The Shinkansen rocketed at a velocity that seemed impossible. Steve and I relaxed, worked a crossword together, and watched the Japanese countryside warp by in a blur as we headed north towards the main island of Honshu, enjoying this truly remarkable mode of transport. The bullet train lived up to its reputation, reaching speeds of nearly three hundred kilometers an hour. Often, when traveling by car or even airplane, you have no sense of how quickly you are actually travelling. The Shinkansen, however, shattered all such ignorance. One glance out of the window towards the rice fields and houses flickering by, and we had no trouble fully comprehending the intensity of our trajectory.
Hiroshima sits on a wide river delta and has all the features of a modern, lovely Japanese city. The wide, tree-lined streets play host to light-rail trams; the air is clean with a taste of ocean salt; like everywhere in Japan, the sidewalks are immaculate and the shops and restaurants give off the warm glow of prosperity. Hiroshima looked like a terrific place to call home, nothing like scene of destruction that I’d come to associate it with. For most of us, it is synonymous with misery and horror. To gaze at the present day city was pleasantly jarring, however, since it looked nothing like the black and white photos of flattened and charred buildings, skeletons of vehicles, and the maimed, hopeless inhabitants that I had come to equate with the city. I knew the place had been rebuilt, of course, but I had no idea just how completely they had achieved the goal. Like Fukuoka, Hiroshima was nice. While its history may have been tragic, its present seemed nothing of the sort.
But we didn’t come to Hiroshima to marvel at its modernity: We came for the past. We wanted to pay witness to this venue of unimaginable carnage and attempt to understand—not with our minds, but with our guts—what exactly had gone down there at 8:15 in morning of August 6th, 1945. We wished to examine the scene of the crime, to pay our respect, and perhaps give penance. Most overriding, though, was the urge to reach out as humans and attempt to make sense of what can only be described as the height of inhumanity.
So Steve and I disembarked from the Shinkansen and set out for the city’s Peace Park—a memorial to the atomic attack that lies along the banks of the slow-flowing Ota River near the city center. Steve consulted the map in his guidebook, and we were immediately on our way, forcing ourselves towards the objective at a fevered pace. This wasn’t easy. Now that I was actually in Hiroshima, I fought the urge to turn around and jump back on the bullet train. Did I really want to spend my afternoon thinking of such death, along with my country’s bloody hand in its creation? But this was more a pilgrimage than a pleasure trip, and we grimly pressed on, knowing our quest to be one of necessity.
The Peace Park is aptly named, for it was quiet, even by Japanese standards. The only sound was that of the breeze, some squawking seagulls, and the weird little pink sightseeing boats chugging up the river. Steve and I strolled along in contemplation, observing this unwritten rule of silence, hyper-aware of the fact that we trod upon hallowed ground. It was early spring and the cherry blossoms were just beginning to bloom, giving the surroundings a taste of life. But all I could think about was death. I tried to imagine the feeling of going about your business on a Sunday morning, only to be blinded by a flash, feel the air ripped from your lungs, and get hit with and incinerating blast of hellish heat. Multiply this feeling by tens of thousands of people, and the enormity becomes too much to bear. As I morbidly obsessed on these details—the melted flesh, the crisped skin, the people who were vaporized with their shadows burned into the sides of buildings—I was not overtaken with emotion. I felt no tears, or horror, or guilt even. I was strangely detached, bowing my head, walking in silence, but feeling little. I was reminded of attending mass with my family in my late teens, with the kneeling and genuflecting and mumbling of prayers. The process was supposed to infuse me with grace, but instead I was left feeling hollow and false in the knowledge that I was just going through the motions.
The most iconic structure in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is the Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, which is the closest surviving building to the epicenter of the bomb’s detonation. It has since been renamed the Genbako Dome, or “A-bomb Dome”, and serves as a testament to the blast. The roof of the dome was sheared off by the explosion, but the frame remains, giving the building the look of a clean-eaten carcass, a warning to other prey. It’s the one remaining relic of that terrible morning, and sends home the reality of what happened to anyone viewing it. After snapping some photographs, I just stood and looked. The emptiness inside me was now replaced with a warm, sad understanding.
Eventually Steve and I wandered up to the Peace Park’s museum, where my earlier mental speculation as to the effects of the bombing and subsequent radiation on human beings was confirmed by many graphic photographs. These pictures served as exhibits—close up shots of burned, poisoned, and misshapen people—all civilians, many of them children. I hadn’t eaten since the morning, but my hunger turned to nausea as I took in the photographic evidence of the crime. They were hard to look at but I forced myself, and I challenge anyone to do the same and not be sickened.
