What Americans Owe the Hibakusha
On the morning of August 6, seventy years after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb, I was in Hiroshima. I entered sacred time and space in a ceremonial ritual at a place called “The Mound”—said to contain remains of the 70,000 people incinerated in the blast. A Buddhist monk stood before an altar at the base of the Mound, raised his arms outstretched, and screamed. In his scream the monk gave me a precious gift. He aroused my moral imagination and helped me traverse the empathy gap. I fell to my knees and wept. The monk’s scream helped me grasp a degree of catastrophic pain that is beyond words. He helped me grow in empathy. He strengthened my resolve to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
I am a white American-born citizen of the United States and in 1997 I married a Japanese citizen. Early in our marriage I traveled to Japan and visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and began a long process of moral reckoning with the savagery of the Second World War and the human and moral cost of the United States’ decision to drop atomic bombs on two cities. In my first visit, I felt numb and was most disturbed by my own inability to feel the pain of what happened there. Last year, I returned to both cities with the oldest of our five children. Certainly my inter-racial marriage and family helped me humanize and find solidarity with the people Americans just like me had once regarded as enemies and dehumanized as “dirty yellow monkeys.”
All along my journey I apologized to the hibakusha I met by presenting them with copies of a letter I wrote and my wife had translated to Japanese. The letter was a confession of what I have come to believe after years of searching for the truth about America’s decision to drop the atomic bombs. I confessed that dropping the atomic bombs was a morally indefensible mistake that could not be justified by military necessity. I confessed American hubris has prevented honest acknowledgement of this historical fact. And I committed myself to do whatever I could as an American to abolish nuclear weapons. When I presented my letter to the hibakusha I received a mixed response. Some survivors embraced me in tears. One honored me with a Hiroshima Peace Shawl. Another refused to take it. He gave me a cold look that conveyed unshakable resentment and told me the bombing was “unforgivable.”
Ayako Okamura, one of the hibakusha I met in Nagasaki, taught me a valuable lesson. She said, “the foundation for peace is having the kind of heart that can understand another’s pain.” She helped me arrive at a critical insight. Americans possess special privilege as citizens of the lone superpower nation. This privilege gives all Americans the power of choice. Americans can choose to live with the world’s pain, carry it, and seek to relieve it. Alternatively, Americans can choose to avoid pain, build insulating walls, and even deny that the pain exists at all. Privilege can stimulate great compassion and heroic altruism; it can also enable anesthetizing slumber, historical amnesia, and the tragic coldness of heart that results in apathetic resignation.
Healing from war and creating peace requires compassion, which is both empathy for another’s pain and action to relieve that pain. Seventy-one years after these tragic nuclear catastrophes, Americans need to take urgent action. The most significant action Americans can take to relieve the pain of the hibakusha is to advocate for the global abolition of nuclear weapons, beginning in our own backyard. The United States continues to possess about 7,400 nuclear weapons—half of the world’s stockpile. Even though President Obama made an unprecedented visit to Hiroshima in April and called for a “moral revolution” to rid the word of nuclear weapons, these words ring hollow in light of the evidence. The U.S. recently authorized $30 billion dollars to miniaturize and modernize the U.S. arsenal and continues to keep nuclear weapons on high alert ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Moreover, U.S. policy authorizes first use of nuclear weapons as a viable option. The U.S. continues to pursue new forms of nuclear weapons technology like the air-dropped nuclear cruise missile which are aggressive and destabilizing. Consequently, the risk of nuclear catastrophe due to intention, accident, sabotage, or terrorism is greater than ever.
Eliminating nuclear weapons is work that requires international cooperation at all levels, from states to personal encounters like the ones I had with the hibakusha in Japan. Americans in particular have a critical duty that is ours alone to fulfill. Write President Obama. Tell him his words in Hiroshima have not matched his actions as president. Tell him to renounce the immoral doctrine of nuclear deterrence and offer immediate support to the U.N. working group pushing for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Tell him to immediately cancel plans to upgrade and modernize the U.S. arsenal. Tell him to immediately take all nuclear weapons off high alert status. In doing so you choose compassion and use your privilege well.
Rev. Antal will be a featured presenter at the UU United Nations Office's Intergenerational Spring Seminar in April, 2017, where the theme will be Interfaith Action to End Armed Violence.
Congregations are encouraged to commemorate the 71st Hiroshima Day anniversary using our Hiroshima Day resources available online.