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Lanterns in the Sunset

An Easier Way To Test

By: Miles McCoy

A-Bomb-Day-2August 6th, 2017 in Hiroshima was hot. Sweltering. Muggy. Torrid. I had been told by current and former expats that summers in Japan were usually pretty unpleasant as far as weather goes, but that day, there didn’t seem to be enough adjectives in English to describe it. Everywhere, old ladies swung humid air back and forth with fans. Businessmen dabbed their necks with handkerchiefs to keep their collars dry. Teenagers, just out of school, let their towels drape their shoulders as they walked down the street. The sun was starting its long descent into the west, as I made my way to the A-Bomb Dome, but the air was still thick with heat and sweat. It only got worse as I made my way to the river, crowded with people, Japanese and foreign alike, who were trying to get as close as possible to watch the annual lantern lighting.

As I edged my way through the mob, the solemn tone and thoughtful atmosphere were overwhelming. Through the haze I tried to imagine the weather on that same day 72 years ago. What had it been like? Had the air been as humid as it was today? Was the sky clear or overcast? My brain tried to place myself at that same spot nearly a century earlier; by that point of the day, Little Boy had already fallen, with some 80,000 people killed instantly in the blast. I read later that this year’s festival drew record numbers. According to the Japan Times, a little over 50,000 individuals attended the morning address and the evening festivities. As I looked around me on the river’s edge, I tried to comprehend so many people – men, women, children – completely disintegrated, myself included.

As an American, it can be difficult at times to reconcile my feelings about the war in the Pacific, its death toll, and the destructive tools used to bring it to its end. Growing up in the United States, I remember reading about the attack on Pearl Harbor in History class, watching documentaries and dramatic retellings of the Pacific Theater, hearing the accounts from veterans about island hopping towards the mainland. The use of nuclear force was never glorified but always justified. Experts estimate that the ratio of Japanese to American casualties was around 2 to 1 as U.S troops worked their way across the island of Okinawa in early 1945. Japanese troops were rarely taken prisoner. The majority of Japanese forces defending the occupied islands were either killed in action or committed suicide. Facing an enemy who considered its own life forfeit so long as it destroyed its opponent, and with growing fear of a nuclear arms race between itself and other major political powers, America seemed to view its use of nuclear force against the Empire as a necessary evil, utilizing it in order to bring a swift and strategic end to a war where even greater loss of life was all but certain.

A-BombDomeSelfieStanding on the shores of the Motoyasu on that sultry Sunday evening, with the shadow of the dome growing longer in the setting sun, it was hard to justify any of that “gung-ho” rhetoric. When you walk through the Peace Memorial Museum, seeing the faces of more than 300,000 people killed by the bomb immediately and in the years after, it becomes more and more difficult to defend those who would support the use of a nuclear “deterrent.” As I stood and watched more and more lanterns laid out on the water and candles lit at the statues, I found it even more surreal than ever that in spite of the horrors caused by their use, nuclear war is still a very current and relevant issue.

Despite numerous sanctions, North Korea appears determined to continue to develop its nuclear weapons program. The country has conducted 14 missile tests this year alone as of this writing, the latest landing only a couple hundred miles from Japanese shores. After estimates of the missile’s trajectory placed many American cities firmly within range, American news media went into a frenzy. While the previous administration seemed confident in the use of diplomacy as a form of deterrence, the current administration appears just as confident that a reciprocal use of force would be more appropriate.

This response has not only failed to de-escalate tensions, but keeps Japan in an increasingly precarious situation. North Korea and the threat it represents to Japan’s security has been relevant for many years now. The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still fresh within the memories of many Japanese people, and the government as a whole has encouraged a policy of “universal peace” ever since the end of the war. However, the fact remains that Japan is well within the range of a ballistic missile from North Korea, if they chose to launch one. With no signs of tensions between North Korea and the United States cooling down anytime soon, and Japan comfortably under the United States’ nuclear umbrella, it is more dependent than ever on its allies for security if talks descend into nuclear war.

ABombDome_CloseUpAs humans, we seem doomed to repeat the transgressions of those that came before us, no matter how far in time we progress. Before coming to Japan, I couldn’t imagine the wasteland that Little Boy left in its wake. As an American, I couldn’t fathom just how many lives were shattered that day, or the lives of those who had to pick up the pieces. An entire ocean away, it can be tough to relate, to empathize, and to truly comprehend. Watching the soft glow of lights on the still surface of the river that night, there was one thing of which everybody present was, in some way, wholly certain: if we err again and once more choose overwhelming violence over debate and reason, there will be no true victors. There will only be the dead. Just how many more memorials will be built before we, as a species, truly comprehend the consequences of our actions is unknown.

But things aren’t all bleak. Looking at those tiny lanterns, I still managed to find hope. After all, there was record attendance this year. More and more people are aware of nuclear weapons, the tragedy they bring, the history surrounding them and the science that makes them. With more and more people conscious of our past, we have a chance, no matter how small, of moving towards a brighter future.