Monday, March 21, 2016

American Literature Students Explore the Legacy of the Hiroshima Bombing

By Emily Wirtz, Creative Writing, Psychology, and Religion major

On February 2nd, Dr. Jayne Waterman invited a guest, student Miki Yamamura, into our American Literature IV class. We’d been discussing in great emotional depth the development of the technology of the atomic bomb and its repercussions not only for Japanese society where the bomb was dropped, but also on society as a whole. We studied in great detail one of J. David Cummings’s poems in his collection Tancho entitled “Folding the First Crane.” Miki, who grew up very close to an American military base on mainland Japan, was more than happy to talk about her experiences and teach us how to fold our own first crane. 

During her visit, Miki explained the importance of the crane in Japanese culture. She reflected on the ideas in Tancho and the Japanese story of one thousand cranes. As Japanese legend goes, one who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl who developed leukemia after exposure to radiation from the bomb dropped in Hiroshima, began to try to fold a thousand cranes, wishing for peace and a world without the destruction of nuclear weapons. Sadly, she passed away with only 644 cranes folded. In the spirit of reigi (courtesy), her classmates completed the remainder of the cranes for her, beginning an incredible tradition. Today, a statue of Sasaki stands holding a crane in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, around which people place their own folded cranes in her memory and the memory of their own loved ones. The crane has become an icon of peace and hope and freedom. It represents the possibility to be “free from everything,” Miki expressed. 

The cultural construct of reigi could be literally translated to “courtesy,” but the word holds much more meaning. It is a behavior and way of life, honing in on respect in order to maintain order of society. While this obviously transfers into Japan’s modern society, it is also traditional and played a huge role during and after the dropping of the American atomic bombs. In our class, we read the accounts of several victims in John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” in addition to the poems in Tancho. Many of the students were impressed by the fact that so many survivors were willing to stop what they were doing, whether that be escaping a burning building or searching desperately for food and water, to help others in need. It was expressed, almost as a consensus, that in America, we would run and keep running no matter who needed our help—and that’s something powerful to reflect on. How could it be that an entire culture could be so selfless? This very literal foreign concept is a reflection of reigi and the ethical strength of the Japanese people, regardless of the war going on around them.

This is the side of war we often forget about: the strength and peace of coming out the other side. The story of Japan and that of Tancho is an incredible feat out of unimaginable tragedy. It was an honor to have Miki reflect on these events and her own history. We need to reflect on the crane. We need to reflect on the possibility of peace.