened before the war and after it, all the things that make their cities just like other cities. No one wants their city to be just about that one traumatic thing that happened one day long ago.
I had lived in Japan for many years before I visited either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, partly because I had other priorities, and partly because it just felt a little strange to visit a place just for that. I knew the history quite well, but I still questioned my motives. I finally went when I had someone to visit there, someone who just happened to be a historian who specialized in the cultural impacts of nuclear technology.
That was Robert Jacobs, who was interviewed on a local Hiroshima English language podcast shortly after President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima on May 27, 2016. During the interview he shed some light on why people are becoming less reluctant to visit traumatized places and engage in what has recently become known as “dark tourism:”
I met a religious studies scholar… who said… dark tourism has replaced religious pilgrimage… Going to places where history happened, especially traumatic history happened… gives your life more authenticity… This has been on the rise, and it’s partly a way to infuse our lives with meaning and connection to a world that is often at a distance from us… to infuse your own life with a deeper sense of the importance of peace because you’ve been to some place where peace is so important. It’s an emotional and a spiritual renewal to go to places like that, and the use of the word “dark” doesn’t mean that there is a dark meaning. It just means that it’s sites of historical trauma. People go there not to gawk at trauma or death but because these are the sites that resonate in our mythology of the world we live in. Religious sites don’t resonate so much the way that they used to, but people like to visit places that give their lives a sense of being connected to mythic things. In our lives the mythic things are often large historical tragedies, and in coming to a place like Hiroshima… “dark” just implies a place where a dark thing happened, but the motives of the people who come here is to increase their sense of connectedness and their sense of meaning… People will invoke having been to Hiroshima as a means of having authority. They will say, “I’ve been to Hiroshima… I can tell you about how bad nuclear weapons are…” These are empowering reasons that people visit… The phrase “dark tourism” certainly doesn’t imply that the motives of people are in any way dark. 
There could be a downside to claiming authority just because one has visited a place where something bad happened. It depends on what one learns about the entire context of the traumatic event. Visitors to Hiroshima could leave with widely divergent interpretations of what happened there in 1945. In the end there is much to be said for a pilgrimage to a local library in order to connect and infuse one’s life with a deeper connection to history.
I can say that my visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki achieved something that was missing in all that I knew about what happened there in August 1945. No matter how much I had learned from books and films and second-hand reports, it didn’t become fully real in a certain sense until I could confirm it with my own senses, when I stood at ground zero, walked through the cities, visited the museums, and talked to eyewitnesses to the events. That’s what is meant by “connection.”
One of the great things about both cities is the streetcars. They still run down the routes that existed in 1945, and though they must have been rebuilt and refurbished many times since then, they haven’t been modernized. They look, and feel, and sound just like the streetcars of old, and they are the means by which most visitors get from the central train stations to the atomic bomb memorial sites.
On August 8th I rode the streetcar in Nagasaki with my wife and son, from downtown to the Urakami district where the museum and hypocenter are located. As we got closer the streetcar became very crowded, as groups of students were in town to attend the annual memorial the next day. I was standing, and my wife and son were sitting. A white-haired woman in her late eighties got on. She was stooping over a cane, but she pushed her way through the crowded aisle with considerable force. I tapped my son and told him to give up his seat. She took it with quick smile of gratitude then immediately began to talk to my wife:
Everyone’s going to the Peace Park today. That’s good. Good to see so many young people here… I wasn’t here that day. I was living down the line in Sasebo, but I had been called up to work in a factory here. For some reason I didn’t have to go to work that day. But then later I was told to get to Nagasaki and report for work. I got down to Sasebo station, and when that train from Nagasaki came in, people just fell out of it and collapsed right there on the platform, never got up again. Piles of them, blackened and sick. They just spilled out of the train car. I’ve never seen people in such a horrid state. Every city was getting bombed. We expected it, but obviously something very strange had happened in Nagasaki. I didn’t ride the train that day, but I went later… Sorry, I’m talking a lot, but I have to. Tomorrow the prime minister will come and make his speech again. So useless. We are really disappointed in him. I never used to talk to strangers like this, but now I talk to everyone because we have to. There are so few of us left.
