Sunday, August 7, 2011

My Hometown Hiroshima

In the Spring of 1983 I received a full-paid scholarship to visit Japan that summer. This happened through my dad's company's corporate sponsorship of an exchange program called Youth For Understanding (YFU). I had never heard of them before (and I haven't heard much of them since).  After I was chosen I spent a good month or so anxiously waiting to find out where exactly I was going to be sent. When I finally found out that I had been placed in a small town called "Kuchiwa" in Hiroshima, it didn't exactly make me *less* anxious. I was a little bit afraid that people would treat me badly because of the bomb and lingering anti-American feelings. Remember, this was just at the time of the worst "Japan-Bashing" that was happening in Washington. If you have never seen pictures of Congressmen taking sledge hammers to a Japanese-built car, you should google it. It's not a pretty sight.

When I finally arrived in Hiroshima Airport and was greeted by my host family, I was surprised to find that only my host-brother spoke any real English. It turns out that he was going to the US for an academic year in the fall, so in order to help him improve his English his family had agreed to accept an American for the summer. I, of course, didn't speak a word of Japanese at the time. I'm sure I caused him some troubles as my glorified "baby-sitter." 

Hiroshima the city is a collection of islands divided up by Ota River. The name itself means "spread-out (wide) island(s)." It's a city surrounded by mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. My host-father's brothers and their families lived in the city, but my actual host-family lived out in the country at the "ancestral" home. It was protected from the bomb blast by the surrounding mountains, so the family survived the post-war days.  

To make a long story very short, I ended up having the time of my life. My host family was super-nice to me, and although I felt like I was a burden to them at times, I did try my best to "go with the flow." Japanese high schools don't start their summer vacations until the end of July, so for the first month or so I was taken to my host-brother's high school and showed off as a "freak." I wasn't allowed to spend the day with the "real" students, so I spent my time in the school library (studying Japanese or reading what English books they had) or talking to the English language teachers there. I know I gave my host-family headaches because I didn't like many Japanese foods (especially seafood) when I first got there. I ended up losing a lot of weight and I think they were concerned about my health. But I somehow communicated with my host-family and their friends: we talked baseball, music, movies, television, and girls. This is when I first came to love the Hiroshima Carp baseball team, Kinchan band, and Japanese idol Akina Nakamori (but NOT Seiko Matsuda, her rival). We went to a few baseball games and if you've heard any rumors about how Japanese cheer on their baseball teams, they're true. They are crazy! (And I've hated the Tokyo Giants ever since!) We teasingly tested each other on our native language skills. My host-brother dared me to learn the words to a Japanese pop song, so I did (phonetically...I learned the meaning later!). The first Japanese I ever learned was "taberu" to eat, taught me by my host-father. The first kanji I ever learned were "Hiro" and "Shima." They are still two of my favorites.

As a tourist I was taken to The Hiroshima Peace Park pretty early on in my stay. There is a large Museum documenting the history and showing artifacts from the day. Have you ever heard of the granite wall with a shadow of a man permanently imbedded into it? It's on display in Hiroshima. Behind the Musuem building is an arch I learned was called a cenotaph: I didn't know what that word was when my host-brother showed it to me in the dictionary, but I won't test your knowledge here: it's a gravestone for bodies that are not necessarily buried there. Because so many people were instantly obliterated by the bomb, this is all that remains to remind us of them. Located somewhat behind this stone object and its eternal flame is the A-Bomb Dome. It had been an industrial hall of some sort during the war and because it was the epicenter of the blast, it somehow managed to survive the actual explosion. It's an impressive and sobering sight. (You can just see it at the bottom of the photo above, across the street from the baseball stadium.)

The people of Hiroshima never gave me any trouble about World War 2. No one cornered me and told me that I had killed their parents. In fact, the opposite happened a couple times: people would thank me on behalf of the US for helping to end the war they could not end themselves, and for helping in the post-war reconstruction. 

The other beautiful thing about Hiroshima is the island shrine known as Itsukushima, located in Miyajima. It is one of the famous Three Sites of Japan.  You've probably seen pictures like this one of its beautiful orange torii gate standing out in the ocean. This is just the start of its beautiful, ornate architecture. Because it was shielded by the mountains, it, too, survived the atomic explosion and the buildings etc are the originals.

I've been thinking about Hiroshima a lot lately. For one thing, I've been thinking about writing this series about my favorite cities, which would of course include Hiroshima. Then without me really realizing it, August 6 rolled around again. Each year, I see the news and remember the time I visited the Peace Ceremony myself. Thousands of people crowd into the small plot of land the nation has set aside as rememberance of that terrible event. Guest dignitaries such as Ambassadors from many nations (but never the US) attend. The mayor speaks. Flowers and wreaths are layed. At exactly 8:15 AM a moment of silence is observed. Doves are released. Tears are shed. I had already been to the Peace Park before, but when my host-family mentioned the Ceremony and asked if I wanted to go, I jumped at the chance. Because my host-brother had left for the States the week before, my host-mother dutifully took me on the train the night before, we stayed with our family in the city, and we got up early to join the throng of people. It was as hot as hell and the most un-enthusiastic event I have ever participated in. And I am terribly glad I went. Visiting the Peace Park and the Peace Ceremony brought it painfully home that wars have no winners, only victims.

People talk about life-altering experiences; for me my summer in Hiroshima definitely qualifies. An off-hand remark from my host-family that I couldn't learn Japanese because I was a foreigner made me want to study and become fluent. This literally changed the course of my life. When I got to college I tried very hard to create an exchange program with Hiroshima University; when that didn't work I went to Miyagi University of Education in Sendai but came "home" to Hiroshima for winter break. My host-family couldn't believe I was actually understanding them now! :-) When my parents visited in 1986 I took them to Hiroshima and introduced them to my family there, this time as interpreter. After I got a job in Miyazaki I went back to Hiroshima several times to visit my host-parents. They came to my wedding in 1990. My daughter and I visited with them when we passed through in 2005. 

Yes, the people of Hiroshima showed me so much love and affection that I have always considered it my second home. I lived the longest in Miyazaki. Before that I lived in Miyagi. But first, I lived near Miyajima. Is it a coincidence that all three places share the same kanji (meaning "royal.")? Maybe. But for years whenever Americans asked me "Where did you live in Japan?" I would always answer, "It started in Hiroshima. I'm from Hiroshima." 

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