Many years ago, I took a job as an English teacher at a private language school in Akita, Japan, on the northeast coast, one of the country’s remotest areas. In the winter storms blew in from North Korea and Siberia, bringing daily snow flurries and the occasional blizzard, whose strong winds made the power lines howl like a baleful wolf. From about the middle of November until May, Akita was a very dark, cold, windy place. The sun was a rare visitor. The harsh climate, which tests the endurance of the people, however, is helpful in producing some of Japan’s best rice. The region is famous for its Nihonshu, or sake, a Japanese alcoholic drink. Drinking, as a pastime, prevails.
At the time I was living in Akita, Westerners were an uncommon sight. Less than fifty lived in a city that had a population of around 300,000; so I always felt I was being watched, and often I was. My paranoia, it turned out, wasn’t so far off, because one of my students, a recent university graduate who was preparing for a civil service examination, told me one dark, blustery afternoon that his mother—whom I had never met—had seen me buy four blueberry muffins at a bakery not far from my home. I realized then that it was time to quit my job and leave town.
The owner of the school, Mr. K., was from Hiroshima, which is at the opposite end of Japan’s main island, Honshu, and gets considerably more sunshine. On those occasions when he took teachers out to dinner, he would often roll back a shirtsleeve, revealing a scar shaped like a scythe. It was shiny and smooth in texture, obviously from a burn.
“Before leaving Japan, you should all visit Hiroshima,” he’d say.
A nervous silence would settle between us. We all knew he’d been a child living with his family in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. What could any of us say? Most of us were Americans, some guilt-ridden about the bomb, and, moreover, he was the source of our incomes.
He had a toothy, wicked grin and would break the nervous silence by raising a mug of beer and making a toast, “To increasing our enrollment!”
“Kanpai!” we’d cheer.
I don’t remember all the details of his early life in Hiroshima. He was seven or eight on August 6, 1945, the day the bomb was dropped. His father had been a photographer, but he hadn’t been interested in following in his father’s footsteps because he was very sociable and didn’t want to “spend his time in a darkroom like a mole.” He’d graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo and gone into sales, working in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, for a company whose name I can no longer remember. It was at this time that he started to listen to English language tapes while driving from customer to customer. His English improved. Japanese wanting to learn English were plentiful, and so, to go into business for himself, he set up a private English school, first in Sendai on the Pacific coast, and later in several other cities in the northeast. He hired mostly Americans and Canadians as teachers.
At Mr. K.’s suggestion, after leaving Akita I traveled in Japan, heading south, and arrived in Hiroshima one warm June afternoon on a local train that had started out in Osaka, to the east. The ride had taken several hours, but that was fine with me. I preferred to ride a local train. For one thing, tickets were much cheaper than those on the shinkansen—bullet train—and, of more interest to me, a local train offered me a chance to relax and take in the countryside and passengers, who use local trains to commute to school or work or to go shopping in a city.
The countryside of western Japan, at least the part of it I saw on the train ride from Osaka, wasn’t at all like Tohoku, which is a sea of rice fields extending to the foothills of mountains. What I saw there were tangles of pipelines from chemical plants and smokestacks that cluttered views of the horizon. In one section, however, some women in bonnets were tending a hill of tea plants. I had never seen any tea plants in snowy Tohoku.
All major train stations in Japan have a tourist information booth, where volunteers help visitors find hotels or Japanese inns, known as a ryokan; they also pass out a hefty amount of pamphlets and maps to promote the sites that might be of interest to tourists. At the visitors’ center in Hiroshima, a woman made a reservation for me at a ryokan near Hiroshima’s Peace Park, where the Atomic Bomb Museum is located. I could walk to the museum from there. She also told me that I could take a streetcar to the ryokan.
