Friday, June 08, 2007

Golden Week part 3: Hiroshima

When the opportunity to have a long weekend in March first presented itself, Joe and I had planned to travel to Hiroshima. It has always been a place that I knew I had to visit but I worried that seeing it alone might wreck me. As it turned out, I couldn't get the extra day off and plans to Hiroshima were replaced with Joe's visit to Tokyo... but anyway, Hiroshima! My well traveled friend Yuri always said that it was, without a doubt, her favorite city in Japan because it was, in part because of it's past, so peaceful. As modern Japan and modern Japanese culture interests me much more than traditional Japan, seeing a city that had literally been rebuilt and become a symbol of Japan's current pacifistic ways, it was definitely a "must see" destination.

And so we headed off. The bus dropped us off at the Atomic Bomb Dome. The iconic remains of the building, stood against the sky. Twisted rebar and melted cement figured prominently in the remains. I'd just stepped off the bus and I was already gasping.

Though the Atomic Bomb Dome is indeed striking in a grotesque way, it is also surrounded by blooming flowers and stands along a beautiful river, across from the Peace Park. In fact, after tearing my eyes away from the skeletal building, I could begin to see why people said Hiroshima was so beautiful. Perhaps because of more thought out public planning, perhaps because of a more persistent desire for tranquility, Hiroshima is a very green city, by Japanese standards. While tourists gaped at the monstrosity of the Dome, locals held hands and walked along the river. Hiroshima did not feel like a place that was dead, but rather a place that had been purposefully reborn.

We walked to the Peace Park, past a monument dedicated to the children who died in the factories, most likely many of them child slaves. Most likely many were Korean slaves at that. We saw the thousands and thousands of folded paper cranes, many arranged to form pictures or words. The kanji they formed were usually "World Peace." I ran the bell and felt a strong belief that many people believe in this "World Peace" thing. Not just crazy liberals or hippies. But most everyone really.

We walked past the eternally burning flame, that was not captured in my pictures well, other than perhaps a little heat distortion, on to the Peace Museum. They say the flame will burn until the last nuclear weapon is destroyed.
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We then proceeded to the Peace Museum, entry costing only 50 yen or about 42 cents.

The Peace Museum is a history museum in a lot of ways and, especially compared to the rest of Japan's history, is remarkably even handed. It doesn't gloss over Japan's invasion of China and Korea. Nor does it gloss over how America felt the need to justify the expense of the bomb or how figuring how much power communist Russia would have post war, played into dropping the bomb.

But more than anything, I was most struck by the roles that the scientists played in creating the bomb. Many of the scientists including Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, and even Leo Szilard, credited with the original inspiration of the bomb were demoralized, sickened and shocked at the tragedy that resulted from dropping the atom bomb. Many were pacifists, if not menially before the bomb, voraciously after. Lise Meitner, acclaimed by some as the "Mother of the Atomic Bomb" because of her work on nuclear fission, in fact abhorred war.

These scientists created something horrible, at least to the extent that it was, with out fully intending to. Somehow, their brilliant minds and ideas were naively playing into hand of someone with a different agenda. This agenda led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I was struck by how many of the brilliant scientists, such as Meitner and Einstein, geniuses of their time, had no real concept of how their discoveries would be used or misused. The pursuit of knowledge, pure knowledge, the lust of discovery, the thrill of the chase of science was so consuming that they were blinded by what it was all leading to. Yet the military minds, who would never have had the painstaking analytical brilliance to create such a thing on their own, knew how to use it once it was created. Those with the big picture in mind knew how to lead those with the small vital pieces of the project. Those with patient fastidious genius were so seduced by the pursuit of knowledge they didn't look up.

[Katie, I know this is your area of expertise so if I have mistakes, please let me know and I'll fix them pronto]

As a former scientist, I can fully understand how we lose sight of the big picture. Weeks can be spent tweaking buffer conditions to optimize a minor step of you minute little corner of science. The details are fun-- they have to be fun-- because otherwise the job is hardly worth it. When every answer just leads to 6 more questions, the goal of the project can't be what motivates you entirely. The details motivate you, the perfection of the tiniest experiment must be what motivates you. The goal is so incredibly far off that thinking about reaching it feels almost like despair because you know of all the details in between. So you don't think about it much except for writing grants and convincing those "big picture" people that you are worth your salary.

And in Hiroshima you see the results of reveling in details and the pursuit of pure knowledge. You see what happens when knowledge slips into the 'wrong' or at least different hands. You see an entire city flattened and flesh dripping off of live people as they ran away because of the naive pursuit of pure knowledge.

More than the military aspects, more than the historical significance, and in the end, more than beautiful rebirth of the city of Hiroshima, the roles of the pacifist scientists impressed me the most.

We exited the museum quietly. The sun was setting and we sat along the river. A crane wandered along the bank as the tide came in. We looked at the Atom Bomb Dome as the flood lights came on and as it was lit up against the night sky. Hiroshima is indeed a beautiful city today, as troubling as the lessons that it has to teach us.

(next: Miyajima and comic relief)

1 comment:

Tara said...

What an incredible experience! I've been swamped with finals and am just now getting to read your entries on your more recent travels. It's such a pleasure to see your photos and read your tales, Kori. If I can't do all that traveling myself, I am glad to see it through eyes as open, accepting, and curious as yours.