Nineteen years had passed since I lived in Hiroshima as an exchange student, and as I sat in the bullet train that carried me back to the city, I mused that this was not exactly how I’d imagined my homecoming would be. My bag had been hurriedly packed at the crack of dawn that morning in Tokyo, my home of ten years, with a two-day change of clothes—although I had no idea how long this trip would last. My heart had been heavy as I picked up and kissed my peacefully sleeping cat early that morning before firmly affixing my face mask and hat in place and heading outside into the chilly March air.
My partner and I rode the train in silence, and when we parted later as I made my way toward Hiroshima and she went to work, she promised to join me in a day or two. Somewhere just beneath my own level of perception, however, I knew that she had only said that to make me feel better, and that she wouldn’t be coming.
Three days earlier, the monstrous disaster of a 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear power accident had quickly twisted a beautiful Friday afternoon into something that nobody saw coming. Immediately after hearing the news, a worried friend had called and invited me to come visit her in Hiroshima. While fleeing to safety was indeed tempting, and I did have work flexibility as a freelancer, I did not want to leave my partner behind. After much hesitation (and at her insistence), however, I finally decided to accept. While there, I also planned to meet with hibakusha—survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing—in order to get their perspectives on the situation unfolding in Fukushima. And so it was—the irony of my destination noted—that I joined the throngs of “genpatsunanmin” (“nuclear power refugees”) who were heading westward for safer climes.
My first week or so after arriving was a bewildering swirl spent mostly in internet cafes frantically trying to follow and then e-mail/post/tweet to others multiple conflicting news reports about the unfolding nuclear disaster, while also feeling guilty about my own safety when others were left behind in harm’s way–particularly those suffering with few or no relief supplies in the bitter Tohoku cold.
After several days of this, I finally ventured out with some Hiroshima-based anti-nuclear activists to the site of an ongoing struggle against a nuclear power plant in neighboring Yamaguchi prefecture.
Around this time, I also met up one night with a friend for dinner. She was interpreting for a Canadian journalist who had similarly come to Hiroshima in order to make the connection between those exposed to radiation then and now. My friend chided me teasingly for not having brought my business cards with me—a must for any remotely professional social situation in this country—and I blurted out that I should be forgiven given my status as a nuclear power refugee. Immediately, the air shifted in the small room where we were sitting, and I could suddenly feel the presence of the three ladies seated next to us. They had stopped talking, and focused their attention on us. My face burned as I realize I had spoken too loudly regarding a subject that was far too sensitive in this city.
The ladies immediately smoothed over the discomfort by engaging us in friendly conversation. People in this city are extremely outgoing—a characteristic I recalled from my experience studying there nearly twenty years prior. While Tokyo residents largely ignore one another unless they are already acquainted, the energy between people in Hiroshima—even strangers—tends to be lively, animated, engaged.
The Canadian journalist told the women that he was in town to speak with hibakusha about the disaster, and two of the three women said that their own parents were also survivors. One woman murmured that after her mother saw the images of the destruction in Tohoku on television on the night the earthquake and tsunami struck, she had nightmares of her own childhood experience. When they asked where I lived and I mentioned that I had left Tokyo due to the recent disaster, they immediately commented upon the earthquake and how frightening it must have been. I replied that yes, it had been indeed, but that the fears of possible radiation exposure also motivated me (and many others) to leave the city. They remarked that they thought it unacceptable for the Japanese government not to be releasing the true extent of the damage at the Fukushima plant, but behind their words I sensed a hesitation, a subtle unease. After the evening was over, I again regretted my own insensitivity, being so forthcoming with my own fears given their family histories.
As each and every person I met responded to my having come from Tokyo with some version of “oh yes, it is much less earthquake-prone here!”, I soon learned that the issue of hibaku (exposure to radiation) was indeed layered with complex sensitivities in this city—a subtlety that my twenty year-old self had apparently missed back in my university days. This was definitively confirmed for me several days later when I met with a hibakusha herself, who was the founder of an organization called Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace. Unlike most others I encountered, she was keenly interested in discussing the connections between Hiroshima then and Fukushima now.
Keiko Ogura was eight years old when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on her city in 1945. Some premonition had told her parents to keep her away from school on August 6th, and she recounted that after the devastation struck, dazed survivors with strips of burned flesh hanging from their bodies slowly walked past her home, begging for water. Trying to help, she obliged by bringing them a drink from the family well—after which time several of them began vomiting and then died right in front of her eyes. When her father returned home that night and warned his children not to give water to anyone because it could kill them, fear and shame kept her silent about what she had done. She suffered nightmares about the experience for decades—and it was only after her father passed away that she finally began to speak with others about what had actually happened on that day.
