I’ll be honest, I was nervous about our trip to Hiroshima in the days leading up to it. The city’s name seems to be underlined with sadness whenever it’s said, regardless of the context. No one I’ve heard talks about the city the way they do with Tokyo or New York or London, even though they’ve also been subjected to attacks in the past. When people hear “Hiroshima,” they think “atomic bomb” and not much else. So planning an overnight trip there made me anxious.
In preparation, I tried to remember the first time I learned about Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. I read a story in elementary school about Sadako and the thousand paper cranes she wanted to fold. I’ve watched Jaws about a couple dozen times, and Robert Shaw’s infamous monologue ends with “Anyway, we delivered the bomb.” But it’s hard for anyone to conceptualize a single event which left over 100,000 people dead and an entire city flattened. It’s harder still to grow up and learn that your own national leaders ordered such an incomprehensible attack, the same men who have been touted as heroes for “winning” World War II. My grandfather was a WWII vet who fought in the Pacific during those years – what was he fighting for? What did “we” win? As an American, what should my relationship with this city look like?
The trip was also clouded by a memory I have from 2015: Ethan and I went to New York City (my first time there) and made a point to visit Ground Zero and the World Trade Center memorial. After getting lost in the surrounding buildings numerous times, we finally found the site – and it was packed with tourists and selfie sticks. Malls were under construction around virtually the whole area. We ended up leaving after fifteen minutes, because it didn’t feel like a place with history anymore. It felt like a local attraction.
I didn’t want Hiroshima to be a kitschy place, but I also didn’t want it to be a place without history. There lies the problem – I was trying to predict what this place might be like now, and what I wanted from it. I wasn’t thinking about what Hiroshima is.
During the ferry trip from Matsuyama to Hiroshima, I read John Hersey’s article for the New Yorker. Published in August 1946 (exactly one year later), it was one of the first articles many Americans read about the bombing. And he pulled few punches – the fear, the chaos, the violence, and the destruction caused are all there in his essay. I followed that up with Wikipedia research on the bombing, the Manhattan Project, and the city landmarks that mark important sites. When we arrived in Hiroshima, I nearly expected a flattened city still in ruins, since my head was swimming with all of those horrific words and images.
But traveling from the ferry to our hostel proved different. A fully functioning, dense, and populous city spread out before me, full of nail salons and banks and vending machines. The people waiting for pedestrian lights and walking out of restaurants didn’t seem to be unbearably sad or burdened with the memory of their longitude and latitude. They seemed to be… regular people.
That night, Ethan and I watched Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film with one of my favorite screenplays (written by the indefatigable Marguerite Duras). Made in 1959, the film focuses on an affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect, but it quickly devolves into an exploration of the trauma of war (just super uplifting stuff, you know?) The first ten minutes are essentially stock footage videos of post-bomb Hiroshima, the burned victims and the fallen buildings and the immense suffering. But the rest of the movie was filmed in Hiroshima in 1958, giving its audience an idea of how quickly the city began to rebuild. A museum had already been built to memorialize the bombing, tour guides are shown bringing groups around the city, hotels are fully furnished, and modern cafes are bustling with crowds and booze (it’s a half-French movie, after all).
The next morning, we woke up early and prepared for our daunting walk through the city. On the way to our first stop, Ethan suddenly pointed at the roof of our covered walkway – “It’s the same one from the movie, we’re on the same street.” Fifty years after the film debuted, some parts of Hiroshima were still recognizable. And I began to see it differently.
We went to a small museum in an elementary school, one of the few buildings left standing when the bomb hit. Walking through the exhibits talking about the number of lives lost, I could hear students playing at recess outside. It was almost hard to concentrate on the pain, when positivity was so immediately present. While looking at the paper cranes made by today’s students for the museum, the docent approached me and handed me two small ones. “Gifts for visitors.” He asked me where I was from, smiled, and thanked me for visiting.
Our next stop was the official Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a huge building with incredibly detailed and well-curated exhibits. Hundreds of people, from every corner of the world, were there together – learning and talking and bumping into each other while swarming the interactive tables. If that sounds a bit cliché, well, I suppose it was. But the museum was living up to its goal – promoting history and peace between all peoples. I saw a few tears, but mostly the smiles of children who were visiting with their parents. The heavy stuff went over their head, but the diversity of the group around them kept them engaged. It’s not every day you hear twenty different languages spoken in one room.
Ethan and I walked through most of the park, full of monuments dedicated to victims and peacemakers alike. Friendly locals stopped to say hello, and even our trek to the hypocenter – the direct spot beneath the location in the sky where the bomb went off – was with a tour group of elementary school students (inadvertently). One of the boys was very keen to impress Ethan with his knowledge of the site, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Walking through Hiroshima, I began to feel less afraid and more encouraged. One of the worst tragedies in human history had befallen this place, and yet all around me were tall buildings and families and hundred-year old trees. Not even a nuclear bomb could defeat the spirit of the people of Japan (and Hiroshima in particular), and the evidence is plain as day. The people here know their history, and what’s more, they know all of it: the centuries before, the hot day in August 1945, and the decades spent rebuilding and doggedly pursuing a new goal – peace.