A few minutes later I was in a streetcar, rolling along Hiroshima’s main street, Hondori. As an American, I had always approached a visit to Hiroshima with some trepidation; it was, for Japanese, hallowed ground. August sixth was a day to honor those who had died. But my trepidation quickly faded as the streetcar continued on. The city was bustling, just as many Japanese cities of its size are. Men and women hurried in and out of banks and department stores. Women walked briskly along sidewalks, holding shopping bags. High school students, boys and girls, in their respective groups, eyed each other cautiously. Fellow passengers were listening to MP3 players or reading newspapers, magazines, or manga. I could have been in another city of the same size—Nagano, Fukuoka, or Chiba. Most Japanese cities of this size have no particular distinction from one another. But soon the streetcar came to one Hiroshima landmark that was familiar to me—the stadium of the Hiroshima Carp baseball team. I had seen it on television a few times. Then just down the street from the stadium was Aioi Bridge, the aiming point for Major Thomas Ferebee, the bombardier of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb. The bridge is a very distinctive aiming point when seen from 31,000 feet. Two main streets make a “T” intersection over the Ota River, which divides, making an island. It was a few thousand feet over the Aioi Bridge that Fat Boy, the bomb, weighing over ten thousand pounds, detonated. An estimated eighty-thousand people died instantly, almost all of them civilians, turned to charred corpses. Several hundred thousand died in the following years, from their wounds or their exposure to radiation. The temperature at the bridge when Fat Boy detonated was seven thousand degrees Fahrenheit. The bridge buckled, causing it to settle down around the pilings that supported it, as if struck by a tsunami.
The bomb’s destruction was in evidence to me when I saw the Genbaku Dome (Atomic Bomb Dome), which had miraculously withstood the heat and aftershock of the blast. It is the symbol of Hiroshima and is now a UNESCO site. My head turned, keeping it in sight, as the streetcar passed over the Aioi Bridge, but none of the passengers bothered to look. They kept on listening to music or reading.
Hiroshima’s Peace Park is across the river from the dome. It is on the island made by the dividing of the Ota River. On August 6, 1945, the park had been a thriving neighborhood called Nakajima-cho, dense with shops, theaters, schools, and traditional homes made of wood and paper. At elementary schools there, students had been lined up in school yards for their morning drills, holding bamboo sticks, to drill in defense of the main island from American soldiers, should they invade.
The streetcar turned a corner, the park remaining on my left, and a minute or two later I got off at the Koamicho Station. From there I walked over to the ryokan, only a couple of blocks away. The ryokan’s owner, a plump man in his thirties, met me at the entrance.
“Have any difficulties with directions?” he asked.
“None at all,” I said.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m American,” I said, with a little hesitation. My feelings about the dropping of the bomb had evolved over the years, from one, before coming to Japan, that it was an inevitable part of war, to resentment of the Japanese for their unwillingness to accept any responsibility for the tragedy brought on by their invasion of China and attack on Pearl Harbor, which had drawn the U.S. into the war, to, finally, a more nuanced belief that the dropping of the bomb was tinged by racism. I doubted that such a weapon would have been used on Nazi Germany. The Germans looked like Americans and had customs that were familiar to Americans. The Japanese were inscrutable “Orientals,” almost celestial in their customs and manners. They were aliens.
By August sixth, Japan had become pretty much a nation under siege, its military machine crippled. The Japanese had little to eat by then. Some were making soup from weeds pulled up from along railroad tracks. City dwellers were going out into the countryside to barter with farmers, swapping silk and jewelry for rice. Most of Japan’s ships, both freighters and even some carrying civilian passengers, along with its cruisers and battleships, had gone to the bottom of the ocean, sent there by American carrier-based planes and submarines. F-4 Corsairs and land-based P-51 Mustangs prowled for targets of opportunity—trains, oil tanks, and factories. B-29s had free reign in the skies, flying missions as far north as Akita from islands in the Pacific—Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Tinian, where the Enola Gay started its mission, taking off at 2:45 a.m.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima also happened to be, by happenstance, a prelude to the Cold War. Russian troops had already swept across Japanese occupied Manchuria, raping and pillaging with impunity. They had rounded up thousands of Japanese soldiers and sent them off to labor camps in Siberia. Only a few returned. While many Japanese might reluctantly accept America’s bombing of Hiroshima, none that I met are so understanding of Russia’s late entrance into the war, which they regard as a land grab. The Russians occupied the Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido before the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945, and these islands remain a source of friction between the two countries. The Japanese want them back. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, there had been on-going negotiations with Russia for the return of the islands, but in 2022 Russia’s foreign minister, Dmitry Medevedev, said that the question of returning the islands to Japan “is closed.” The Japanese regard Russia with suspicion, and the country’s invasion of Ukraine supports that suspicion.
