Breathing in … breathing out

Breathing in … breathing out, in Hiroshima 

[map 2: Hiroshima] (image: Tony Birch)

[map 2 – Hiroshima, Japan]

For many years I have wanted to visit Hiroshima, after researching the devastation it suffered as a result of the American military dropping the atomic bomb on the city at 8.15am on the 6th of August 1945. I also read John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima, several years ago; a report on the immediate aftermath an event that killed more than 100,000 people (a figure that rose to 200,000, with people continuing to die of the effects of radiation poisoning for many years).

Hersey documented the lives of six people who survived the immediate impact of the bomb. He followed them through that first day, and the weeks and months after the bomb exploded. An understanding of the trauma people suffered is beyond our reach. I am sure that Hersey realised this. In focusing on the lives of individuals, he drew attention to an intimate and personal story, rather than an incomprehensible body count.

I finally visited Hiroshima in January this year. I left my hotel and headed for the Peace Park. The atomic bomb exploded six hundred metres above the centre of the park. It is now the site of several memorials, a peace and anti-nuclear museum, a national shrine, and a burial mound containing the remains of many thousand of victims. The most photographed structure around the park is the ‘A-bomb Dome’, the remains of a badly damaged government building, now a World Heritage listed site.

The building is a symbol of resilience for the people of Hiroshima. Standing in front it for the first time was a sobering experience. Although the surrounding streets, parks and cycling tracks were lively on the Sunday afternoon I visited, the closer I walked to the Dome, the quieter the surroundings became. People circled the A-Dome, took photographs and talked with others – in whispers.

In the days after my initial visit, I returned to the park several times. I also visited the museum and was struck by its sense of dignity. While Hiroshima is a strong critic of the nuclear industry, particularly its association with military armament, its key role is education. I was struck by the fact that I did not see one national flag either in the museum or park. And I was deeply impressed by the city’s generosity and the welcome it provided to visitors.

I am a thirty-year veteran of running. I have slowed a little in recent years, but enjoy the exercise more these days. My regular five mile run is a contemplative, problem solving, and occasionally, metaphysical habit. In Hiroshima I ran early in the mornings, when the temperature was around zero and the sun was coming up. With the city spread across a six-river delta in the shape of a fan, I explored several river pathways, bridges and parks.  Each morning I passed the A-Dome at the beginning of my run.

On the first morning, I lowered my breathing as I ran by the site. I contemplated walking, feeling that I what I was doing was somehow sacrilegious. It was a weekday and I noticed there were no sightseers or photographers out and about. Returning on my run, I lowered my breathing again as I passed the A-Dome. I’m not sure if I did the same on the second morning, but I do remember that by the third morning I had passed by the site without noticing it at all. On my return, around forty minutes later, I saw groups children walking to school, old women out with their dogs and several boys laughing uncontrollably at a friend trying to do a handstand – on the riverbank, directly in front of the Dome.

For the people of Hiroshima, the earth on which their city is built holds the saddest stories. They understand this, and attempt to provide these stories with due recognition.  (Although, I also learned that for many years some people hid the shame of their story and feared the prejudice they could suffer, being marked for life by the poison of the bomb).

Leaving Hiroshima on the train and coming home to Australia to participate in the Weather Stations project, I became certain that the city can teach us something about how we face the challenge of climate change. Some may feel it is extreme to compare our challenge with a catastrophic event that caused more damage in a single second than any event in human history. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the World Health Organisation conservatively estimates than climate change results in the deaths of 150,000 people each year, and that this figure will double by 2030.

Figures such as this can debilitate both individuals and communities. Instead of action, we can become crippled with emotional paralysis. But we needn’t. Societies of the past, and entire communities within our own lifetime have faced situations of the most extreme adversity, and struggled through, survived and eventually flourished. I left Hiroshima impressed by its humble tenacity. It is a trait worthy of practice.

Tony Birch

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