The third installment of my translations from Yūko Ishida’s Meeting Hiroshima’s Trees is about the ginkgo located in front of Hōsenbō’s main hall.
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The Scarred Ginkgo: Hibakujumoku Tilt?
We visited a temple called Hōsenbō in Hiroshima’s Teramachi neighborhood that was 1.13 kilometers from the hypocenter. As the name Teramachi (literally “temple town”) would suggest, there are many temples in this area, including one nearby that houses a hibakujumoku crepe-myrtle and Japanese sago palm.
If one stands in front of Hōsenbō, an atomic-bombed ginkgo, thought to be 150 years old, rises tall in front of the temple’s main hall. When viewed as a whole, the building’s shape and the ginkgo give a unique impression. The stairs leading up to the main hall circle the ginkgo in a U.
“This tree has a scar remaining from the atomic bomb. The upper part of the trunk has a fissure on the side facing the blast’s hypocenter. If you look closely, bark on that side of the tree is different from the rest. Other parts are robust and plump, but bark on the side exposed to the blast is more close-textured. Because of that, this tree tilts slightly toward the hypocenter. The trunk is growing straight, so it’s quite easy to see the tilt. Fifty years after the war, when it was decided that the main hall would be rebuilt, those connected with the temple met to discuss what was to be done about the tree, which was so close to the building; they decided on this shape for the stairs.”
“You advised them during that process?”
“Yes. The roots used to be surrounded by plates of iron grating, but that might have damaged the roots and trunk as the tree got bigger, so I’ve been removing them. If possible, the fallen leaves shouldn’t be thrown out; they should be allowed to accumulate around the tree and turn into fertilizer. When the stairs were built, holes were put in the wall surrounding the tree to allow wind to pass through and improve ventilation.
“People who walk near here probably notice the building’s shape and can see that the tree is being treated with great care. They may ask the temple, ‘Why is that?’ Then the people here will be able to tell them, ‘This ginkgo endured the atomic bomb and survived.’ That’s why I’m glad the tree remains here in this shape. I think this tree, in silence, evokes various things.”
When I too asked if I could talk with the people of the temple, Shōko Togashi, wife of the chief priest, kindly agreed to speak with me.
“I’m told the ginkgo is my dad’s birth tree. My dad was born in Meiji 13 (1910), and it seems the ginkgo was planted in front of the main hall right around that time. In the summer of 1945, even the gardener had gone off to be a soldier, and there was no one to prune the tree; the branches grew as much as they could, and the leaves flourished. When the atomic bomb was dropped, this tree protected the main hall from the heat of the explosion, so the building wasn’t burnt as severely as one would expect. The tree had plenty of leaves, and ginkgo hold lots of moisture too. Although the hall wasn’t burnt, it still collapsed from the blast. My father’s younger brother was crushed by the main hall and died, and so did a cousin who was in the kitchen at the time. Around a month after that, my grandfather and aunt also died from the a-bomb sickness.”
Togashi-san spoke as she showed me photos of her family members who had died.
“After the war, the temple grounds became considerably smaller than before due to town planning efforts to widen the roads. When it was decided to rebuild the main hall, the plan was to cut down the ginkgo to make room for the building. We spoke many times with the congregation about what to do with this tree. Some of them said, ‘We often played by this tree in our childhood,’ or, ‘When people around me died of the atomic bomb sickness, and I also wondered whether I would survive, I saw this tree putting out shoots and thought I could somehow go on living.’ My father also said he wouldn’t want to cut down the tree, no matter what; he had lost his family and the temple’s the main hall, and only this tree remained. Therefore, everyone gave their approval for the current design of the main hall.
“Although I don’t have any personal experience of the bombing, I speak to the children who come here for peace education about how this tree is treasured by the people who know of it.”
At Hōsenbō, the people affected by a single tree gathered many times, shared their feelings about it, and were able to devise a plan for how to let the tree live. Not only was the tree able to be left alive, but I think the conversations surrounding the tree are wonderful as well. If the people of the area share the desire to take care of the tree, it will be able to live a long life in this neighborhood and be respected as a living thing.
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Meeting Hiroshima’s Trees is published by Kaisei-sha (偕成社). Excerpts are posted with the permission of the author. Translations are my own, as an individual.
