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A few thoughts on war, on the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

Hiroshima after the atomic bombing

On this day, the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The photo above is of the city of Hiroshima after the bombing. (From Wikimedia Commons)

I was born way after World War II, the Pacific/Asia part of which is called the Great Pacific War (太平洋大戦争) in Japan, or simply 戦争, The War. Many of the adults around me, including my teachers, had first hand memories of The War.

This are the stories of a few of the adults with those memories.

My teacher in high school

My generation was at the tail end of what used to be called The Generation That Doesn't Know The War. There was even a hit song called Children Who Don't Know The War, by a duo called the Jiros.

It's a rather indignant song about how the Generation That Does Not Know War also deserves to be remembered and heard. It's essentially a protest song, because our generation was the Generation X or the Yutori Sedai[1] of the time. Our elders were always telling us how easy we had it, how we didn't know the hardships or horror of war. And we resented being told that. Even though I was still in elementary school when I first heard this song, it resonated with me.

My Japanese language teacher in the first year of high school was a man in his late 50s. I didn't like him much, for various reasons, and neither did most of my classmates. Once, I sort of subconsciously doodled a small picture of a tanuki on the edge of a quiz paper after I was done, and he called me in to the teachers' office and scolded me for it. It didn't help I guess that his nickname amongst us students was 'tanuki jijii', old tanuki geezer.

Our curriculum included a fair amount of postwar literature. One was a novel called Black Rain (黒い雨) by Masuji Ibuse, which was set in Hiroshima after the atom bomb was dropped. I don't really remember the book at all, except that it was as you might expect full of horror, and that I hated it.

In the next exam - I forget if it was a mid-term or a term-end one - there was an essay question about Black Rain. For some reason I took that opportunity to rail against the derision my generation from the "war generation", and how we shouldn't be made to feel guilty all the time. I guess I was risking getting a low mark on that essay, but I didn't really care.

To my surprise, the teacher gave me full marks for the essay. What he wrote in the margin made me stop in my tracks though. He said, "This is very well written. But it makes me very sad."

I wish I could say that that changed my relationship with the teacher - it didn't do that, exactly. But it did give me a slight insight into that older generation, and what they were saying.

The woman from Nagasaki

When I was in my 20s, I worked for a couple of years in New York for a company based in Fukuoka, which is in the north of Kyushu. The vice president of the company, the wife of the president, was from Nagasaki. She was in her teens when her city was bombed on August 9, 1945, 5 days after the bombing of Hiroshima.

She had survived without any physical effects, because she and her family had not been in the city center when the bomb was dropped. Nevertheless, the mere fact that she was from Nagasaki stigmatized her - even within her own community. There was an erroneous belief at the time that women who had been exposed to the radiation of the atom bombs were somehow contaminated, and that they could pass on their contamination to their children[2]. She said that at one point she gave up on the idea of marriage, which was a terrible thing for a woman of her generation.

This, she told me one day, was why she was so grateful to her husband. He was willing to overlook the stigma and marry her, even though he was from Fukuoka, where apparently the prejudice against the 'contaminated' women of Nagasaki was particularly strong. (Fukuoka is in northern Kyushu, and Nagasaki is in the south.) She went on and on about he had saved her from a terrible life of spinsterhood.

The thing is, that man, her husband and my boss, was not a very nice person at all. He could be very charming on the surface, but he was a terrible nitpicker and extremely controlling. (Once he called into the New York office on a day when the subway was delayed and I got in about 15 minutes late. From then on he made it a point to call in at 9am every day to see if I was in on time.) He could also change his mood at a moment's notice. I did not have inside knowledge of their relationship of course, but I did see that she was perpetually nervous in his presence. She always asked him for permission to go to the bathroom, or even to fix her lipstick after a meal. Maybe she was content with her lot regardless.

Was he her first choice? I don't know. But that word, "grateful", stuck in my mind as I saw how much she changed when she was in his presence versus when he was not there.

My father

My parents were children when the war started. My mother was born in 1941, and was too young to remember much, but my father was born in 1936. I never thought to ask him about the wartime years from him while he was alive. I wasn't that close to my father to begin with, and I had that deep antipathy towards any mention of The War anyway.

But when he died in 2012, his younger brother, my Uncle Hiroshi, brought along a whole folder of text and old photographs to the memorial service, which was on Long Island, New York. The text contained memories written by his other siblings, poems that my grandmother had written, and more.

On those pages, I read how my father had been the only one of the siblings that had been forcibly evacuated to the countryside by the government, because he was the only one who was old enough. He was in the 3rd grade. When he came back from the evacuation, he was changed. He became very violent, to his mother as well as his siblings.

I could sense that none of his brothers and sisters really liked him when I was growing up though. No wonder, if they grew up fearing him. From that folder, it seems very likely that my father had been abused at the place where he was evacuated, by uncaring strangers.

If they did, they had a lasting effect. His violent tendencies did not dissipate at all when he became an adult. I grew up in fear of his bursts of anger, and the heavy ruler or slipper he liked to wield. My mother divorced him when I was 19 (they separated when I was 17), and although it was devastating since she escaped alone and left all us kids behind, it was also a relief not have to see him abuse her anymore.

My father died alone; his body was found in his apartment by his landlord, because none of his daughters wanted to have much to do with him. Even the lady who had become his girlfriend and then his friend had had enough of him too.

The stories above may seem so trivial, compared to death and injury and all the direct cruelties committed during war. But they are still the effects of a war.

For decades, the horrific memories of The War have kept Japan resolutely pacifist. But this may be about to change. The current prime minister is dead set on amending the constitution to expand the scope of the Japan Defense Force. Some of political maneuverings going on right now seem to be an attempt to get public opinion on his side, after an election that seemed to reflect the ambivalence on that issue held by the voters. There seems to be increasing aggression, at least in words as well as vague 'patrols', from neighboring countries. There's also the utterings from across the Pacific from a leader there that Japan needs to 'pay its way more'.

I really do not have a definitive thought there. It would be nice to finally wake up in a world where war is simply unthinkable. Not only is that not likely in my lifetime or several lifetimes after that, it seems to be taking a reverse course these days. Maybe there will be a generation in Japan that does know war, once again. I hope with all my heart that does not happen, but the world seems to be spinning out of control.


I do not have any first hand recollections from people (men) who were in the military. This is partly on me because as you've seen, I had a lot of resentful feelings about hearing about The War for a long time. In addition, there simply weren't any people around me who had first hand military experience and/or were willing to talk about it.

  1. Yutori sedai (ゆとり世代) - the yutori generation; ones who grew up with the 'yutori education' policies of the 2000s, which ended in 2010. Yutori means "relaxed, with space to breathe", etc. The yutori generation is often criticized and made fun of in the way Generation X or Millenials are elsewhere.  ↩

  2. This stigma against female survivors of the atom bombings is one of the subjects of Black Rain. The misguided prejudice against 'radation contamination' of people was still seen after the March 11, 2011 earthquake in the Tohoku region, when evacuees from Fukushima were shunned and bullied in the areas where they were evacuated.  ↩

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