By Gabrielle Swartzentruber
Hiroshima. A beautiful city boasting elegant skyscrapers and sparkling rivers under rows of undulating bridges. A city harmonizing advanced technology with the tranquility of nature. I couldn’t think of a better place to include on my honeymoon to Japan. My new husband Liam, a six-foot blonde, strolled alongside me, dog tags softly clinking as he walked, relics from his days serving in the American military. His eyes never stayed in one spot, first flitting from the skyscrapers, then to the streets bustling with cars and people, then back to the skyscrapers. Some part of me wondered if he was thinking about one of his anime shows he was so fond of.
We arrived at Hiroshima Peace Park for a tour that we had paid for in advance. I had to promise Liam that if we toured Peace Park, we could stop for sushi afterwards, one of Liam’s favorite dishes. The tour guide, a short, elderly Japanese man with a friendly smile and perfect English, first directed us to the atomic bomb dome, one of the three buildings to survive the atomic bomb back in 1945. As we approached, I got a closer look at the building itself, which some of the natives referred to as an “eyesore.” Initially, I couldn’t help but agree. Surrounded by smooth, elegant skyscrapers, the squat little building looked hopelessly out of place. The concrete walls were crumbling, revealing the brick structure underneath. In some places, even the brick was gone, leaving a gaping maw where the bomb had blasted the wall away. Crowning all the disrepair was a dome, or rather the remains of one. The covering of the dome was completely gone; only the skeletal supporting structure remained.
Intrigued by one of the last remainders of the deadly weapon dropped nearly seventy-five years ago, I walked in a slow circle around the building, losing track of Liam and the rest of the tour. Piles of brick and concrete still surrounded the old building, as if the locals were so dedicated to preserving its memory that they would not even move the debris. It was like a well-preserved snapshot, standing out against the surrounding city like how a black and white photograph stands out against colored ones. I tried to pick my way around the rubble, cursing when my foot slammed against the strewn bricks, nearly sending me on top of a rubble pile. I turned my head so I could direct my curses at the brick that tripped me, and saw something soft poking out from underneath the brick. I walked closer, more carefully this time, and gently pulled the object out from under the brick. It was a small book with a leather cover and a simple Japanese inscription on the front. I held the book lightly, afraid that it would crumble in my hands after being untouched for so long. Pushing back the feeling that I was violating sacred space, I delicately opened the book and leafed through the yellow pages, finally settling on a spot near the end. Using my rudimentary but acceptable Japanese, I began to read.
August 2, 1945
The air raid sirens have been going off every morning for weeks now. Takeshi’s letters are growing more insistent, saying that the Americans are planning something, and that I need to evacuate Hiroshima immediately. I do not want to leave my home. But as Takeshi is the only surviving male of our family, I am compelled to comply with his wishes, even in his absence. He refuses to come with me, as his duty is to the blessed emperor, as well as to his fellow warriors. He talks of his duty, but I feel it is my own duty to stay with our people. I will prepare to pack up my bedroll and gather food for the journey away from Hiroshima, but I plan to stay with Takeshi, our people, and our emperor as long as I am able.
August 4, 1945
The sirens are growing more frequent. They go off every morning and every night. More and more people are evacuating, but most of us are still hunkering down in our houses, waiting to weather out whatever storm the Americans are devising. Perhaps it will be a B-29 bombing run, like the one carried out on Tokyo six months ago. The tension in the air is stifling and hot, but no one ever speaks of it. People are attempting to carry on life like normal as a collective act of quiet defiance against our enemies. They act as if their cool heads alone will dissolve this overwhelming tension and make everything right again.
Takeshi’s letter came today with a final warning: if I do not leave very soon, our family’s survival will be in grave danger. He has already arranged for me to stay with Felix, a German soldier living in the nearby village of Mukaihara, who is also one of Takeshi’s closest friends. Takeshi believes Mukaihara will be far enough away from any attack on Hiroshima, but also close enough for me to return should all these rumors amount to nothing.
