Essay

A perverse appeal

I WAS AN accidental tourist. I travelled to Japan to see my daughter, Nora, who – like many young Australians – financed her travels by teaching English. Nora went to Japan as a guest worker, and I went as the guest worker's mother. I'd travelled in Europe, but not in Asia, and I wasn't looking forward to it. I thought I'd feel totally lost and way out of my comfort zone as a tourist. Of course, that happened. The feeling never left me. But, instead of finding it scary, I found it exhilarating. I kept going back for more.

Nora was first posted to Hiroshima, then after two years to Okinawa, where she lived at Ginowan in a flat overlooking the US Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. Futenma is one of thirty-nine American military bases that cover 10 per cent of the island, and one of the largest. Early each morning we woke to the boom of theStars and Stripes as it blared from loudspeakers on the base, followed by the Battle Hymn of the Marines. One day an American military helicopter crashed into the university just up the road, luckily at a time when the students were absent.

While I was there, because I was there, I visited the Peace Parks at Hiroshima and Okinawa. After Nora returned to Australia, I decided I wanted to see more of Japan, and I made a deliberate choice to go to Nagasaki. In each of these places, the Peace Parks created by civic authorities have become UNESCO World Heritage sites, sites of global importance marking the final acts of World War II.

On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb exploded in the air above Hiroshima, with the death toll then and in the years following estimated at more than 150,000. The second atomic bomb exploded in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945: the estimated death toll then, and in the following years, was more than 140,000. The empty space now occupied by Peace Parks was created at the moment everybody and everything there was destroyed. The Peace Park at Okinawa marks the site of the Battle for Okinawa, which took place from March to July 1945; it was where the US forces landed and the Japanese military put up its last defence. The tourist knows well in advance that these are places with dark histories.

My initial reluctance to visit the Peace Parks was tied up with the fear of what I would see and learn – a fear that was entirely justified. Being there, doing "dark tourism", entails immersion in a place of mass death, where horrors happened within living memory. The ambience is overwhelming. I ask myself whether this is what I really want to do with my leisure time, and the answer is no, not really. To be there and not go, though, would be like betraying the dead, turning away from knowing about their suffering. It is important to find out more. Facing the horror is a defining aspect of dark tourism.

Years separated my trips to the three Peace Parks at Hiroshima, Okinawa and Nagasaki. In reflecting now on the tourism experience, I bring to it memories – some fuzzy, others inexorably clear. The clearest memories are those moments of visceral impact when some sights seem too much to bear. There's a sudden jolt, a "wham!" experience, the recognition "so that's what it was like", "so there it is". Then there is the return home, the heightened awareness of, and receptivity to, further information from relevant TV programs, articles and books.

 

THE PEACE PARK  at Okinawa proved the most personally disturbing – something I had not expected. The two A-bomb sites are places where horror is anticipated and found. The Okinawan experience was worse, if such horrors are comparative rather than each, separately, absolute. At Okinawa I experienced the biggest jolt, or so it seems now, remembering these visits several years later. Today the Peace Park at Okinawa sits on a beautiful cliff-top site overlooking the Pacific Ocean; in 1945, it was a corpse-strewn morass. Okinawa, as Japan's outer defence, was the place chosen by US forces for the first landing before the anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands. Okinawa was also chosen by the Japanese Imperial Army as sacrifice in defence of the homeland. The civilian population of Okinawa was doubly doomed, regarded as the enemy by both American and Japanese soldiers.

At the Cornerstone of Peace, the eternal flame, the fire of peace, burns at the centre of a shallow pool close to the cliffs. Radiating out from the flame, as the "everlasting waves of peace", row upon row of stone plinths record the names of most of the 237,000 people killed during the Battle of Okinawa. Over 300,000 people died, victor and vanquished, military and civilians, including 94,000 Okinawan non-combatants. Japanese, American, Korean, Taiwanese and British names are recorded in recognition of the dead from both sides and no sides. Some names are still being added: the names of Okinawans who were in Nagasaki and Hiroshima when the bombs fell, and became hibakusha, victims of the bomb. The naming of all the war dead, people of various nationalities and ethnicities, is what makes this site special – as former US president Bill Clinton described it in 2000, "more than a war memorial, more of a memorial to the tragedy of war". This is even more so if acknowledgement is made of names that are not there – the names of Korean "comfort women", for example, and of some Okinawans whose families were opposed to the project.

The tourist returns home, and wants to find out more. The question, "Why did they die, here then?" (asked by Gerald Figal in 1997) inspires further study of the past. In "Waging Peace in Okinawa", also by Figal (2003), I discovered the work of the Okinawan peace activist Ishihara Masaie and his Okinawan philosophy of peace. I began to understand what I had missed in my visit – though of course, as a non-Japanese speaker, I knew I was missing a lot. I discovered that the Peace Museum at Okinawa gives more of the context of World War II than the museums at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, in particular more of the dark history of Japanese colonial domination and aggression in Asia.