Obviously, this is a translation and a paraphrase of a conversation recalled by my wife and related to me when we got off the streetcar. The reader may think I’ve embellished it, but this was the gist of it: the determination to tell the story, the need to condemn the present direction of the country, and thus the loss of all concern about what anyone might think about the unsolicited sharing of these stories with strangers on a streetcar. Looking back on it now, it seems to be the best way to explain to that smug, ignorant co-worker why people can’t and don’t have to “just get over it.” The experience also taught me why people should dare to be “dark tourists” and take in everything they see and hear when they visit places of historical trauma, whether it’s Auschwitz, Hiroshima or Wounded Knee. In this case, there was nothing like getting the story firsthand on a Nagasaki streetcar.
Our short visit to the city had other highlights. I was invited to join a study tour led by the historian of American University, Peter Kuznick (co-author of The Untold History of the United States), and there I met his students and others from Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University. A famous spokesperson for the hibakusha community was also there, 71-year-old Koko Tanimoto Kondo, who has devoted her life to speaking about the atomic bombings in both Japanese and English. Her father was Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto,  a Methodist minister who was portrayed in John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the first report that exposed American audiences to the horror of what had happened on the ground on August 6th, 1945.  Reverend Tanimoto began a campaign to have nations dedicate August 6th as World Peace Day, and Koko, who was only eight months old at the end of the war, continued her father’s mission as she grew older.
Another hibakusha, Kazutoshi Otsuka, spoke to the study group about the life he has devoted to telling the world about the necessity of abolishing nuclear weapons. He was ten years old at the time of the blast, and survived because he was at the edge of the zone of worst damage and was indoors at the time. He emerged from the debris that had fallen over him to find the city in ruins, utterly transformed from what it had been just a short time ago. The downtown area had been spared, but in Urakami almost all the buildings and thousands of people had just vanished. The last human voice he heard before the blast was his friend calling from outside, “The cicadas are singing. Let’s go catch some.” Did he die instantly in the blast? Did he run home and get caught in the fires? Did he die more slowly from radiation? Mr. Otsuka searched for his friend for a long time afterward, but it became obvious that he had vanished on the wind just like the last words he had spoken. For seventy-one years, while he has told his story to all who will listen, Mr. Otsuka has carried with him those simple words of invitation from his friend to enjoy a summer day.
The most famous icon of the atomic attacks is the Hiroshima Dome, one of the few structures left standing, but one which was almost demolished in the rush to rebuild the city and erase all signs of what had happened there. Those who wanted it saved had a hard time convincing city hall that it would be worthwhile to preserve it. There is nothing similar in Nagasaki, except for some portions of the walls of Shiroyama Elementary School near the hypocenter. Like the dome in Hiroshima, its position directly under the blast allowed it to be not completely demolished by the lateral blast force. After the fires were out, the remnants of the school on a small hill stood as the only desolate reminder of all that had been in this section of the city called Urakami. However, it wasn’t as photogenic as the Hiroshima Dome, and Nagasaki is more out of the way and receives fewer visitors, so it never became an iconic symbol of the atom bomb. In any case, the rebuilt school still functions as a school, so it wouldn’t be able to deal with a constant stream of visitors.
The original wall with the new school built around it.
We learned that every year on August 9th the school holds a remembrance ceremony for students, the community, and any visitors who wish to attend. The students all come back for a day from their summer vacations and dress up in formal attire in the 30-degree humidity. It is a mourning ceremony, so the adults wear black funeral suits and dresses.
My wife and I decided to get up early on the 9th and take our son to the ceremony. We had attended many Japanese school ceremonies with our children before, and this one was just like all the rest, but so different from all others as well.
A steep staircase leads up to the school, and Koko Tanimoto was already there at the top, beaming a welcoming smile to us. There was something from her father in that smile because she made it feel like we were being welcomed to church on a Sunday morning. We walked around the grounds and looked inside the restored section that holds artifacts and memorials for the disappeared. In a grove of trees just off the sports ground they still sometimes find bone chips a few inches down in the soil.