Obviously, this experience speaks to the depths of what any human being should ever have to endure, much less an eight year-old child—and nothing compares to the hell of nuclear destruction as deliberately wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki by United States government order in 1945. For Ogura, however—as well as the mother of the woman I met in the restaurant, and perhaps for many other survivors—the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster dislodged certain memories that had long lain dormant.
When she saw the images on television from the Tohoku disaster, Ogura said, she had an instant childhood flashback to the day after the bombing. Curious to see what happened, she had climbed atop a hill near her home and was shocked to see that the entire city was crushed, flattened and burned to complete unrecognizability. The two images, she says, were identical.
She told me that within the movement to abolish nuclear weapons, the issue of nuclear power had been marginalized and ignored due to political reasons, but that there were definite connections between the two—particularly at the level of human suffering. “I am very afraid for those now living near the Fukushima nuclear power plant,” she said. “Everyone within 20 kilometers was evacuated following the accident, but those in between the 20-30 kilometer radius are being told to stay inside their homes, while no trucks will dare bring in supplies due to fears of being irradiated. It has been two weeks since the disaster happened, and so those people are starving right now.
“I also fear they will face social discrimination similar to that which we hibakusha from Hiroshima and Nagasaki have endured,” she confided. “People have an image of us as being dirty and contaminated, and unfit as marriage partners because our children might be born dead or deformed—so many survivors actually lied about their status as hibakusha, sometimes making up stories about having been travelling away from the city on the day of the bombing.
“In fact, some survivors have had children born with problems related to radiation exposure, but since everyone is afraid of attracting negative attention, many people have not reported them—and therefore we still have no accurate data. In order to avoid a repeat of this situation following the accident in Fukushima, we absolutely need to break through this culture of silence and misconceptions in order to get real facts about the effects of radiation—and then make sure that this information is neither exaggerated, nor used to fuel further discrimination against hibakusha,” she emphasized. “What we survivors can do for those in Fukushima now is reach out to encourage them and help them to rebuild their communities, as well as help organize solidarity and support internationally, just as we did following the Three Mile accident.”
Ogura’s words heavy on my mind, I left shortly thereafter to take a day trip to Nagasaki to meet Crystal Uchino, an activist from the United States who was living in Nagasaki. Although we had communicated through e-mail on several occasions, we had never met in person. Shortly after I arrived in Hiroshima, she had sent me an intensely poignant essay titled “Rise Like Tsunamis after the Earthquakes” that she composed in the days following the disaster.
Her words touched my core, and I knew that I had to take the opportunity to reach out. Crystal and I spent the day talking like old friends as we walked through Nagasaki, which is a beautiful bayside city dotted with temples, shrines and rivers. It was only a short visit, but I found it immensely healing to be spending this time with someone who turned out to be a true kindred spirit in many ways.
Riding the train back to Hiroshima that night, I decided that the following day would be my last day there. I was tempted to stay longer, to explore the city further, to go deeper with the connections I had begun to forge. I decided, however, to return to Tokyo to move on with life—in whatever direction my partner and I would decide that to be.
The next morning, I set out to take one last walk along the city’s glorious riverbanks. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both two of the loveliest Japanese cities I have ever visited, and in thinking about the connection, I found myself recalling the words of an Iraqi intellectual I once saw interviewed, who theorized that the United States war machine deliberately targeted sites of beauty for destruction. I realized that I now understood the comment even more deeply.
As I continued pondering the strange twists of life while enjoying the picture perfect weather, I found myself feeling twinges of guilt as I imagined those in eastern Japan shut up indoors and unable to enjoy the simple pleasure of a walk outdoors while inhaling fresh air. Again, the irony of this was not lost on me as I passed by numerous signboards with photos of the horror from 1945, when many of those dying from burns and acute radiation poisoning poured into the city’s rivers to seek relief.
I also recalled the words at that time of writer and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams, who grew up downwind of nuclear testing in Utah and saw abnormally high rates of cancer in her own family and community. During a 2006 interview, she said the following:
The Japanese have a word — aware — which, in my understanding is that full range—both the joy and the sorrow of our life. One does not exist without the other. And I really feel that. I recently got back from Hiroshima and it was fascinating to me how the Japanese accommodate this paradox. We were talking about this word aware, which on the page looks like “aware,” which speaks to both the pain and the beauty of our lives. Being there, what I perceived was that this is a sorrow that is not a grief that one forgets or recovers from, but it is a burning, searing illumination of love for the delicacy and strength of our relations.