At the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, the exhibits present not only the horrors of the American bombardment and landing on the island, but also the cruelty of the Japanese Imperial Army soldiers towards the Okinawans. Exhibits depict the horrors of the forced suicides in the Die-for-the Emperor campaign, and show shocking photographs of the dead. Japanese soldiers forced schoolgirls to jump off the nearby Mabuni cliffs, and the girls are shown lying in piles on top of each other after they fell to their deaths. The photos were taken soon afterwards by US forces. Equally horrible are film clips that show US soldiers using flame-throwers on undergrowth in which people hid. They are shown running, covered in flames, before falling.

There was much I missed, much I found out later. The year before the Peace Memorial Museum opened in 2000, civic officials changed an exhibit in the section on the Battle of Okinawa to tone down images of the cruelty of the Japanese military towards Okinawans. In one diorama, a Japanese soldier, bayonet drawn, is shown beside an Okinawan family sheltering in a cave. The original exhibit was intended to show a Japanese soldier ordering a mother at gunpoint to smother her crying baby. The exhibit was changed several times. In one change, the rifle was removed entirely. In another, the soldier pointed his bayonet away from the family, as if protecting them. After I returned home, I learned I could have taken a tourist trip through the Haebaru Army Hospital Cave and Itokazu Cave to see what these places were like during the war.

I know I caught only a fraction of what was on offer. It was enough, for then. As a non-Japanese speaker, I was moving in a fog of incomprehension. If I were fluent in Japanese, I might have picked up the nuances of the inscriptions. One memorial may be to people who were killed, the next to others who were slaughtered. The word for "kill" is used to mean killed by the occupying forces; the word for "slaughter" is used for lists of Okinawan civilians killed by Japanese soldiers. In "Waging Peace", Gerald Figal reports the fact that that the graves of Japanese soldiers may carry patriotic messages about "the glorious spirits and manifest merits of the war dead", while the civilian-centred memorials carry messages of peace.

 

WHERE THE NAGASAKI and Hiroshima memorials depict the horrors of a unique new weapon of war, the Okinawan memorials show the hideous effects of the weapons of conventional warfare: the flame-throwers, the phosphor bombs, the grenades thrown into caves where civilians and soldiers tried to shelter. One of the hibashuka of Hiroshima, Toshiko Sasaki, has said that she thought too much attention had been given to the power and uniqueness of the A-bomb. She wanted more focus on the causes of war, the evil of war, rather than the particular instruments of war. She wanted to get away from that sense of the perverse attraction of the bomb.

I came to learn how hotly contested the "peace" claims have become at these three sites of wartime destruction. The intentions are admirable: the exhibits are intended to present the horrors of the past, for the sake of a better, more peaceful future. The message is that, by showing the horrors of war, visitors will see that wars are futile, that good people as well as bad die horribly, and that the only solution is to turn towards peace. Yet wars happen, cruelty continues, and there will be visitors who find voyeuristic thrills in the prospect of apocalypse and Armageddon. Empathic understanding, sympathy, sharing the burden of pain – these are not the only outcomes possible.

I found myself thinking about what differences there might be between a Peace Park and a war memorial. A Peace Park will be totally upfront about the tragedy of war; a war memorial may not. Before the cliff-top site in Okinawa was designated a Peace Park, it was a "battlefield park special zone". Patriotic memorials to the praiseworthy actions of the glorious war dead are in contrast with poignant memorials to dead innocents – the children, the schoolgirls co-opted as nurses. Just as with Australian history and historians, Okinawa has its history wars: they concern the question of whose history it is and how the massacres of indigenous peoples are portrayed or excluded.

The traveller is a philosophical traveller, not content with the experience of the sombre day out. Where is peace to be found in all of this? How it is it possible to move from the portrayal of the horrors of war to an activist agenda for the promotion of peace? "Learning the lessons of history, we renew our commitment to peace": as Gerald Figal points out, these words are proclaimed official statements, and the three Peace Museums attempt the peace task in their various ways.

Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on the prayer for the peace of Jerusalem (a tough, ongoing task), made reference to the multiple meanings of shalom: joy, prosperity, goodness and abundance. Peace is more than the absence of war. Today Hiroshima and Nagasaki are rebuilt as modern cities, with prosperity and abundance abounding – at least in contrast to the postwar years. Joy and goodness are trickier to evaluate. Okinawans may find peace in their park, but not in the ongoing presence of the US military bases and their role in bombing raids in the Vietnam War, and the ongoing Middle East conflicts.

