By Greg Pape, Spalding MFA Poetry Faculty
Outside the New Miyako Hotel cicadas’ voices ricochet off the doors of waiting taxis. It is going to be another really hot day. We cross the street to Kyoto Station, following our guides Yuko and Kuniko to the boarding platforms where we will wait for the bullet train to Hiroshima. We have been warned: when the train arrives the doors will open and remain open for two minutes, then they close and the train is off with or without you.
The bullet train, which can move between cities at 200 miles per hour, looks from the outside, as it pulls into the station, like a cross between a duck-billed platypus and the space shuttle. Inside it is smooth and comfortable as a silk kimono, with a dignified and quiet ambience, and plenty of legroom. Out the windows green hills, rice and soybean fields, clusters of tile-roofed buildings, a river with the blue arch of a bridge, high-rise apartments, a ball field covered with green netting—the countryside streams by as we are lulled into our separate thoughts.
When we arrive at Hiroshima Station we file quickly off the train and follow Yuko and Kuniko to the bus waiting to take us into the heart of the city. Hiroshima sits on a river delta that drains into the Seto Inland Sea. We cross a bridge over the Ota River. Yuko points out the old Hiroshima castle first built in the 16th century, destroyed by the bomb, rebuilt in 1958. As we cross the Motoyasu River and enter Peace Memorial Park we get a first glimpse of the A-bomb Dome, a.k.a. Genbaku Dome, the iconic domed ruins of the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. I snap a photo with my phone, the first of many. We step off the bus and follow our guides through the park. I notice the Japanese flag, the red sun on a white background, hanging dead still at half-mast. Just beyond the flagpole a row of eleven strangely trimmed trees or bushes, sculpted from the ground up so that their dense-leafed forms resemble figures suggestive of Shinto deities or Buddhas, line the walkway leading to the conference center. It is one of the hottest days of a hot summer, with temperatures over 100 degrees. It is a relief to step into an air-conditioned building. We take our seats in the lecture hall. Yuko tells us that the small dark haired woman dressed in a red blouse, black pants, and white jacket standing off to the side at the front of the hall is a Hibakusha, a survivor of the A-bomb. Her name is Keiko Ogura. She is smiling warmly, her hands clasped before her, her gold-rimmed glasses glinting faintly as she looks around the room at this new group of foreigners. Yuko pauses, looks down at her notes. She has lost her place and is fumbling the introduction. Keiko Ogura, her round youthful face smiling, steps forward, “It’s ok, I can introduce myself. Thank you for coming to Hiroshima National Peace Memorial for the Atomic Bomb Victims.” In her warm and welcoming voice, these words have a curious resonance. “I am the director of the Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace. My brothers and sisters don’t like that I talk like this, but of 50 remaining survivors I am the only one who speaks English.”
(What follows is pieced together from my notes and an interview with Mrs. Keiko Ogura posted online by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2015). “I was eight years old, a second-year student at the National School. When the bomb was dropped I was in Ushita Town, 2.4km north of the hypocenter. That morning my father said, ‘something doesn’t feel right, don’t go to school today.’ So I was all alone on the road on the north side of our house. Suddenly, I was engulfed in a dazzling flash of light, and the tremendous blast that followed slammed me to the ground. The straw roofs of the neighboring houses burst into flames. When I went back to the house, I found that everything inside was destroyed, the ceiling and roof tiles had been blown away, and the doors and window panes were shattered into hundreds of pieces and sticking out of the walls and pillars. Rain started to fall. I went outside, and my clothes were dampened by sticky black rain. My brother finally came home, with burns on his face and hands. He said, ‘Hiroshima is a sea of fire.’ I went out to look at the city from the hill. It was then that I came across a line of people, their clothes in tatters, with burns, seriously injured, fleeing the city. These people had charred hair, faces and lips swollen and blackened with soot, and they were covered with blood. As I was walking, someone on the ground suddenly grabbed my ankle. From around my feet, a weak voice said ‘Give me water.’ A woman covered with soot and blood was clinging to me desperately. I ran home and got some water from our well. Immediately after drinking the water, a number of those people suddenly slumped, and died right before my eyes. Shocked and trembling with fear, I regretted giving them water. I thought, I killed them. My memory of that day remained with me as a nightmare …
For fifty years I was reluctant to speak about what happened.”