Links to previous Hibakujumoku Translation posts:
Doctor Akiko Mikamo was born in Hiroshima in 1961, the daughter of two atomic-bomb-survivors. Her book, Rising from the Ashes: A True Story of Survival and Forgiveness from Hiroshima, is a moving account of one family’s experience of the atomic bomb, the suffering, death and destruction it wrought, but it also tells of the resilience and determination to start new lives and ultimately to forgive and move on.
The story is narrated by Doctor Mikamo’s father, Shinji Mikamo, in the first person singular, which informs the account with a dramatic sense of immediacy.
The A-Bombing of Hiroshima
Doctor Mikamo’s future parents were both teenagers at the time of the bombing and both were badly injured by the blast.
Her mother, Miyoko, was working in the Postal Savings Center, just 700 metres from the epicenter, when the bomb exploded. She dived under her desk and was protected from the intense heat by the building, but sustained deep cuts in her back and shoulder from shards of flying glass.
Doctor Mikamo’s father, Shinji, was pulling tiles from the roof of family home in Kamiyanagi-cho, near Sakae Bridge, to prepare it for enforced demolition, a measure that was supposed to prevent the spread of firestorms should Hiroshima be an air-raid target as many other cities on the Japanese mainland had been. The house was about 1,500 metres from the epicentre and when the atom bomb exploded Shinji suffered severe burns all down the right side of his body. He was pulled out of the ruins of the house by his father, Fukuichi Mikamo.
It quickly becomes evident that Fukuichi Mikamo is the true hero of the story. A kind, resourceful man, “forward thinking, practical and rational,” with a sharp sense of humour who, the narrator observes, was possibly the only atomic bomb victim to “laugh sarcastically” that at least the Americans had saved him the arduous job of dismantling his house.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing it is Fukuichi who forces Shinji to keep going in spite of the intense pain of his burns and injuries. They head east, over Sakae bridge and seek shelter in Toshogu Shrine. The next day Fukuichi insists that they must return to their home rather than wait for death to overtake them. They are repulsed by two heartless young soldiers. Every step in sheer agony, stepping with burnt feet on the dead and dying, or on rubble, splintered shards of wood and other debris, the scorching August sun playing on their burnt and exposed flesh.
Nevertheless, Fukuichi drives his son on until they reach their home. There, they are aided by the kindness of some neighbours, who give them each a bowl of miso soup – their first victuals in two days. They are eventually rescued from the city by a friend of Shinji’s who went to their house in search of them.
Shinji, as a skilled civilian employee of the army, has the status and privilges of a gunzoku – one who “belongs to the military” – and is taken by the army to a military hospital on one of the islands off the south coast of Hiroshima. Shinji’s father, who is not a gunzoku, is not allowed to accompany him and he never sees his father again.
The harrowing story of Shinji’s survival, his intense sufferiing in hospital, his eventual discharge, also include many intriguing details which are mentioned in passing and add greatly to the interest of the book. For example, that able-bodied adult residents of Hiroshima were not allowed to leave the city without a permit during the war; that when the war was over, and Shinji asked one solder if Japan had won or lost, he replied that he was not sure…
After he is discharged from hospital, Shinji must find a way to make a living. He encounters both meanness and generosity in his struggle to survive. As the only one of his immediate family to have survived, he is reduced to the status of a “street rat”.
He observes that, with the loosening of government regulation, black markets flourished, prices soared and criminal gangs, whose activities had been severely curtailed during the military dictatorship, established themselves once again in the post-war era. The yakuza offered many young men in desperate circumstances an alluring way out of poverty. (For a flavour of Hiroshima’s criminal underworld in the immediate post-war era, see the film series Battles Without Honor and Humanity [仁義なき戦い Jingi Naki Tatakai].)
At the same time, legitimate businesses also began to appear, such as Daichi Sangyo, an electronics company. While one of Shinji’s friends chose the path of the yakuza, Shinji himself dedicated himself to his work as a radio technician, working in a small room in his in-laws’ house.
As Hiroshima emerged from devastation, the city was designated by the Japanese government in 1949 as an International Peace Memorial City, a policy which Shinji, and his daughter wholeheartedly endorsed.
The last section of the book before the Afterword contains the most powerful lesson for the author and ultimately for us, the readers. It is a lesson which Doctor Mikami’s father, Shinji, learnt from his own father, Fukuichi, which is the importance of empathy.