These words continued to play in my mind the next day, back in Tokyo, as I stood in line at the U.S. Embassy. One more reason I had decided to return from Hiroshima at that point was because of an urgent announcement regarding a limited-time distribution of potassium iodide pills to U.S. citizens, which were to be taken in the event of a nuclear emergency. While I was not so concerned for myself since they are apparently not effective for those over 40 (I am 39), I did not want to miss the opportunity to secure an allotment for my partner, who is nine years younger. She is Brazilian, but her country’s government—in addition to being slow to provide its citizens with information regarding the crisis—offered no such service. Although skeptical of chemical medicines, in this situation I did not want to turn away any potential remedies.
And so, two masks affixed firmly over my face, having passed through several guarded Embassy checkpoints and placed my belongings through a scanning machine, I found myself facing the surreal quality of the whole situation with an emotion whose poignancy did indeed have qualities of both the pain and beauty that Williams spoke of. I was conscious first and foremost of a profound sadness at my country’s militarizing what in my opinion should be normal situations, such as flying on an airplane or visiting a public facility. At the same time, however, I felt a surge of hope deep in my bones that we had indeed arrived at the historical moment called for by the Hopi—the people indigenous to regions including my home state of Arizona— to transcend our present socioeconomic systems that had caused so much suffering for human beings and our Earth, and together begin creating the positive, sustainable future that would ensure our survival rather than our destruction.
Back at home, pills secured, I continued my Internet searching for further sources of inspiration. I find this You Tube video dated March 24, 2011, titled “Pray for Japan: A Message from Dennis Banks”, featuring a well-known Native American rights leader.
I had the honor of speaking with Dennis Banks in Hiroshima following the atomic bombing memorial ceremony on August 6, 2007. His connection with Japan is longstanding, as he was in the U.S. military stationed near Sunagawa in the environs of Tokyo during the 1950s, where he told me he witnessed a group of activists and monks who were brutally beaten by fellow soldiers while engaged in peaceful organizing to protect their farmland from being confiscated for military use during the Sunagawa Struggle of 1956—an experience that he said radicalized him enough to leave the military and go into a life of organizing.
Sitting in Tokyo watching the video, I did indeed feel a great reason for hope. I was also reminded, however, of the difficult situation that people in Japan found themselves in with regard to the situation unfolding literally by the minute. After the disaster, I had been speaking several times a week with a close friend of mine who is an organic farmer along the southernmost peninsula jutting out from the prefecture of Chiba, which lies east of Tokyo and due south of Fukushima. She and her partner began successfully cultivating a large field of beautiful vegetables and a field of rice after both recently moving away from the city to pursue a more natural lifestyle. Although she would have loved to do nothing other than plant her summer crops, as Dennis Banks advised, she was instead facing the real possibility of irradiated water and soil.
She asked me whether I might be able to find her a Geiger counter from someone in the U.S., which would help gauge the level of danger she was working with. In the meantime, she said, she was fortunate because she lived in a tight-knit community of farmers and activists who shared information with each other on a daily basis—the wind currents, the local radiation levels—as everyone tried their best to figure out which moves to make next. I heard the anger underneath the surface of her words, even as she tried as hard as she could to stay positive, to continue holding an image of a healthy harvest. My heart ached for her situation, which was also now being faced by so many others in Japan as well—particularly those in Fukushima— but I joined her in trying to transcend the fear and anger in order to focus upon a positive future.
It was this delicate dance between anger and love—politics and spirituality—that to a large extent defined the climate amongst activists that I witnessed in the weeks following the disaster. Several days after 3.11, one well-respected community leader posted a message on her blog asking people to meditate and send love to the inner children of the nuclear power reactors, who were suffering and needed reassurance. This type of approach was harshly ridiculed by other organizers, who called upon people to instead focus on venting their anger toward electric power company and governmental officials.
I could not help but feel that my own personal truth combined elements from both of these perspectives. My emotions were complex, for example, as I recalled patronizing comments from people in years’ past about my attending one of those “cute little anti-nuclear demonstrations”—but I then felt grateful that the present disaster had indeed served to wake up many people to the immense suffering upon which the system of nuclear power rested. My mental state was similarly complicated as I felt sorry for myself for not being able to open the window and enjoy the combination of fresh breezes and golden sunlight outside as I sat composing this post on a gorgeous afternoon, due to fear of radiation lurking outside—but then I remembered the people remaining within the 20-30 kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant, whom I learned were still confined in their homes with no relief shipment of food or supplies having arrived—one full week after I had spoken with Keiko Ogura, and exactly three weeks after the tragedy struck.