 

EXHIBITS AT THE Peace Museums at Nagasaki and Hiroshima emphasise the unique nature of the atomic bombs. In graphic horror, they bring home the message that not only did the bombs kill on explosion, but radioactivity keeps on killing for generations. The Peace Park visitor knows she did not start a war – cannot start a war – all by herself; nuclear powers must also be targeted. The civic authorities keep count of nuclear tests, and write telegrams and letters of protest to the offending governments. They seek the abolition of nuclear weapons. The letters are sent, while nuclear tests continue. The Peace Museums at Hiroshima and Nagasaki show walls of telegrams and letters from their mayors protesting all nuclear weapons tests since 1968. At Hiroshima, the most recent letter is to Vladimir Putin, dated August 11, 2004, though the websites maintain more up-to-date listings. The visitor admires the persistence in writing thousands of letters, if noting how little effect it is having out there with nuclear proliferation.

The Japanese word hibakusha was used after the A-bombs to mean those Japanese who survived and were injured by the bombs. Exhibits in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima Peace Museums show the word now being extended to cover all victims of nuclear programs – military or civilian – elsewhere in the world. At the Nagasaki museum, TV monitors play interviews with overseas hibakusha, including those from the former Soviet testing grounds in Semiplatinsk in present-day Kazakhstan, the uranium mines at Ronneburg in the former East Germany, the US testing grounds at Nevada, and the Marshall Islands.

It could be that I saw this exhibit by means of electricity from one of Japan's nuclear power stations.

One caption effectively commented that there doesn't have to be a nuclear war for there to be a nuclear disaster. Victims may be created all along the nuclear chain. In October 2005, a photographic exhibition at Nagasaki Railway Station showed Iraqi children suffering from leukaemia, blamed on the effects of depleted uranium from the Gulf War. Some children came to Nagasaki for treatment.

Earlier I mentioned that the dark tourism experience packs a few surprises. The sudden jolt, the "wham" experience, the moment of visceral impact, comes when a sight hits home with sudden understanding of its meaning. At Okinawa, it was an experience in the museum where, rounding a corner, I nearly collided with a larger-than-life model of a US soldier in the army of occupation, arm outstretched as if demanding an official pass. At Hiroshima, one moment of sudden catching of breath was when I casually looked out from the window of Nora's flat into what, in Australia, I'd see as someone's backyard, and saw some grave markers. In the middle of the Peace Park in Nagasaki, the visitor is invited to descend a few steps. The steps go down over a metre to the level of the ground in July 1945. A glass window is set into the earth wall, an archaeologist's slice in time. In the aftermath of war, the ground level rose this far on the top of the remnants of buildings, the bones of the dead, the debris of the city. The viewer senses the backward flow of time, from this rubble to the city that previously stood in this place.

 

OVER AND OVER again, visitors to peace parks are confronted with evidence of the horrors of war. I want to know where peace, not war, might be found, and in Okinawa I found some special places. At Nakagusuku Castle, built in the fifteenth century, burned to ruins some time shortly after, I found an utaki or sacred grove within the castle walls. There are some trees, some stones, a hearth and a view over the ocean to Kudaka Island, an island important in local myths of origin. In one local story of creation, the goddess Amamiku descended from the heavenly city to the ocean, seeking a holy place where the gods might come down and live. She found a place in the open sea, and returned to the heavenly city for the earth, stone, grass and trees she needed to make Kudaka Island, or the island of the Fountain Palms. In the ruins of Nakagusuku Castle, facing the island of creation, people offer prayers for peace and prosperity, as they no doubt did long before the castle was created and destroyed, long before recent wars of conquest and domination. The sacred grove is destroyed, but is renewable. Earth, stones, grass and trees are easily replenished. The sacred grove may be enclosed within castle walls, but it endures. I find offerings, of coins with holes in the middle, of ashes in the hearth. This is a place of peace, or so it seems to the tourist bombarded with images of war. This place, and the other utaki on the island, may outlast the cornerstone, the eternal flame, the everlasting waves of peace of the official memorial.

Arthur Koestler argued that Hiroshima was special, and that's what I thought before I visited the Peace Parks. In Janus: A Summing Up (Hutchinson, 1978), Koestler said: "If I were asked to name the most important date in the history and prehistory of the human race, I would answer without hesitation 6 August 1945." His reason: before this time, humans lived in the knowledge of their individual deaths. Since Hiroshima, he claimed, mankind as a whole lives now with the prospect of its extinction as a species. I'm not so sure. I'm inclined to think that this happened before Hiroshima. It's an insight into nature and human nature that has come since Charles Darwin first examined the question of extinction. Humans are organisms like other species, in a state of transition to future forms of life, given a few hundred million years.

Perhaps Hiroshima can be argued to be special because humans may be killed, as a species, by the tools they create, rather than by the cosmic accident of asteroid impact. If humans, as a species, disappear because of the radioactivity they create, then that doesn't mark the complete disjunction Koestler, and others, imagine. Something will no doubt survive. Creatures as weird as the dinosaurs, or the bipedal ape, may one day inherit the Earth – what's left of it. They might be born with the instinct for peace the next time round, and that will be a good thing – at least for them. 

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 14: The Trouble with Paradise

© Copyright 2006 Griffith University & the author.

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