By: Jotham Sadan
On June 10, we started our day off with a bullet train trip to Hiroshima to learn about how the Japanese teach the story of WWII. We left our bus at Aioi bridge, which was the original target of the first atomic bomb. Our tour guide led us to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a concrete building which served as a monument immediately after the war. Since most buildings in Hiroshima were made of wood, they were burnt in the initial head of the bomb. One of the few buildings left standing in the area was the one made of more sturdy material. Because much of the city was left in complete ruins, this building, which was one of very few in a large radius, became a spot for friends and family members to search for and leave messages for their loved ones who they lost during the confusion of the wreck.
After the memorial, we discussed the lasting effects, both physical and societal, of the bomb. Hiroshima was left hopeless, and to make matters worse, the burst of radiation to its citizens caused longer lasting health problems. One of those affected most notably by radiation was a girl named Sadako Sasaki. As an infant, she was in Hiroshima during the blast, but was unharmed by the initial force. Instead, she grew to the age of 12 before showing any signs of lasting damage. She was diagnosed with leukemia, one of the most prominent side effects of the radiation. While hospitalized, Sadako was told that folding 1,000 paper cranes would grant the folder their wish. So she made it her mission to do so with whatever scrap paper and wrappings she could find around. After reaching her goal, she continued to fold until she no longer had the strength to do so, and eventually passed away. After gaining national attention, Sadako’s story was immortalized through a statue in Peace Memorial Park, and the image of the crane has since then become synonymous with Japan’s desire of lasting peace.
Since my research project is partly based on American influence on Japanese education, being able to contrast how the Japanese and Americans teach the story of World War II in person was extremely helpful. In my experience with American public schools, our war with the Japanese was taught with an “us vs. them” mentality, which led to mixed sentiment both from my history teacher and from the students. It was taught in a very pragmatic and factual way, but the individual details, such as those of Sadako, were never addressed. In addition, the American education system goes over the morality of dropping the atomic bomb, but never conclusively denounces war because it is such a big part of US history. In contrast, Japan talks only of peace in this memorial, rather than addressing the war as a whole. Japan focuses a lot on the stories of the individuals and the emotional aspect. Often when we study statistics like war casualties it becomes easy to detach emotion from the inherent atrocities that war brings, but things like the Hiroshima Peace Memorial help to remind us how tragic each individual story is and how the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Until visiting the memorial, my project was focused on how Japan has caved to westernization in its education system, so it is nice to see that the teaching of one of the biggest pieces of Japan’s recent history has retained its own Japanese identity and has not changed because of foreign pressure.
The second half of our day was a short trip to Miyajima island to get a small window into what life on the islands was like, seeing as there were over a hundred of them. While the first part of the day was much more education focused, this trip was more about enjoying ourselves and exploring our surroundings. One of Miyajima’s most famous features is that it has tame wild deer who roam around the island, so in between getting to hike the surrounding trails, eat traditional maple leaf sweet “momijimanju,” and visit the local temples, we got to play with the deer.
This was easily one of our busiest days in the entire trip, having started off in Kyoto, going to Hiroshima, Miyajima, then back to Kyoto for the night, and I can think of no better way to have spent one of our last days in Japan.