The history of the atomic bomb loomed large in my childhood. I have a distinct memory of pulling down John Hersey’s Hiroshima from my older sister’s bookshelf and puzzling over the unfamiliar name. I have her to thank for introducing me to this very important part of our history and allowing me to ask her the unformed half-questions that sprang from my 10-year-old brain. Even as a graduate student traveling to Japan in 2012 I still have trouble fully comprehending the magnitude of the atomic bombings.
Our journey to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki this summer with Professor Peter Kuznick as part of the Nuclear Studies Institute afforded me the opportunity to contend with questions I’ve held onto for years. American, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean students are brought together through this unique project to engage with the past and its implications as well as recent occurrences such as the Fukushima incident and what all of these things actually mean in a nuclear-capable world.
Every one of us brought a different set of questions and assumptions to this study tour. Each brought a different past and a different education and at first this was a boundary. Early in the trip I found myself returning to our dormitory with a group of Japanese students. Beyond the language barrier, we came to realize we approached our seminars very differently. The Japanese students were uncomfortable voicing their opinions because they were used to having strictly lecture courses, while the American students had no trouble speaking up. I tried to explain that we did not mean to talk over each other; rather, we all spoke up so we could learn. Every person has something to teach everyone else. We left the conversation at that and I wasn’t sure I communicated effectively, but the next day I found these same students and we began asking each other questions for the first time, some as simple as “How do you feel about nuclear energy?”
These basic questions we asked each other translated into much larger issues as we heard from hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings. The stories they told were heartbreaking and difficult to hear. Though each survivor had a unique story, all seemed to hold a few common views. We heard one phrase so often it became a litany—“we must end war.” Communicated in different ways and with different inflections, this sentiment became an overarching aim throughout this study tour, or more appropriately, as the Japanese students called it, this peace tour.
As we traveled through Japan and attended these seminars as well as the official ceremonies marking the anniversaries of the bombings, one thing became absolutely clear and was repeated as often as the desire to end war. In order for humanity to continue, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons must be abolished. Nuclear power plants present the same threats as nuclear weapons, whether they are targeted in attacks or when accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl happen. Ridding the world of nuclear weapons is simply not enough. Former mayor of Hiroshima Tadatoshi Akiba brought this point sharply into perspective. As president of Mayors for Peace, Akiba seeks this very result. The organization now has a worldwide membership of more than 5,300 cities, all pledging their support for nuclear abolition. Some 195 U.S. cities are members, among them Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Baltimore.
Akiba looks toward hibakusha testimony as the most powerful way to make people understand the absolute devastation of atomic bombings and the potential catastrophes of nuclear power plant accidents. The hibakusha know firsthand the effects of nuclear weapons. They alone fully understand the terrible consequences of those August days in 1945 and they alone can explain to the rest of the world why we must rid ourselves of nuclear weapons and energy if we want to continue to live. The reality, however, is that the hibakusha are dying and will soon no longer be able to tell their stories firsthand. As Akiba pointed out, their stories are only so effective when they are heard firsthand. When the events are filtered through secondary persons or texts they lose the urgent and persuasive quality that comes only from hearing the hibakusha themselves. Efforts to digitize their stories would be a step toward preserving these accounts in their original format and passing on the message of nuclear abolition from the voices of those who most fully grasp the destructive capabilities of an atomic world.
As the trip came to a close in Nagasaki, I found myself grasping for something, anything, to bring back as a message or some call to action. I felt changed. This study tour is not your average academic course. In just a few short weeks, everyone on this trip gained something essential, an insight that none of us could vocalize but that we all shared in some way. The most basic and most important lesson, I think, was that we should all do something. Nuclear abolition is a massive undertaking. Peace is a complicated, unending process. Neither is a static experience that can be achieved. Both aims necessitate a global effort and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed to the point of inaction.
This peace tour, if nothing else, is an antidote to apathy. The idea of nuclear abolition still seems far off, but the need for action at every level seems much more apparent after visiting Japan and meeting the hibakusha and other activists. I still have trouble explaining to people why this trip was so important and so moving and so I have just one piece of advice—go to Japan, go on this study tour, see for yourselves. I left with a new voice that I hope to add to the cause of nuclear abolition. To me, getting more cities involved in Mayors for Peace seems like a starting point.
We all just need to find our own starting points. I want to leave you with a lesson we learned from our Japanese professor and co-leader of the tour, Atsushi Fujioka. He told us that peace starts with each of us, as individuals. Once you realize the possibility of peace, you can externalize the process and share it. Peace is possible.