“I visited America on my honeymoon,” the owner of the ryokan said. “What a great country! So big! The people are so friendly! Let me show you to your room.”
I took off my shoes and followed him upstairs to an eight-mat tatami room, larger than what I’d expected. The mats were so new that they were still a pale green and smelled of rice straw.
“If you need any assistance of any kind,” he said, “directions, your laundry done, anything at all, please let me know.”
As an American, I had hardly expected this kind of warm greeting.
The next morning was bright, sunny, and warm. I walked over to the dome and stayed there for several minutes, imagining what it had been like a few minutes before the bomb detonated. The city might have had the same feel. Hiroshima, like most Japanese cities I had visited, has an early morning hum to it, like bees around a hive. Drivers do not honk their car horns when traffic is backed up. There’s hardly a peep from those on the streets. What one hears is the shuffle of shoes hitting the pavement and the electronic medley of traffic signals, to indicate, for the blind, that it is safe to cross the street. I saw men and women hurrying to work. Students in uniforms were bicycling to their schools. Streetcars were coming along one right after the other, making a shushing sound. Bells rang at the designated stops. It was impossible for me to grasp that all this had been incinerated in a second when Fat Boy detonated. Hiroshima was so normal.
After a while I just felt I was in another Japanese city and walked toward the station and came to a Mister Donuts, which are plentiful in Japan, and stayed there, having a coffee and muffin, before heading off to the Atomic Bomb Museum. I passed through an entertainment district on the way, which are common in Japan. Every Japanese city of any size has one, a jumble of hostess bars, peep shows, karaoke joints, strip clubs, brothels—known as soaplands—and even regular places to go with one’s parent’s—taverns and restaurants. That’s Japan—the bawdy right next door to a family restaurant.
A few minutes later I was at the museum. Soon after entering it, however, I realized that this was not a place that got its point across very well. Some of the displays were ghoulish. Mannequins, their clothes tattered, their arms red and bloody, were positioned on burned out cityscapes. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of corny zombie movies. The nearby entertainment district had turned its back on death, instead embracing fleeting carnal pleasures. The displays for me that had power were understated. One was of roof tiles that had melted. Another had a shard of glass stuck into a brick wall. The one that was the most disturbing was that of a pocket watch that had stopped at precisely sixteen minutes after eight. Its crystal was blistered from the heat. I thought about the person who had owned this watch, where they had been going on that fateful day. Maybe they’d been a banker, perhaps a teacher, or a manager in a government office. Certainly on August 6, 1945, at a quarter after eight in the morning, the person had not been thinking of all the decisions made by leaders in Japan and the United States that had led to the death of thousands. Seeing the watch, I thought of a line from King Lear. Gloucester says, “We are like flies to wanton boys. They kill us for their sport.”
After seeing that watch, I decided to leave the building. I sat on a bench for a while near the museum, in the shade of a tree, contemplating the destruction of Hiroshima, wondering if such a calamity would happen again, and realized that it was entirely possible. Nuclear weapons were now in the hands of nations that wouldn’t hesitate to use them against a perceived enemy. The world that I knew was at a tipping point, and I doubted that we, as humans, had the wherewithal to prevent our own demise.
Feeling a bit hopeless about life and humanity, I nonetheless went off to a Family Mart convenience store, where I bought a plate of spaghetti and a bottle of green tea, and from there walked over to the Peace Park and found a bench under a cherry tree, to eat my lunch and think some more about the bombing. I was at ground zero. Not far from me some old men were sitting on straw mats playing Go. A student of mine, a doctor, had played Go and taught me the rules, which are simple enough, although the complexity of the game, and the strategies required to win, are infinite. The board is a grid. Each player has a bowl of small stones, either black or white. The players take turns placing stones on the intersections of the lines on the grid. The goal is for one player to in-circle his opponent, making it impossible for them to place another stone on the board. Watching the two men play, I thought that many board games had something in common with Go—the subjugation, if not the sheer annihilation of, one’s opponent. They were war.
One of the men put a stone on the board. The other grimaced in defeat. I looked across the way at the Genbaku Dome.