Lesson 2 Hiroshima -- the "Liveliest”City in Japan
“Hiroshima! Everybody off!” That must be what the man in the Japanese stationmaster's uniform shouted, as the fastest train in the world slipped to a stop in Hiroshima Station. I did not understand what he was saying. First of all, because he was shouting in Japanese. And secondly, because I had a lump in my throat and a lot of sad thoughts on my mind that had little to do with anything a Nippon railways official might say. The very act of stepping on this soil, in breathing this air of Hiroshima, was for me a far greater adventure than any trip or any reportorial assignment I'd previously taken. Was I not at the scene of the crime?
  The Japanese crowd did not appear to have the same preoccupations that I had. From the sidewalk outside the station, things seemed much the same as in other Japanese cities. Little girls and elderly ladies in kimonos rubbed shoulders with teenagers and women in western dress. Serious looking men spoke to one another as if they were oblivious of the crowds about them, and bobbedup and down repeatedly in little bows, as they exchanged the ritual formula of gratitude and respect: "Tomo aligato gozayimas." Others were using little red telephones that hung on the facades of grocery stores and tobacco shops.
  "Hi! Hi!" said the cab driver, whose door popped open at the very sight of a traveler. "Hi", or something that sounds very much like it, means "yes". "Can you take me to City Hall?" He grinned at me in the rear-view mirror and repeated "Hi!" "Hi! ’ We set off at top speed through the narrow streets of Hiroshima. The tall buildings of the martyred city flashed by as we lurched from side to side in response to the driver's sharp twists of the wheel.
  Just as I was beginning to find the ride long, the taxi screeched to a halt, and the driver got out and went over to a policeman to ask the way. As in Tokyo, taxi drivers in Hiroshima often know little of their city, but to avoid loss of face before foreigners, will not admit their ignorance, and will accept any destination without concern for how long it may take them to find it.
  At last this intermezzo came to an end, and I found myself in front of the gigantic City Hall. The usher bowed deeply and heaved a long, almost musical sigh, when I showed him the invitation which the mayor had sent me in response to my request for an interview. "That is not here, sir," he said in English. "The mayor expects you tonight for dinner with other foreigners on the restaurant boat. See? This is where it is.” He sketched a little map for me on the back of my invitation.
  Thanks to his map, I was able to find a taxi driver who could take me straight to the canal embankment , where a sort of barge with a roof like one on a Japanese house was moored . The Japanese build their traditional houses on boats when land becomes too expensive. The rather arresting spectacle of little old Japan adrift amid beige concrete skyscrapers is the very symbol of the incessant struggle between the kimono and the miniskirt.
  At the door to the restaurant, a stunning, porcelain-faced woman in traditional costume asked me to remove my shoes. This done, I entered one of the low-ceilinged rooms of the little floating house, treading cautiously on the soft matting and experiencing a twinge of embarrassment at the prospect of meeting the mayor of Hiroshima in my socks.
  He was a tall, thin man, sad-eyed and serious. Quite unexpectedly, the strange emotion which had overwhelmed me at the station returned, and I was again crushed by the thought that I now stood on the site of the first atomic bombardment, where thousands upon thousands of people had been slainin one second, where thousands upon thousands of others had lingered on to die in slow agony .
  The introductions were made. Most of the guests were Japanese, and it was difficult for me to ask them just why we were gathered here. The few Americans and Germans seemed just as inhibited as I was. "Gentlemen," said the mayor, "I am happy to welcome you to Hiroshima."
  Everyone bowed, including the Westerners. After three days in Japan, the spinal column becomes extraordinarily flexible.
  "Gentlemen, it is a very great honor to have you here in Hiroshima."
  There were fresh bows, and the faces grew more and more serious each time the name Hiroshima was repeated.
"Hiroshima, as you know, is a city familiar to everyone,” continued the mayor.
  "Yes, yes, of course,” murmured the company, more and more agitated.
  "Seldom has a city gained such world renown, and I am proud and happy to welcome you to Hiroshima, a town known throughout the world for its oysters".
  I was just about to make my little bow of assent, when the meaning of these last words sank in, jolting me out of my sad reverie .
  "Hiroshima ? oysters? What about the bomb and the misery and humanity's most heinous crime?" While the mayor went on with his speech in praise of southern Japanese sea food, I cautiously backed away and headed toward the far side of the room, where a few men were talking among themselves and paying little attention to the mayor's speech. "You look puzzled," said a small Japanese man with very large eye-glasses.
  "Well, I must confess that I did not expect a speech about oysters here. I thought that Hiroshima still felt the impact of the atomic impact ."
  "No one talks about it any more, and no one wants to, especially, the people who were born here or who lived through it. "Do you feel the same way, too?"
  "I was here, but I was not in the center of town. I tell you this because I am almost an old man. There are two different schools of thought in this city of oysters, one that would like to preserve traces of the bomb, and the other that would like to get rid of everything, even the monument that was erected at the point of impact. They would also like to demolish the atomic museum."
  "Why would they want to do that?"
  "Because it hurts everybody, and because time marches on. That is why." The small Japanese man smiled, his eyes nearly closed behind their thick lenses. "If you write about this city, do not forget to say that it is the gayest city in Japan, even it many of the town's people still bear hidden wounds, and burns."
  Like any other, the hospital smelled of formaldehyde and ether . Stretchers and wheelchairs lined the walls of endless corridors, and nurses walked by carrying Stretchers instruments, the very sight of which would send shivers down the spine of any healthy visitor. The so-called atomic section was located on the third floor. It consisted of 17 beds.
  "I am a fisherman by trade. I have been here a very long time, more than twenty years, "said an old man in Japanese pajamas. “What is wrong with you?”
  "Something inside. I was in Hiroshima when it happened. I saw the fire ball. But I had no burns on my face or body. I ran all over the city looking for missing friends and relatives. I thought somehow I had been spared. But later my hair began to fall out, and my belly turned to water. I felt sick, and ever since then they have been testing and treating me. " The doctor at my side explained and commented upon the old man's story, "We still hare a handful of patients here who are being kept alive by constant care. The others died as a result of their injuries, or else committed suicide . "
  "Why did they commit suicide?"
  "It is humiliating to survive in this city. If you bear any visible scars of atomic burns, your children will encounterprejudice on the par t of those who do not. No one will marry the daughter or the niece of an atomic bomb victim. People are afraid of genetic damage from the radiation." The old fisherman gazed at me politely and with interest.
  Hanging over the patient was a big ball made of bits of brightly colored paper, folded into the shape of tiny birds. "What's that?" I asked.
  "Those are my lucky birds. Each day that I escape death, each day of suffering that helps to free me from earthly cares, I make a new little paper bird, and add it to the others. This way I look at them and congratulate myself of the good fortune that my illness has brought me. Because, thanks to it, I have the opportunity to improve my character."
  Once again, outside in the open air, I tore into little pieces a small notebook with questions that I'd prepared in advance for interviews with the patients of the atomic ward. Among them was the question: Do you really think that Hiroshima is the liveliest city in Japan? I never asked it. But I could read the answer in every eye.
(from an American radio program presented by Ed Kay)
 

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