Hiroshima and the World: What Color is Hiroshima?

by Ronni Alexander

Ronni Alexander
Ronni Alexander, a peace activist, educator and scholar, first came to Japan in 1977, spending five years in Hiroshima before moving to Tokyo for graduate school. She is a professor at the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies, Kobe University, where she has worked since 1989, specializing in transnational relations and peace studies. Ms. Alexander holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Sophia University, an MA in Public Administration from International Christian University, and a BA in Psychology from Yale University. She has published widely in both Japanese and English, including her bilingual picture books, Popoki, What Color is Peace? and Popoki, What Color is Friendship? In 2006, she began the Popoki Peace Project to encourage critical thinking, imagination and action for peace. She was born in the U.S. state of California in 1956.

What Color is Hiroshima?

What color is Hiroshima? One hibakusha said the bomb was “the whiteness of the sudden flash.” Another told me, “I can’t say what color the bomb was but I’m sure the blue of the sky and sea when I went back home after Nagasaki is the color of peace.” Some say it is a cold, hard, dark, artificial color, devoid of all feeling, others say it is the color of tears or the faintly shining fragments of the hopes and dreams that were shattered in that instant.

As a senior in college, I knew that I wanted to travel to someplace completely different from everything I had ever known, so I jumped at the chance to work in Japan. It was only later that I learned that I was to be sent to work in Hiroshima. I struggled to accept the implications of going to live in the city that I had heard so much about, but could not imagine. Would I be able to make friends in a place where everyone was sure to hate me? Was Hiroshima really, after all these years, safe? What if…

My two years in Hiroshima turned into five, and now, more than thirty years later, Hiroshima remains an important foundation not only for my scholarly work, teaching and activism but also for my soul. For me, more than the Atomic Bomb Dome, Peace Museum and Peace Park, the spirit and meaning of Hiroshima is conveyed in the festival held every year on the evening of 6 August, when lanterns made of candles and colored paper, bearing inscriptions, are floated down the river. Originally a festival to ease the spirits of the dead, the meaning of the Hiroshima Lantern Festival today lies in its message for the future; our tears at the death and horror transformed into pearls of hope and dreams for a peaceful tomorrow.

The lanterns represent one of Hiroshima’s three voices. That voice is the one which calls on each of us to act now to create a world free of nuclear weapons. This voice turns the despair and horror into positive energy for peace and presents a choice which is not a choice: we can opt for life by resolving never again to try to solve problems through the use of nuclear weapons, or we can seal our own fate by continuing down this path of death and destruction. This voice focuses on life as a universal value, important in and of itself rather than because it belongs to particular individuals with specific affiliations. It is a transnational or perhaps supra-national voice calling for responsible action to preserve the future, not only of the human race but of all the creatures in the world. This voice reminds us that to remember Hiroshima is to recognize the infinite variety, beauty and richness of the colors of life.

The second voice of Hiroshima is that of reconstruction and rebirth. Initially it was said that no trees or grass would grow for seventy years after the bombing. Yet the spring of 1946 was announced by new growth on the burnt limbs of the trees. Survival, recovery and rebirth are possible, but they require hard work, commitment and inner strength. Hiroshima was more than the immediate physical and emotional trauma. It was the mangled and charred bodies, the horrific images burnt deep into the memories of those that saw the destruction, the injuries that refused to heal, the overwhelming grief at the immense loss of life and property – and of course the terror of never really being sure about the long-term and inter-generational effects.

Within this second voice lies a different and rarely mentioned Hiroshima, hiding under a tarpaulin of fear and ignorance. Hiroshima’s residents suffered discrimination and isolation from a Japan anxious to move forward and leave the war behind, but it also embraced the contradictions of Japanese society as a whole. Fearing ‘contamination,’ deeply scarred hibakusha were shunned at public baths and many parents and grandparents, fearing ‘Hiroshima’ would harm their offspring’s chances of finding jobs or marriage partners, remained silent about their experiences. Korean survivors, many of whom had been brought forcibly to labor in Japan under extremely harsh conditions, were the target of multiple layers of racism, hatred and fear. Politically the war may have ended but the bio-politics of the use of nuclear weapons continues in the bodies of the survivors, and perhaps their children, grandchildren and all who follow. To remember Hiroshima is not only to acknowledge that while the explosion may have occurred in an instant, the effects of radiation may last virtually forever. It also reminds us that coercion, hatred and oppression are prerequisites to war, and do not necessarily disappear when the fighting stops. To remember Hiroshima is to recognize the color of fear, greed and injustice.

The third voice of Hiroshima is the one that assures us that even in the face of the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forgiveness is possible. Last year, I asked Suzuko Numata, a friend and hibakusha I have known for years, for her definition of peace. “For about two years,” she said, “I was totally filled with hatred. It ate away at my soul. Eventually I realized that I had to let go of the hate, and gradually I began to forgive. … Many people on both sides died.” … I think peace is about forgiveness, trust and respect for life. How can we, as a global community, learn from the way Numata-san and so many other survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been able to transform their hatred into forgiveness? To remember Hiroshima is to remember that hatred fosters despair and forgiveness, hope. Perhaps remembering Hiroshima is learning to create the color of love.

In responding to the first voice of Hiroshima and calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, US President Obama has given renewed legitimacy to an old idea: far from making us safer and more secure, nuclear weapons endanger our lives and our futures. As global citizens, we must help President Obama turn his words into positive action, but we must also respond to the other voices of Hiroshima. We must acknowledge our own connections to the vast network of people who profit from the business of war, and act to disconnect ourselves. Hiroshima is not only history; Hiroshima speaks of war, armed conflict and occupation today. To remember Hiroshima is to confront militarism in Afghanistan, in Palestine, in…. Without the transformation of the way we think, how we live and how we think about security, our nuclear-free goal will not be achieved.

Even without nuclear weapons, today the global community possesses enough arms to totally destroy the world as we know it. In many countries, it is easier and cheaper to buy ‘small arms’ than food or medicine. Particularly since the ‘war on terror,’ military and militarized solutions have become more and more an integral and invisible part of the daily lives of every person in the world. Sometimes with long strides and other times with incremental baby steps, we are slowly moving toward the hidden Hiroshima, the one ridden with fear, intolerance and exclusion.

What color is Hiroshima? I believe that using our imagination, compassion and insight, we can delve into our global paint box and create colors that go beyond national borders and recognize multiple identities; strong, vibrant colors of de-militarization, gentle colors of caring, and changing colors of social transformation and just peace. In them, we will find the joyful colors of Hiroshima, the colors of a world free of nuclear weapons and filled with responsibility to ourselves, to future generations and to life itself.

(Originally published on March 15, 2010)

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