Let me remain on my soapbox for just one more paragraph – it wasn’t until visiting Hiroshima that I realized just how “little” a bomb can do. I’m not trying to minimize the lives lost, the trauma of survivors, or the evils of war. But before this trip, the words “nuclear bomb” sounded to me like an ending. As we hear more and more about countries developing nuclear weapons, and we’re told the end is near, it’s easy to be totally pessimistic and anticipate the end of the world. But Hiroshima is proof that even the most unfathomable attack can’t break the human spirit. Even if World War 3 starts tomorrow, there will be those who survive, stand up, and rebuild.
As we packed up and headed to the train station, I remarked to Ethan that I’d like to travel to Hiroshima again. I saw a few neighborhoods and museums I wanted to revisit, and the overall vibe felt relaxed but engaging. He was visibly taken aback, and pointed out that that was the first time I said that about a city (that’s normally “his line”) during our trip. That may be so, but Hiroshima is a special enough place to keep watching it grow.
Howdy, folks! Ethan here again with another exciting installment of AirE&E, AKA Bad Idea 2k17, AKA Ethan and Emily’s Team-Building Exercise 2k17, AKA “If I have to see one more goddamn temple… – Emily Cardoza” 2k17.
After 10 days of vacuuming and laundry folding and so much social activity in Osaka, Emily and I set out on July 4 for Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. Our final destination was Kumakōgen Furusato Ryokō Mura, a “tourist village” nestled in a valley an hour outside the prefecture’s largest city of Matsuyama.
I’ve been trying to come up with a coherent post about my experiences with language on this trip, but I consistently come up short. There are so many different aspects to this topic that it’s hard to find a thread to string them together – hence my title, “On Language.” Still, I’m going to attempt writing this, in no small part because I’m interested to see what my friends and family have to offer from their own perspectives – please comment!
I’ll begin at the beginning, I guess.
I studied Spanish for a semester in sixth grade, then a semester about a year ago after college. I studied French for three years in high school and three and a half years in college. I took a semester of German on top of that, and have been using the occasional language-learning apps to practice my skills and attempt new languages sporadically. But still, I consider myself an English-only speaker, with a minor French proficiency.
And boy, am I lucky.
In every hostel I’ve stayed in – six so far in Japan – the default language used has been English. Germans, Portuguese, Thai, Turkish, Mexican travelers all introduce themselves to one another with “Hello, my name is…” Many of these individuals are in their twenties and thirties, and all use English with a comfort and skill-level I’ve never reached in my own language pursuits. Quite frankly, because of this phenomenon, I’ll never really “have to” learn another language. The world around me has evolved towards catering to my culture, which causes me both extreme relief and acute discomfort.
On the one hand, it’s normally easier for all participants in a conversation to immediately switch to English than to watch an English speaker struggle through foreign verb conjugation. Because our (speaking for Americans here) education system doesn’t prioritize language-learning, many of us weren’t even given the option to expand our speech until high school or college, quite a few years after the “ideal” developmental period of pre-K. Other nations begin language-learning much earlier, and for a variety of socio-political-economic reasons, English has been a very common second language to teach.
I’m certainly benefiting from these phenomena – less formal schooling AND other people cater to me?? Hell yeah!! – but I’m aware of the problems implicit within them. For instance, should the world suddenly stop catering to Americans, I’d be screwed. And from a more progressive standpoint, I’m part of a system that’s hindering my own mental growth. Dozens of studies show the benefits of learning multiple languages – they broaden your mind measurably, allowing you to look at problems and situations from a myriad of perspectives in ways that single-language speakers can’t grasp. Looking at the current political situation in the US, I think it’s fairly clear that many of us have certain stunted narrow-minded attitudes that are manifesting themselves in racism, violence, and willful ignorance (not to say that a lack of language-learning is the only influence at play here, but it absolutely doesn’t help).
So here I am, a witless American touring a country whose official language I can’t begin to comprehend. Sure, I have the basics covered – “Please,” “Sorry,” “Thank you,” “Where is the plum wine?” – but putting together a sentence is like pulling my own teeth. Invariably I’ve been rescued by a kindly shopkeeper with some English, or by Ethan (who adores learning languages) eager to practice his Japanese. Most Japanese citizens respond to him with a combination of surprise and delight, totally floored that this pasty-white blue-eyed foreigner is asking them questions in (mostly) grammatically-correct Japanese. Quite often, they compliment him on his language skills if he says anything beyond “Konnichiwa” or “Arigatou gozaimasu.” As his girlfriend, I love watching him astound other people. But as his travel partner, I wonder if I’m depending too much on him in situations that could advance my own language-learning, for fear of the anxiety and embarrassment that comes with language practice.
It’s not as if all of Japan speaks perfect English – one of our favorite travel pastimes has been pointing out billboards, shirts, and storefronts with odd English-inspired phrases on them. Things like “I Hate’ Mondays,” “Wel Come,” or “It is strong in time, and it is gently to time tough at time” (which I still haven’t figured out) have us nudging each other and giggling. But when I flip the situation, in which I were a store owner trying to cater to Japanese clients, I certainly would do much worse in trying to diagram a phrase in Japanese. This fear of speaking less-than-perfectly is part of the reason I gave up on learning Japanese after memorizing hiragana (the phonetic Japanese alphabet) and beginning katakana.
But then again, this journey isn’t about doing anything perfectly. It’s about getting outside of my comfort zone long enough to learn something, to see something new, to talk to a person (or ten) I’ve never met before. Perhaps this whole essay “On Language” is really about the difficulty in leaving comfortable situations behind, and embracing the unknown.
Or maybe, I’m just procrastinating studying Mandarin before we arrive in China.