After the ceremony, a teacher talks to a group of students about the grove.
In his speech at the ceremony, the principal said everything one would expect at such an occasion, going over the events of that day and the weeks and months that followed, and the eventual rebuilding of the school and the city. Several times he mentioned “passing the baton,” stressing to the children their heavy responsibility to carry on the memory that all other graduates of the school have carried into their adult lives.
Shiroyama Elementary School, in the days after the bombing.
Around the third time I heard that word baton, I began to feel uneasy about it. I started to wonder how many people had gone through that school wondering “Why us?” They didn’t drop the bomb. They didn’t ask for this burden, and they must wonder why the whole country and the whole world is not doing more to pass this baton to future generations. I didn’t visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or make friends in the peace movement, suffering from any delusions that it is easy to change the world. I think most of my fellow travelers and the hibakusha feel the same. We know what we are up against, and we know how badly the masters of war have betrayed us. The hibakusha’s commitment to peace makes for a paradoxical taboo against expressing anger and rage, but I suspect the survivors have reached old age bitterly aware that the world has done far too little to act on their call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It must feel like cruel mockery as they reach their later years. There were many hopeful periods, such as the thaw between Khrushchev and Kennedy that was emerging just before JFK’s assassination, or the end of the Warsaw Pact in the late 1980s, but each time, to borrow a line from Leonard Cohen, the holy dove was caught again, bought and sold, and bought again. 
There must have been very many angry hibakusha over the decades, people who kept their rage contained within them, people who drank, people who became outcasts or extremists, but the openly angry people never got invited to official ceremonies. One can only speculate about the motives of the anonymous person who threatened to bomb Shiroyama Elementary School and other schools in Nagasaki in August 2016 (at least there was an advance warning), but it speaks to a very perverse disdain that exists in some people toward the victims rather than the perpetrators. 
Overt anger has been kept out of sight, but an acceptable outlet for covert anger is mainstream politics, where those in the ruling party dream of restoring the glory of the empire and their notion of “national honor” while accumulating plutonium from “the peaceful atom” and biding their time under American subservience. This is how contemporary Japanese society developed its neurotic ambivalence about its history and place in the world.
The various forms of anger have been reported by other writers who know the experiences of hibakusha well. Shortly after President Obama’s speech in Hiroshima, the journalist and filmmaker John Pilger had this to say:
… the cynicism of great power and great reckless power, in many respects is expressed at Hiroshima where… all the evidence shows that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were sacrificed as America’s first expressions of violent power in the Cold War that was then underway. So for Obama to go and talk about the atomic bombs as if God dropped them… He used the passive voice… and really quite vomitus language like “we must have the courage to care.” So [according to Obama] no one dropped the atomic bombs. The United States certainly didn’t kill all those hundreds of thousands of people. It didn’t cause all that suffering. It’s something that we should all express sympathy to. It was like a kind of high mass and the great divinity was there, but not the United States. That [the US] is not to blame. That’s been Obama’s role as a PR man extraordinaire, and he came into power and people fell on their knees… This was a kind of second coming. There was a problem for the last few years with re-igniting Afghanistan and Iraq, and destroying Libya and so on, but the fawning has begun again as Obama’s time in office nears an end, and for people, for journalists to report–as I say the deeply cynical action of Obama and the United States in Hiroshima the other day–to report it without the context of all those survivors–and I’ve interviewed many of them–of how angry they were… they’re polite people and they’re very elderly… but they were angry. 