And so it is now other writers to whom I turn for support and inspiration in this time of transition. In a piece titled simply “A Poem for the People in Japan” dated March 16, 2011, Oakland, California-based writer Lena-Nsomeka Gomes tread this fine line between anger and positivity as she faulted human complicity in creating this tragedy, while also offering hope for humanity’s capacity to provide solace and healing. She wote:
The Bones Cracked
Earth stirred and beat
Water sunk the city
Heat caused the leaks
Steam broke the sky—
Will the wind drive
It out to sea?
Oh, please—no drizzle
Don’t let it rain—
Can we stop the rain?
Control the wind
Will Mother Earth
Cede her rule
In response to what man did?
Stay inside—stuff blankets
Fill up spaces between planks on the floor
Wait for Man’s direction
Please, Wait some more
Wait to see what engulfs the sea
Wait to see What you will breathe?
Don’t wait for His instructions
Don’t wait for His tears
Run while the wind is soft
Run before It gets inside the water
And stains the rocks
Run into Our arms!
We will hold you
Away from This harm
This poem touched me deeply when I came across it on my second or third day in Hiroshima, amidst all of the uncertainly. I also found immense comfort in this post dated March 19th, titled “Full Moon: Hearts Breaking Open” on a blog called Midnight Apothecary written by healer Dori Midnight, who is herself a survivor of thyroid cancer resulting from emissions at the Rocketdyne nuclear lab near her home in the San Fernando Valley; as well as the virally circulated letter from Sendai resident Anne Thomas several days after the tragedy.
The shift reached Tokyo, as well. On the morning that I left for Hiroshima three days following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power accident, while having coffee before boarding the train, I could sense a palpable feeling of change in the air. People seemed more aware of one another; more accommodating; less inclined to judge. In Japanese, the phrase I heard used after the tragedy was yasashikunatta: quite simply, people became kinder.
Once again, however, beautiful spiritual realities notwithstanding, I realize harsh realities must continue to be deal with. As I finish this piece, several overseas news sources have noted worsening conditions at the Fukushima plant and predicted radiation blowing today across the entire Japanese archipelago. While the majority of the Japanese public appear to be unphased—with children and pregnant women walking outside unmasked—alarmed activists are continuing to pressure the government and media to come clean to the public with the truth.
These same activists are warning, in fact, that we are now literally sitting atop a time bomb in the form of the Hamaoka nuclear plant in Shizuoka prefecture, which sits 200 kilometers away from Tokyo atop the convergence of two tectonic plates that are now overdue for a major quake. They fear that the recent disaster has triggered a period of seismic instability, and that this region could be next—possibly also setting off an eruption of the nearby volcanic Mt. Fuji. They are demanding the plant’s closure—an action with which the present complacent government is not rushing to comply.
“Without pressure from outside countries, it is unlikely that Japanese officials will ever consider closing the plant,” a close friend tells me over lunch at a vegetarian café, where we overhear conversations about the ongoing disaster taking place at nearby tables. “If Hamaoka blows,” he says,“ we are looking at the end of Japan.”
Undoubtedly, these words will be amongst the jumble of information that I will mull over tonight as I use our rapidly dwindling supplies of bottled water to make a pot of miso soup, which I will load with wakame and konbu (seaweed and kelp)—foods that apparently help protect the body against possible radiation poisoning. Regardless of what continues to unfold, and whether my partner and I choose to stay or go, I will focus upon nurturing a feeling of gratitude in my heart for being in Japan at this moment where humanity begins to choose her future.
At the head of the Nagasaki Peace Park, there sits a massive blue figure seated atop a rock in what appears to be a trance-like state, titled simply the “Peace Statue. Its explanation reads as follows:
The elevated right hand points to the threat of nuclear weapons, while the outstretched left hand symbolizes tranquility and world peace. Divine omnipotence and love are embodied in the sturdy physique and gentle countenance of the statue, and a prayer for the repose of the souls of all war victims is expressed in the closed eyes. Furthermore, the folded right leg symbolizes quiet meditation, while the left leg is poised for action in assisting humanity.
Crystal Uchino in Nagasaki Peace Park
With the present tragedy having reminded us so starkly just exactly what is at stake, it will be this duality—action grounded in a still heart—that I will strive to cultivate within my own self. In doing so, I hope to be doing my own miniscule part in helping to ensure that we humans may transcend our past failures and move into a new era of healing, sustainability and unity.