Today is Nagasaki Day. Earlier this week was Hiroshima Day. I mean the anniversaries of the days we dropped atomic bombs on Japan.
I never paid much attention to these days, except once when I was in fourth grade my class did a big thing on it and we all learned how to make paper cranes. There was a girl we learned about who had been a baby in Japan when the bomb fell and several years later she got leukemia, from the radiation. She started folding paper cranes because someone told her that if she folded a thousand she would be granted a wish. Her wish was to not have leukemia anymore, to not die. She became famous for folding hundreds and hundreds of cranes, but she didn’t make it. She died before she reached a thousand. Her friends kept folding, after she died, and she was buried with a thousand paper cranes.
I don’t know why they told us this story. To me, it seems just pointlessly sad.
I asked Greg about this—I happened to be in front of him in the line for the bathroom the other day. I hardly ever know what to say to him, he seems so severe, but I knew he was going to give a talk on the bombings. So I told him about that day in the fourth grade, just to have something to say, for once. I guess I wanted to show I’m not completely ignorant, also. He smiled at me, a little, but he looked sad, too. There is something very human, very gentle, about Greg, when he expresses any emotion, though he usually doesn’t. Usually he’s as austere as a rocky crag.
“People will do all sorts of things to gain a sense that they have some kind of control,” he said. We both stepped forward a place in line. After a moment he spoke again in a different, lighter tone; “it is true that after all those cranes were folded she didn’t have cancer anymore.” I looked at him in something like shock and he grinned at me for a moment. I couldn’t decide if his comment counted as a sick kind of humor or something very compassionate and profound. We both stepped forward again, and his expression faded to its normal neutrality, his teaching face. “There is something very alchemical about that crane folding. Japan is a Buddhist country, you know, alongside Shinto, and there are a lot of Buddhist stories about people meditating for long periods or performing various extreme ascetic exercises and being granted boons, magical powers. It’s possible that’s where her idea of folding so many cranes came from. But magic is a funny thing; magic, real magic, always transforms something, but it is impossible to be sure what will be transformed. Consider that when I mention the Hiroshima bombing, your first thought was of a little girl with cancer who did not want to die. That’s not the message I got, when I was a boy.”
And then it was my turn for the bathroom so our conversation was over.
Greg’s talk was after dinner, during the third class block, when most talks are scheduled, except that we met outside on the pasture by the dining hall, so as many people could come as wanted to. So we sat and listened to him as the sun started to set and the shadows grew long and we slapped at mosquitoes. When a mosquito bit Greg, and I could see this from the front row, he did not slap at it or wave it away. He just experienced it.
He told the story of the bombings the same way he had told the story of the Revolutionary War, back on Independence Day. He talked about human beings going about their lives. He talked about historical controversy, and the different interpretations of how and why nuclear weapons were used as they were, but while he added some background information for and against certain interpretations—just like back in history class he seemed interested in how we know things, how we decide which versions of history are reliable—but he didn’t seem particularly attached to any one story. But then he did something he could not have done for his talk on the Revolutionary War. He talked about himself.
“In 1945, I was eighteen years old. I had dropped out of school and had a job as a carpenter, so I could support my mother, but I wanted to go to war. As an American, I loved my country. I hated the Japanese. I had friends” –and here his voice cracked and he swallowed, convulsively—“I had friends, older boys, who didn’t come home from the war. I wanted to fight, I wanted to prove myself. When the bomb was dropped, I was happy. We all were. According to one poll, almost thirty percent of Americans were sorry when Japan surrendered, because they wanted to drop more atomic bombs. They wanted to kill more Japs.”
His use of the derogatory startled me and I looked up at him. That’s when I saw him bit by the mosquito. He ignored it. He paused a moment before speaking again.
“The problem was, I was a Jap.”
News to me; I had always assumed Greg was white. Or, rather, I had never thought about Greg’s racial identity one way or the other. I don’t usually think about race, unless somebody brings it up. His last name isn’t Japanese, and he looks mostly white. I guess there’s something about his eyes, but he usually wears glasses.
“My mother was an immigrant, but she was very young when she came over,” Greg continued. “She largely assimilated, and of course my father was white. We didn't live near other Japanese people. So, other than my being raised Buddhist, there was nothing about my childhood that was culturally different from that of my white counterparts. There was no reason for me to take any special notice, to identify with, the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or with those of Tokyo, which was fire-bombed with conventional weapons to similar effect”—
“No more reason than for me to identify with Dresden,” put in Allen, who was sitting off to the side. His ancestry is partly Germanic, though he’s also much too young to have been alive during World War II. Greg acknowledged him with a nod and then went on.
“But anyone who saw me, or especially is they saw me with my mother, to them I was alien. All throughout the war. We did not have to go to the camps, because we lived in the Midwest, but we knew people who did. We watched the news. We knew what was happening. We become, to some extent, what other people perceive us to be.” He paused again, and took off his glasses. The light of the setting sun shone on his face for a moment and he squinted, then stepped a foot or two to the side into the protection of a lengthening shadow. He continued.
I expected him to say something else, to wrap up his story with some kind of definitive conclusion, even a moral, but he did not. He just stepped off the small, portable stage and into the crowd. After a few long seconds, we realized he was done and the talk was over. The sun went down and we all went to bed.
[Next Post: Monday, August 12th: Watching Stars]