We spent about an hour at the museum, which included not just documentation about the victims of the blast, but information on the physics of the Hiroshima explosion, as well as extensive data on nuclear weapons in general. There were charts displaying which countries possessed the bomb, as well the estimated size of their arsenals. Unsurprisingly, the USA topped the list. The museum strove to be more than a memorial, however. It attempted to inform people about the reality of nuclear weapons and at the same time advocated for their total eradication.
As we left the museum we came upon a guestbook, which was an intriguing read. Messages from people around the world attempted to articulate the un-expressible. Most were short lines of sorrow and regret, with plenty of pleas for peace. Some of my fellow Americans left personal notes of apology, trying to put their shame and sense of guilt into words. One Canadian commenter did the opposite: She attempted to wash away culpability by reminding the world—through underlining, exclamation points, and all caps–that she was from Canada, NOT the USA, and that her nation had no hand in the bombing. The guestbook acted as part mirror, part Rorschach Test. After reading comments for ten minutes, it was time to leave my own. I picked up the pen and put it to the white paper, but paused. I attempted to form opening words, but they felt cheap and inadequate. Defeated, I set the pen down and walked away.
Stunned and somewhat shaken, we left the Peace Memorial Park and headed back into town. Though two hours of revisiting one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century had tamped down our hunger, our appetites now returned with a vengeance. It was time to eat, and soon we found ourselves in the huge, covered, Hondori Shopping Arcade, because nothing takes your mind of atomic catastrophes like the bright colors and strange flash of happy, Japanese consumerism.
For lunch we went local, sampling Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a kind of fritter layered with egg, cabbage, bean sprouts, sliced pork, and octopus, cooked on a hot plate as we looked on. It was hearty, filling and delicious. This was some proper, regional fare and made us feel more connected to the older, non-nuclear Hiroshima.
Bellies full, we left the little restaurant and joined the shoppers in the Hondori Arcade. We had an over an hour until our train back to Fukuoka, so this market looked to be the perfect place to kill some time. Steve was looking to pick up some souvenirs, but Japan had already sapped my wallet plenty, so I was more than content to just window shop and return to Korea empty handed.
“I’m gonna check out that shop over there. Maybe pick up something for my students,” Steve said.
“Cool. I’m going to look on my own. Why don’t we meet back here in thirty minutes?”
I proceeded to walk down the arcade a couple of hundred meters until something caught my eye. It was a comic book store. While not a collector or even a huge fan of comics, I love the stores that contain them. In America I’ve spent many hours browsing through store selections–from superhero stuff to alternative to erotica—I like to check it all out, and the more obscure the title, the better. I had never been to a comic store in Japan, though. I was familiar with manga (Japanese comics) style and dabbled in reading some years before, but here I was, in Hiroshima, facing the entrance of what was the Manga Mothership. So I slipped through the threshold and proceeded to get lost.
It must be said that the Japanese are notorious perverts. They even outdo their old allies Germany in this regard. Some of the strangest sexual stuff on the internet emanates from Japan–whether it’s bukkake (a ring of men masturbating onto a woman), puke videos, or “tub girls,” with arcing shots of brown liquid from the subject’s assholes. The Japanese just seem to have an obsession with bizarre and forbidden, or at the very least, relaxed attitudes towards those who do. There’s a pervy, sexual vein running through Japanese society which they embrace openly. This was evidenced on the streets as well, with so many of the women wearing short skirts and stockings or knee-high heeled boots. So much of the fashion had a fetishistic sensibility. There’s just a sense of really kinky sexuality that pervades the country as a whole, and nowhere does this manifest itself more clearly than in manga.
This comic shop took things to a whole new level. I thought I was prepared for what I was about to see, but, in reality, I was not. And bear in mind that this was no seedy shop near the train station or off of some forlorn exit off the freeway: It was in the most famous and busiest shopping arcade in the city.
The bottom floor was made up of your run-of-the-mill manga, most all of which featured cover illustrations of young teenage girls drawn in the form’s signature style—long limbs, slim bodies, full breasts, and unrealistically huge eyes. As I walked down the aisle and eyed the covers, I saw that the comics spanned countless subjects: high school romance, baseball, basketball, idol groups, fantasy, magic, martial arts, supernatural, horror, and many more. Like most manga, eroticism was inherent in even the most innocent of titles, though I only took in a few that featured swimsuit poses and camel-toed panty shots. They were in the collection, but in the minority, and as suggestive as they were, everyone kept their clothes on, even if it was just their underclothes.
I then took the stairs up to the second floor, which was similar in tone to that of the first, though a couple degrees hotter in content. Again, I just looked at the covers: More panties and bras, bikinis, as well as some exhibitionist and “upskirt” stuff, but still open to all ages.
