Will to Peace: The Legacy of Hiroshima and the Atomic Bomb Literature

By David Petersen | 2004-07-01 12:00:00

The souls of the departed have sunk into the gloomy earth and can be sensed no more in the Hiroshima soil. And yet, something infinitely vague and unsettling affects residents and visitors alike, and that feeling will not be shaken.

-- Tamiki Hara

Hiroshima stands as a living testimony to the horrors of war and the possibility of peace. The Peace Memorial service, held annually on August 6th, is an austere service, beginning with chilling sirens at 8:15 am. Yet the sounds of laughter and life are also heard at the lantern festival on the evening of the same day. The rubble and brick of the Atomic-Bomb Dome is wreathed by candles inscribed with children's drawings and messages. Candles are also set afloat in an armada of paper lanterns, and there are songs and prayers as the current carries light far into the darkness.

Trees Survive as Silent Witnesses

Scattered throughout Hiroshima's urban core are trees that survived the bombing. Many, such as the enormous gingko at Hosenji Shrine, have been protected from the encroachment of development. These are silent witnesses, their stories told through plaques and pictures, and by the wreaths of paper cranes left by well-wishers. Their strange branches and charred trunks speak of the folly of the past even as their greenery hints at possibilities for recovery and transcendence.

And there are the voices of the survivors themselves. As a translator, I have been called on to assist with interviews of the few remaining witnesses to August 6th. Equally revealing are the written commentaries left by eyewitnesses following the blast.

One such writer is the poet Tamiki Hara (1905-1951). A native of Hiroshima, he worked as a high school teacher in Chiba prefecture before returning to his home town following the death of his wife in 1944. He wrote of the atomic blast, which he experienced at his family home in the central part of the city. More profound are the introspective pieces he wrote until his suicide in Tokyo in 1951, an event sparked, some say, by his belief that use of atomic weapons in the Korean War appeared to be inevitable.

Hara's testimony starts with the morning before the attack and goes on to describe life immediately after the dropping of the atomic bomb.

As the neighboring houses burst into flames, I fled toward the river. When I got to the riverbank behind the Izumi residence, I caught up with my elder brother and younger sister. I could also see the faces of various acquaintances from around neighborhood. I took out a cigarette, and offered it to the chairman of the block committee, who was standing there looking forlorn. He had just returned from identifying the dead body of his eldest brother.

Survivor Guilt and Rationality

He writes of the temptation to give in to feelings of futility and impotence; a deep sense of survivor guilt is also evident:

But the ominous foreboding that somewhere on the planet, the next decimation was already being planned weight heavily upon me. And that most melancholy shadow cast by nuclear power has reached a point where humanity appears to lack the strength to control it.

Yet in the essays, despair is transcended by commitment to rational action -- a conscious reordering of priorities, bolstered by a spiritual search.

I pray incessantly, for humanity, and for myself - that hearts driven by dark uncertainties will not fall into brutality. And always, always for a gentle heart and calm reason.

Spring has come to Hiroshima. Peace Memorial Park comes alive as tourists crowd the outdoor cafes while business people eat their hurried lunches on benches in the shade of the Atomic-Bomb Dome. These ruins and their message are never far from the rhythm of life in Hiroshima. And in a nearby corner of the park stands the monument to Tamiki Hara, inscribed fittingly with his last thoughts on the tenacity of faith in a challenging world:

Engraved in stone on a faraway day
Its shadow falling on sands
The vision of a single flower
Amidst a universe of corruption1

1 The quotations are from "The Bells of Hiroshima", "Nightmare", "The Will to Peace" and "A-bomb Reminiscences," essays by Tamiki Hara. The translations are mine [D.P.].

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004, page 24. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by David Petersen here

Peace Magazine homepage