In the Afterword, the author writes that we, as human beings, have a choice to “react” (I would prefer to use the word “respond” in this context) to negative experiences with compassion and forgiveness and to see how the other side views things. Her comments here echo those of Viktor Frankl, the German Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, who wrote, in Man’s Search for Meaning, that,
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
For Doctor Mikami, the appropriate response is the “surprisingly powerful and liberating” one of empathy because with empathy “you allow yourself room and energy to grow and heal”.
For the author, the very fact that she is alive today seems somewhat miraculous, and her life is informed by a deep sense of purpose, which is to convey the message that yesterday’s worst enemies can be today’s best friends.
As we observe the current civil war in Syria, that may seem unlikely, but Doctor Akiko Mikami, who lives and works in San Diego, is herself a living testimony to the realism of such a belief. In 2011, following the devastating earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster that struck Japan, the USA launched “Operation Tomodachi” – “the single largest humanitarian relief effort in American history”.
On 6th January 2013 a group of 12 students travelled with their professor from Soka University of America to Japan and Korea to investigate the role that Hiroshima, nuclear energy and atomic bomb victims can play in creating a peaceful world.
The group visited Seoul and Hiroshima and met with atom bomb survivors and groups in both cities, which provided the group with an opportunity to engage with survivors from different backgrounds and with different perspectives.
While in Hiroshima, the group also visited Peace Park, the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, and Hiroshima City University, where Professor Mikyoung Kim gave a lecture on the history of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the post-war politicization of bombings.
On Wednesday 9th January the group visited the ANT-Hiroshima office where Tomoko Watanabe gave a talk about Hiroshima and how the story of the survivors can give hope to other people around the world today who have come through wars or natural disasters, as well as helping to motivate people who want to work towards creating a peaceful world.
The group also had an opportunity to do some site seeing, explore Hiroshima and visit Miyajima before returning to Seoul to complete their studies.
Here is a documentary film the group made about their trip:
The group also made a very informative and interesting resource website about their trip which is well worth checking out:
Hiroshima, The Victims And The Questions Of Peace Learning Cluster
“Visiting both Korea and Japan, we learned various perspectives on the three issues we studied. It was interesting to meet and talk with hibakusha and NGOs working for nuclear power abolition or nuclear disarmament in both countries. We were able to recognize how different the situation was and still is for the Korean and Japanese hibakusha. Also, there were differences even in NGOs working towards the same goal.”
I heard before about Hiroshima, that it was one of the cities of Japan that was bombed by an atomic bomb, but I didn’t have more information: How it happened; what was the effect of the atom bomb in this city.
When I came to this city and on the first day when I saw the video my tears came out when I saw the children in the video in that situation. It was too hard for me; my heart was crying. I was comparing those children to children of my country, Afghanistan. Still in my country I can see children die every day by bomb blasts. When I saw Hiroshima’s situation I could imagine my own country; children go out in the morning for school, their mothers waiting for them, but what happened is they find their children dead in their arms. I can feel the pain of mothers, the pain of fathers, the pain of children in Hiroshima who lost someone in that atomic bomb because we also have that pain in our hearts in our country….
People want peace. I am very happy that Hiroshima became a city where now all the people can live in a calm and relaxing environment. I [feel it is] wonderful that now people of Hiroshima can live in a good condition. I know all the people have the pain of losing someone from their family. I wish my country also one day will have a good situation, a situation or an environment where people can live with a relaxed mind, where a mother won’t be worried for her children to go to school and come back. I wish a good tomorrow for Hiroshima and my country. We only want peace, nothing else.
Hiroshima, which once was a military city, has now become a very peaceful and beautiful city, surrounded by beautiful natural scenery, very calm and quiet society, with friendly and kind-hearted people, very much against any kinds of atomic-bomb testing or nuclear weapon testing or construction around the world, still bears the pain and suffering of what happened or the tragedy that occurred 65 years ago, and although the smiles of its people are visible, one can see through their pain the tragedy that occurred in their city.
It was said that the grass would never grow again in Hiroshima, however, the very place that was targeted during the bombing seems to be the most beautiful place in the city today.
Hiroshima people have experienced the worst-nightmare human beings could experience. I sincerely feel for the people of Hiroshima, the suffering that her people had to go through and so I stand together with the people of Hiroshima in the fight against atomic-bombing and in the fight against humanity, in their protection as a whole.
I wish Hiroshima and her people the very best in the future.
Letila Moala Tuiyalani
Civil Servant & Graduate Student