All of us in the Spalding group listen intently as Keiko Ogura goes on to explain that no one at the time knew anything about the atomic bomb or the effects of radiation. The intense heat of the blast leveled the city. Those who were not killed instantly were scorched, their clothes burned off, their skin blackened or melted so that skin dripped off fingers. People jumped in the river, along with the animals. The still living and the dead drifted out to the sea at low tide. At high tide the bodies came back. The Shinto shrine near her house became an emergency aid station, but there was no sign of anyone who looked like a doctor, she says, just one soldier with a bucket and brush applying oil to the burns. Some 60,000 people in the city died either at the time of the blast or shortly after, and many died from burns and injuries in the following days and weeks. Later people who seemed to recover from burns and other injuries began to get sick and die. Why were people dying? The doctors didn’t know. Radiation sickness was an entirely new disease. Survivors were discriminated against. It was said, “don’t hire survivors because they are lazy.” They were sick. Babies were born with all sorts of malformations. The government listed four types of survivors: those within 4 or 5 kilometers of the hypocenter at the time of the blast; those within 2 kilometers of the hypocenter before 8/20/45; those engaged in medical care; those in utero. Girl survivors couldn’t marry. Because of fear of discrimination and how it might affect their families, survivors have hidden their stories.
“Personally,” Keiko Ogura says, “I have two traumas. Firstly, I gave water to survivors when I was not supposed to. A lot of people were happy when I gave them water, but they soon died. I blamed myself for a long time. The trauma did not disappear even when I got older. I was devastated that everyone else knew that we should not give water to victims. I kept my secret for a long time, but one day—decades later—I told my friend for the first time. When I finally told someone, my suffering lessened. …The terror of the atomic bombs must be told … forgetting is not the way to conquer suffering. I was a child who lived in a hell but still ate to maintain my own life. How could I be so insensitive? My old self scares me. My mind was forced to be numb and this is my second trauma. … Over the past thirty years, I have interpreted the testimonies of various atomic bomb survivors (hibakusha) on the one hand, while on the other communicating my own experience in English to the people of the world. I do this because I do not want humankind to ever again experience the horror caused by nuclear weapons. I know that retribution and hatred mean nothing under that mushroom cloud, and that all the people of the world share the same fate.”
When she ends her talk she thanks us for coming to Hiroshima and listening to her story. There is polite applause and some teary eyes. I thank her and ask if she would mind having a picture taken. Sure, she says, smiles a big warm smile, and then, with a slight bow, hands me her business card. I want to hug her, but don’t.
Outside the sky is blue and cloudless. The heat is intense. I walk by a group of Japanese gathered around an old woman lying on the ground, apparently a victim of heatstroke, but it occurs to me that she may be overcome by grief. The well-dressed people around her are bent to try to comfort her. Two men in coats and ties touch her shoulder and pat her back. A woman squats beside her speaking urgently. A little girl in a blue dress stands with hands tapping her sides and looking bewildered. Another woman holds a water bottle at the ready, but the old woman does not seem to respond. I realize I am stopped and staring and possibly violating the group’s privacy. One of the men glances at me as if to say we’ve got this. I keep walking through the heat past the Genbaku Dome toward downtown Hiroshima.
Greg Pape is the author of ten books, including Four Swans, Border Crossings, Black Branches, Storm Pattern, Sunflower Facing the Sun (winner of the Edwin Ford Piper Prize, now called the Iowa Prize), and American Flamingo (winner of a Crab Orchard Open Competition Award). Greg’s poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Iowa Review, The New Yorker,Northwest Review, and Poetry, among others. He has received the Discovery/The Nation Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, and the Richard Hugo Memorial Poetry Award. He served as Poet Laureate of Montana from 2007 to 2009. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona.