Japan

Good Night, Hiroshima

I’ve been in Japan for twenty-six straight days now. That’s almost twice as long as I expected this business trip to last, and I still have no return ticket booked. The delay is the mundane kind — no catastrophe, no accident, just an engineering project that’s been 90% of the way complete for days. If you’ve ever tried to debug a cabinet full of wires or find the one broken sensor in a tool the size of your bedroom — or if you’ve ever struggled to find the right word, or labored to fix a mysteriously leaky faucet — you know how infuriating that last 10% can be, like you’re swimming up and up and up in a deeply black ocean, the surface perpetually out of reach until one day, suddenly, in a stroke of insight and with no warning whatsoever, your head breaks the surface and you gulp down victory like oxygen.

So I’m here. Still swimming. But as places in the world to be trapped go, I’ve picked a nice one.

Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Even with a population of more than 500,000, Matsuyama has a reputation for being a little sleepy, and certainly when compared to the nonstop electric veins of Tokyo, Matsuyama’s pulse beats slower. It’s a hot spring town, built around the Dōgo Onsen, a spring that’s been used for over a millennium. (I checked, not a translation error.) There are cherry trees on the hills and a long history of haiku poetry, all surrounded by a ring of emerald mountains that shepherd the city to the sea. The city’s age leads to narrow streets, compact cars, and without a burrowing subway like Tokyo’s, the narrow streets are almost always full of those compact cars, so that my five-mile morning commute stretches on in the backseat of a taxi for half an hour. But no one seems to mind the pace, no one seems to mind the wait, and whether this is Japanese politeness or just Matsuyama’s own relaxed tempo I haven’t yet been able to determine.

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The downtown is dominated by a giant forested hill, capped with Matsuyama Castle, a 17th century fortress built by some feudal daimyo that overlooks the entire city. My hotel sits in the shadow of the castle, as does the prefecture capitol building and Okaido, the half-kilometer-long covered pedestrian thoroughfare that’s lined with shops, sushi restaurants, and 7-Elevens. The new nestles right up to the old. Following Okaido away from the castle on the hill, it dead-ends into the Gintengai pedestrian alley, which runs perpendicular for another half-kilometer of fashion, ramen, and fancy stationery until it dumps you out at the city’s gargantuan department store, topped by a massive Ferris wheel that carries you up into the sky until you, too, can have the view of a feudal lord. You can see for miles in every direction, but in the summer there are almost always clouds threatening tropical rain on the horizon.  Every restaurant has a cache of cheap umbrellas they give out to patrons if the sky opens up during dinner.

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I’m working in a neighborhood called Nishihabumachi, an industrial port right south of the airport. I’ve watched planes land and planes depart, and a week after I first arrived a giant container ship, the Santa Serena, pulled up to dock a hundred meters away, gravid with logs — more logs than I’ve ever seen. I watched the massive metal cranes on the ship’s deck duck and nod for two whole days, unloading piles and piles of wood, before with a blast of its foghorn the Santa Serena heaved itself loose from the shore, turned, and headed back out to sea. More planes took off. I took a taxi back to the hotel.

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But today is clearer than I’ve ever seen it in Matsuyama, so clear I can see islands in the distance between the Seto Inland Sea and the Iyo-nada Sea that I didn’t know were there. The geography I can see from Nishihabumachi is breathtaking, all these rocky islands that burst from the crystal blue ocean, dotting the sea and the horizon as they fade away into the distance, into eternity. It’s hard to be upset about being here, looking at those islands. But they are all so separate, so distinct, that they seem lonely, isolated despite their numbers. The more islands that reveal themselves out of the mist, the lonelier they look. They are travelers that surfaced from the sea to find themselves adrift and unconnected.

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Matsuyama is 42 miles south-southeast of Hiroshima. I’d have a clear line of sight to the famous city from the pier where I ate lunch today if it weren’t for those islands. For the first time today, as the sea seemed to stretch on forever, I realized just how close I am to Hiroshima, how close I am to the place where mankind dropped hell out of an airplane and onto a city for the first time, where in an instant we turned 80,000 lives into glass and smoke.

I have conflicting feelings about the U.S.’s atomic bombing of Japan. I think everyone must. It’s an impossible question, a moral morass — was it necessary to end the war? was it a way to intimidate the Soviet Union? was it the best use of a generation of scientists’ talents? was it revenge for Pearl Harbor? did it save countless American lives? did it murder thousands of Japanese civilians? did it spare the lives of Japanese soldiers?  I don’t envy Harry Truman, the farmer turned haberdasher turned senator turned president, thrust into the decision by Roosevelt’s sudden and complete cerebral hemorrhage. But mostly what I thought about today, as I ate lunch and stared across the sea — tried to stare straight back in time — is what Matsuyama must have seen on August 6, 1945.

This is Hiroshima on that day in August, 71 years ago. A tower of flame, an inferno 60,000 feet tall. Fire and fury and ash and void. Buildings vaporized; human lives turned to shadows on the pavement. If you were standing where I was standing in Matsuyama, would you have seen the flare, brighter than anything in history, a new sun rising violently on the horizon? Would you have heard the blast, loud as hell’s own thunder, rupturing the air? Surely you would have seen the cloud, that ominous cloud of smoke and souls, rising like a hunched vulture above the city, above the rain clouds themselves?

Maybe it’s because the sea northwest of Matsuyama is so beautiful, but it’s hard for me to imagine any of that. This is not a desolate or war-torn or ugly place, not a desert in New Mexico or a war zone in the Middle East, but blue and alive and sparkling. And yet there are plenty of 80-year-old Japanese men and women I’ve passed in the streets, eaten next to at sushi restaurants. There are people to whom this is not history but reality, not an abstraction or imagination but something seared into their memories.

This is, more or less, a feeling I’ve had before, when I visited a concentration camp in Germany. That the world was so beautiful — the sky so perfect, the grass so green — that nothing atrocious could have ever possibly happened here. It’s a fallacy, obviously, but it makes me wonder what will happen when the witnesses are gone and only history remains. It’s easy to lose the past in the present.

Japan seems to be keenly aware of this, and integrates its past with its future fairly seamlessly — I’m in a town where the main tourist attraction is a thousand-year-old hot spring, after all.  I’ve linked to yesterday’s obituary of Elie Wiesel in the previous paragraph, but I think I want to close with two quotes from him, both given in speeches, not written in his books.

First —

It’s up to you now, and we shall help you — that my past does not become your future.

And second —

If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.

Good night, Mr. Wiesel.  And good night, Hiroshima.  May we leave the world a better future than your pasts.

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