I gathered my bed roll, stuffed some rice cakes and yen into a satchel, and gave a last guilty glance at the tea set that had been in my family for five generations. There was no saving it. I walked out of the house and into the humid summer afternoon. The air felt thick, and the bedroll on my back made it even harder to move.
I trudged to the train station. The station was quiet, as the only people there were the ones traveling to and from Hiroshima to warn their families of the rampant rumors. I purchased my ticket and boarded the train, sitting down next to a window at the back. The train gave a lurch, then chugged forward. I was leaving the only home I ever knew to stay with a man I had never met.
August 5, 1945
Felix lives in a small, one-story house by a river. It is not unpleasant; I like hearing the river in the early morning, and seeing the distant outline of the mountains dotted with bamboo trees.
Felix could not look any more different from Takeshi. He is a tall and broad man with yellow hair, while Takeshi is short and skinny with dark hair. Both men, however, look to be about the same age, and possess the confident and precise movements of warriors. While I have a hard time reading Felix, he does not appear to be ill-willed or malicious. His Japanese, however, could use some work, and he often opts for gestures rather than words.
Although Felix’s house is small, the rooms still seem empty and cavernous. Felix showed me to my room, waving aside my small bed roll and pointing instead to the large, Western-style bed at the other end of the room. He usually stays on his side of the house, and I stay on mine. Dinner is awkward and very un-Japanese.
August 6, 1945
August 7, 1945
I still do not know exactly what happened. No one does. Hiroshima is simply gone. I was awakened yesterday at 8:15 by a great rumbling. Dishes fell out of the cupboards, small pieces of furniture were knocked over, and the entire house shook and groaned. I would have thought it was an earthquake had I not seen a bright flash outside my window in the direction of Hiroshima. I rushed out of my room, careful not to step on any pieces of broken dish shards, and went outside to where Felix was already standing. Was it indeed a B-29 bombing? Did the Americans dump gasoline on the city and light it on fire? Was Takeshi able to survive the attack?
August 8, 1945
I found Felix sitting in the dining room today, fiddling with a radio that had been undamaged by the earthquake-like shaking. The radio spit static for a minute or two, then voices started to emerge. Japanese authorities still did not know what happened to Hiroshima. Theories ranged from an enormous B-29 bombing to a biochemical attack. There were also rumors about something called an “atomic bomb,” a weapon that was able to somehow split atoms apart, but that was mostly dismissed as science fiction rather than factual warfare. Felix looked at me with an expression that could only be described as pity. I did not appreciate it.
I returned to my room and pulled out Takeshi’s last letter from the dresser by the bed. I scanned it again and again, searching for any hint of what this weapon was, or if Takeshi knew when it was coming. Unfamiliar feelings of hatred toward Takeshi, the emperor, this war, and the Americans most of all began to rise inside of me. I buried my face in my pillow to hide the hot tears streaming down my cheeks, Takeshi’s letter still clutched in my hand.
August 9, 1945
I awoke this morning to find myself tucked under an extra blanket and Takeshi’s letter smoothed out on the dresser beside me. Never before had it been so difficult to simply get out of bed, not even when Mother used to awaken me for kindergarten. Only the training ingrained in me of how to be a gracious guest moved my feet to the washroom, then to the dining table. Felix had already set out two biscuits and some rice at my seat. I acknowledged him with a small, formal bow, then sat and ate in silence. Neither of us said anything for the rest of the day.
August 11, 1945
A letter came today from the Imperial Army. He’s gone.
August 12, 1945
I cannot sleep. I have not slept for more than a few hours at a time for the past week, and yet it still eludes me. This bed is not my bed, this house is not my home, and Felix is not my brother, although he tries hard to make me think he is. He comes into my room when he thinks I am sleeping and tucks the blankets back around me from when I kicked them off in the middle of the night. Sometimes he will stand outside my door and hum “Takeda no Komoriuta,” the lullaby Takeshi used to sing. It doesn’t help. But the nightmares only come when he leaves my room or walks away from my door.