The third floor was both a literal and figurative level up: only eighteen and over allowed. Gone were the innocent high school crush narratives. Everything here was about primal sexual urges: the clothes came off and the characters went at it. All the titles featured naked girls with big eyes fucking, getting fucked, being objectified, humiliated, and defiled. Orifices featured prominently. Close-up detailed drawings of juicy penetration. This was some straight-up nasty, porny stuff—explicitly portrayed right on the covers–but nothing scarring.
Then there was the fourth floor. Like the third, it had an attendant checking anyone who appeared to be of questionable age. It was on this floor where I discovered that almost anything goes in Japan, as long as it’s drawn in a semi-cute way. At first it wasn’t so bad, relatively–mainly gay comics featuring high school girls and boys. But things quickly took a turn for the vile. I spied various kinds of rape, erotic pissing, and a few books featuring very pretty girls shitting. But it didn’t stop there. This was Japan, and as I was finding out, they really like to mine the depths. As stomach churning as some of the comic covers were, they inadequately prepared me what I was to regard next: a whole aisle featuring pre-pubescent girls and pre-pubescent boys in obvious sexual situations: Illustrated kiddie porn. My first impulse was to look away, but a sinister curiosity took hold and kept my eyeballs glued to the covers: I had stumbled into dark, bizarre territory and wanted to take it all in, if only this once. I had never seen anything so manifestly taboo, and there was loads of it. A few of these titles showed shockingly young kids, some so young that they wore diapers. And it got worse as I peered on. I could feel my pulse quicken and breath grow shallower. Was this stuff for real? As my eyes scanned this gallery of finely drawn covers, I felt like I was rubbernecking a gory car crash; I was compelled to look, even though I knew the sight may make me sick. I was witnessing the unthinkable and it just got more extreme as I burrowed deeper. I had come too far to turn back and was now committed to seeing the very worst that this store could throw at me. And I got it, in the form of what can only be described as hermaphrodite toddler covered-in-come comic porn. I felt like I had just been kicked in the head. I’d had enough. I’d seen my fill and no longer felt pressed on by some invisible hand. I was dizzy and wanted to puke. I ducked my head down and locked my eyes on the exit, not looking as I got the hell out of there.
As I burst from the first floor entrance I swallowed a lungful of air in an attempt to quell the hot wind whipping forth inside of me. I wanted to smash the windows and set fire to the store. I was wrong, I thought. I was wrong about this culture, about these people, about this nation. I was momentarily convinced that Japan, for all of her beauty, cleanliness, and seeming civility, was an evil place. I told myself that something dark and terrible boiled underneath the surface, something not even concentrated fire could scour away. For a second I pondered whether the destruction wrought upon her so many years ago was such a bad thing, and then immediately felt like a heel. How could I even contemplate such a thing? I was an American in Hiroshima, the site of the darkest and most awful act in the whole history of human warfare. This atrocity had been executed just decades before by my government. Attempting to justify such a crime because I was bothered by some comic books was beyond sacrilegious. I was frightened that I could even think such a thing.
My blood was percolating, but my anger quickly began to subside and saner thoughts crept back in. Perhaps the abominations I had just observed weren’t so terrible after all, when put into a certain context. For all the sickening stuff one finds below the surface, Japan is a very safe, civilized place. Maybe they had something figured out. Maybe it’s better to recognize such taboo subjects and create a space to contain them, rather than suppress them to the point to where they burst out in more harmful ways. Maybe the Japanese are just more honest about our dark sexual impulses, and their seemingly lax attitudes reflect a more realistic approach to the problem–a kind of societal harm reduction–like experiments in drug decriminalization.
I stood there, scanning the crowd for Steve. As I gazed out at the clusters of people shuffling past the shops and restaurants under the market’s arched arcade, I thought of our sushi feast from two nights before. How sweet it had been. Japan had been good to me. I’d immediately encountered kindness, generosity, and mastery. I repaid it by getting drunk and starting a fight at the punk club. Japan responded by denying me oteng. Japan seemed like such a bright, twinkling pace, full of beauty and magic, quality and wonder. The country at times seemed to approach perfection. But putting up such an immaculate façade must be taxing. Is it any wonder things get ugly behind the mask? Should I have been so surprised that Japan had such a dark vein flowing so shallow beneath the skin?
Whatever my judgments, Japan didn’t need my approval. As I watched the citizens of Hiroshima shuffle by, they seemed relaxed and content and totally unconcerned with my petty judgments. They were pleased to be living in this exquisite house they had built, and weren’t seeking my input in the matter. Japan was kind, Japan was brutal; Japan was lovely, Japan was disturbing. Japan was anything I wanted to call it, but it wasn’t mine. So when I finally caught sight of Steve’s spectacled face, I held up my hand and waved. He walked my way and soon we were off, rocketing back towards Fukuoka and then sailing on to Busan, our home on the other side of the sea.