Heatwave in Japan

In the summer of 2014, I visited Japan, the land of my ancestors. My wife, Joan, had lived in Japan for a year when she was in her 20s, but I had never been. Unfortunately, we arrived in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave. I had developed a nasty heat rash around both ankles and couldn’t wear socks. When I tried wearing ankle socks, the brushing of the pant legs made my rash unbearably itchy. So, in ultra-fashionable “dress for success” Tokyo, I had to wear loose-fitting shorts and slippers (what Japanese call zori and American mainlanders call flip-flops). After Tokyo, we visited Kyoto to attend the Gion Matsuri festival. Then, we went on to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima

My wife had snagged us an affordable room at the most luxurious hotel to which I’ve ever been, the Hotel Rihga. The taxi driver told my bilingual wife that even the Emperor stays at that hotel when in Hiroshima. I grumbled that I didn’t think we’d be staying in the same room he uses. Unexpectedly, my wife translated my comment to the driver, but he just laughed. In the glitzy lobby of the hotel, I felt slovenly, a tourist without the good manners to dress appropriately. It felt disrespectful. Back home, I didn’t even dress that sloppily to visit the Post Office, and there I was, surrounded by gold décor, a Baccarat crystal shop, and uniformed bell-persons to carry our luggage. I don’t think I’m especially vain, but I was embarrassed.

On that first day, I found myself looking at all the faces of the people around me. Did she look like grandma? Did he?

My maternal great-grandmother and great-grandfather, Komaichi and Tsuta Teraoka, were both from Hiroshima. They had immigrated to Hawaii sometime before their first child was born in 1903. They had both come from poor families and had heard that there was money to be made in the Hawaiian cane fields.

Grandma doesn’t want to talk about it

Now jump forward in time to the 1980s. I was a young man in his 20s when I heard about a program where journalists were brought to Hiroshima, all expenses paid, to write about the atomic bombing. I hadn’t left the state since I moved to Hawaii when I was 10 years old, and the thought of traveling to Japan as a writer excited me.

So, hoping I could pass myself off as a freelance journalist, I drove the 25 miles to Waipahu to interview my grandma to find out about my connection to Hiroshima. It wasn’t a long interview. Grandma didn’t want to talk about it.

My grandma was characteristically cheerful and jocular, like my mom is. She always keeps everything light, never settling into any sort of serious topic. Polite small talk. As a result, she and I were strangers to one another all my life. So, my questions about Hiroshima must have been a surprise to her. Do you remember hearing about the atomic bombing? How did your parents react? Did you have any relatives back there who suffered or were killed by the bomb?

She brushed away my questions with bright geniality. Oh, no, she said, they were all gone by then. They were all in the Philippines by then. Knowing a little about the Japanese conquest, subjugation, and exploitation of other Asian countries, this seemed plausible. But surely there were great-aunts and great-uncles…? No, she said, they were all gone by then. She changed the subject. The conversation was closed. A lot of Japanese immigrants and their children refuse to talk about ugly things from the past, saying they didn’t want to burden the younger generation with that baggage.

Later, when I learned about the Japanese-American internment camps, I heard countless sansei report that their parents and grandparents had repeated that statement, almost verbatim. None of my family was ever interned.

My passport to Hiroshima

So, when I visited Hiroshima, I wanted to feel some kind of connection to the place. My itinerary didn’t include Niigata or Fukuoka, the two other sources of my family tree, only Hiroshima. And so I searched the faces of people there for any physical resemblance to my grandma, as if people in Hiroshima looked different from people in Tokyo or Kyoto. They didn’t, as far as I could tell, look any more different than Japanese-American people in Honolulu and Seattle did. They might dress differently or have a regional accent, but I knew nothing about either of those things. My only passport to the connection I sought was my grandmother’s face. I imagined I saw resemblances here and there, but that’s probably all it was, my imagination.

On our second day there, we visited the Hiroshima memorial and museum, the main purpose of our visit. The museum was in a building elevated on pillars, like a mushroom cloud. We saw all the famous artifacts, the clocks stopped at 8:15, Sadako’s tiny paper cranes, the burned-in shadow of the man sitting on the stone steps. I was a little surprised to see that the museum fully represented Japan’s responsibility for the war and its heinous behavior during it.

Hiroshima, 4 days after the blast

Looking at the photos of people dressed in charred and shredded fabric, staggering through the rubble barefooted and stunned, I was ashamed of my embarrassment about my measly little heat rash and my casual attire. These people, the hibakusha, were burned by an atomic flash and exposed to deadly radiation that would cause many to die in subsequent years of leukemia and rare cancers. The wounded carried the even more wounded in their arms searching for a hospital. Many of the most severely burned survivors jumped into the slow-moving river in an attempt to cool their burning flesh, only to die in the water, eventually filling and contaminating the water with half-submerged corpses. Seeing photos of Sadako, charred school uniforms and a tricycle, we thought about our 14 year old daughter, safe back at home, and what surviving parents must have felt watching their child die slowly and inexorably from radiation poisoning.

As we exited the museum, visitors could sign a petition to ban all nuclear weapons. We signed it. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was a firecracker compared with the multi-megaton nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the present day. Mankind had at its disposal weapons that were capable of killing every man, woman, and child on the planet in one horrific exchange of nuclear strikes. Armageddon on demand.

In the end, I didn’t need to find anything linking myself to my Hiroshima ancestors. I was a member of the human species, the people that did this to its fellow man. All of us are related to the hibakusha and all of us are related to the crew of the Enola Gay. As members of the human race, all of us were perpetrators of this act, and all of us were its victims.

August 6, 2020






© Daniel Sato