Two months later The Mainichi reported more precisely on this anger in describing how the secretary-general of the Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations regretted his initial praise of Obama’s speech when he had time to read an accurate translation the next day:
Terumi Tanaka, 84, was in attendance on May 27 this year when Obama was making what was the first visit of a sitting U.S. president to Hiroshima…
There was an interpreter for Obama’s speech, but the speech was not handed out on paper… Sentences from the latter part of the speech, such as his reference to a future in which “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known … as the start of our own moral awakening,” had stuck with him, and he praised the sentence as “excellent words.” He noted, however, that he was “disappointed” that Obama had said, “We may not realize this goal (of a world without nuclear weapons) in my lifetime.” The next morning… Tanaka opened a page containing the Japanese translation of the speech. It began, “Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed.” Tanaka was stunned. “Death did not ‘fall from the sky.’ This is making the death abstract. This is absolutely unacceptable,” Tanaka thought. While on board the train he opened his laptop and began to write his “Essay of Regret.” As he typed, erased and retyped, he says, “I began to get angry and stopped midway. They ‘created’ the death. As a sign of apology, I want them to eliminate nuclear weapons,” he says. 
Another expression of this anger came from Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha who has lived for many years in Toronto. She was received at the White House in June, where she met the man who wrote the Hiroshima speech and hand-delivered a message for the president in which she listed the concrete measures that need to be taken to make the speech amount to more than aspirational fluff:
- Stop the U.S. boycott of international nuclear disarmament meetings and join the 127 countries that have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge to create a new legal instrument and new norms for a nuclear weapons ban treaty as a first step in their elimination and prohibition.
- Stop spending money to modernize the US nuclear arsenal, a staggering $1 trillion over the next three decades, and use this money to meet human needs and protect our environment.
- Take nuclear weapons off high alert and review the aging command and control systems that have been the subject of recent research exposing a culture of neglect and the alarming regularity of accidents involving nuclear weapons. 
Much more could be said by the hibakusha community about issues not relating directly to disarmament, such as the worsening mistrust between the nuclear powers and the proliferation of conventional military power that leads so many nations to favor the “cheap and easy” asymmetrical nuclear deterrent.  The obstacles to peace are stacked high, and anger seems to be the only logical response. But I will hold onto the memory of Koko Tanimoto smiling at the top of those stairs at Shiroyama, greeting the late pilgrims like me who’ve finally decided to make this simple journey.
 J.J. Walsh, interviewer, “Professor Bo Jacobs on the Obama Visit,” Get Hiroshima, May 30, 2016, 18:00~
 “Hiroshima Survivor Meets Enola Gay Pilot,” This is Your Life, 1955. The full interview with Reverend Tanimoto can be viewed on YouTube.
 Robert Jacobs, “Reconstructing the Perpetrator’s Soul by Reconstructing the Victim’s Body: The Portrayal of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ by the Mainstream Media in the United States,” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, Issue 24, June 2010.
 Tadatoshi Akiba, L. Wittner and T. Taue, “Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki Day Events Matter,” Asia Pacific Journal, August 1, 2007.
 Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” The Future, Columbia Records, 1992.
 “‘Hibakusha’ talks scrapped after Nagasaki bomb threat,” Asahi Shinbun, August 18, 2016.
 Afshin Rattansi, interviewer, “ISIS in Fallujah & World War III with John Pilger (Episode 350 of Going Underground),” Russia Today, June 4, 2016. What John Pilger described as a “passive voice” construction could more accurately be called a usage of an intransitive verb which conceals the agent of the action. The speech writer had various syntactical choices available: President Truman ordered the bombs to be dropped or The crew of the Enola Gay dropped the bomb, The bomb fell or, at the level of greatest possible abstraction, Death fell from the sky.
 Terumi Tanaka, “Hibakusha: A-bomb sufferers’ group official regrets praising Obama speech,” The Mainichi, August 2, 2016.
 To Barack Obama from Setsuko Thurlow, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, August 6, 2016.
 Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 101. Many who favor nuclear deterrence believe that it has prevented a third world war that would have been fought with a massive arsenal of conventional weapons, with millions of casualties. In this argument, a nuclear arsenal is preferable, and it comes at a bargain price for nations large and small. Rhodes’ book argues for abolition of nuclear arms, but he noted how their “low cost” (not considering what economists call “externalities”) became a rationale for their development: “Nuclear warheads cost the United States about $250,000 each: less than a fighter bomber, less than a missile, less than a patrol boat, less than a tank.”