For the last part of our Japan sojourn in 2005, Beth and I decided to spend a few hours on
the ferry across the Seto Inland Sea from Matsuyama to Hiroshima, where we were to
commemorate events of the past and renew friendships after a decade. Though the day
was humid and hot, the boat parted the sea air. Islands like blue mountains floated in the
haze. We caught up our journals, ate lunch, and rested. Drawing close to Ujina,
Hiroshima’s port, we recognized the Prince Hotel—where we stayed one night in our final
week here, a gift from our friend Taeko. We both teared up.
in the engine’s noise
and the sway of the ferry
a calm solitude
Seto Sea’s islands—
towns on the coast like gravel
washed from the mountain
the ferry boat docks,
engines rumbling, water white—
brooms sway on hooks
The World Friendship Center, the peace organization we volunteered for, hosted us all
week to mark the 60th year since the atomic bomb leveled Hiroshima. Having lived inside
that story for two and a half years, I didn’t expect to be moved. The official ceremony on
August 6 was the usual parade of politicians mouthing predictable things. None of the
survivors we knew even attend.
But on the morning of the fourth, we attended a ceremony at the Memorial of the
A-bombed Teachers and Students of National Elementary Schools. The trees were already
loud with cicadas at 8 a.m. because the heat had already begun to press down. Camera
crews crouched to get the right angle of the mayor and various education officials who
spoke, but the heart of the ceremony was the line of kids who came forward when their
school was called to make offerings at the foot of the statue. A dramatic figure of a
woman—an elementary teacher—trying to carry a child in her arms but her fatigue is great
and the small body’s weight is too much. The child is slipping…
tolling the school names
they offered flowers and cranes
—they were just children
Seeing our friends again showed us just how a bond that deep doesn’t wear away. It is a
chain under the ground of our lives, holding each of us to the earth. Taeko welcomed us
into her house, saying, “It’s very hot” because her house is not air-conditioned. “But if
you know that, it’s not as hot,” she noted, wisely. We drank cool mugicha, roasted barley
tea, and talked as if we would walk home and see her again the next day.
Before we knew Okoshi-san’s name, we called the noodle shop owner The Getta-Man
because he wore those traditional Japanese wooden clogs. It was his idea to go on a dinner
cruise in the Seto Sea. A few days later, he treated us to lunch of his noodles after closing
his shop; he even offered to give me the very bowl I was eating out of because it was made
Yoko met us at the port then said abruptly, “I need to talk with you… Shall we get some
coffee?” The dread that answers those words gave way to happiness as I realized that she
was merely saying that she needed to talk to us—it had been years! And so we spent hours
in the too-cold bakery laughing over our many joys working together.
Itsue rode her bike to our hotel at 10 p.m. because she couldn’t wait until the next day to
see us. She gave me a book of the Heart Sutra, which she chants each day, because “form
is emptiness, emptiness is form.” She knows that what is not here is never gone.
after all these years
when I say Hiroshima
to me it means “home”
Shu’s muscular body seemed small behind Machiko’s wheelchair, especially when he
leaned it back, back, far back until the front wheels caught the edge of the stage. Rin was
wearing a metal guardian angel necklace that tinkled like chimes when she bent over to speak to Machiko.
Shu and Rin and Machiko, in her own way, were to give us a prayer song at the World
Friendship Center’s Welcome Party, but first he held up a square box—the thumb harp! I
recognized it immediately. He told the audience that we’d given him that instrument ten
years ago and in the meantime music had taken his life in new directions, even carrying the
three of them to Africa. They started a rhythmic melody on thumb harps then let their
voices lead them, lead us all through a passage we could only find by feel.
We were able to get dinner with them and sit by the river where the breezes were, catching
up on their journey to Niger and how music showed Shu out of the darkness after his
cancer-laced difficulties. They played another song that I remembered from rice-harvest
parties in Shiraki-cho, ten years before; the song smelled of sake and wood smoke.
On the evening of August 6th, with colorful lanterns floating and peace pilgrims gathering,
they played again on the banks of the Motoyasu River. Facing the skeletal Atomic Bomb
Dome, they started with their voices and thumb-harps, while Shu’s mouth-harp buzzed out
a rhythm. It was the gesture I had been longing for all day and couldn’t know it until it was
offered. Peace Park was like a festival, and now the whole memorial space was a sacred
circle, the spirits had been invoked and invited to follow the currents home.
the motion of peace
drifted over the river
—just their two voices.
Hiroshima has its own poets. Kurihara Sadako, whom I was fortunate enough to meet once
on the street while she, in her eighties, wore a sign protesting nuclear power, wrote “Let us
be midwives! / Let us be midwives! / Even if we lay down our lives to do so.” Sankichi
Toge has a memorial in Peace Park inscribed with his plea to gain our humanity back after
targeting whole cities. “Give back my father, give back my mother.” His poem never uses
words like “A-bomb” or “atomic” or else the US occupation would have censored him.
Under the stone, his pen is buried like a seed. Morishita Hiromu wrote a poem asking us to
listen to Hiroshima not just with your ears, not just “with your arm or with your head./With
the heart of one who endures despair.” Yes, Hiroshima has its own poets. What can I add?
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After finishing his MFA in Bowling Green, Ohio, Edward A. Dougherty and his spouse volunteered at a peace center in Hiroshima for two and a half years. They now live and work in Corning, New York, and are active in their Quaker Meeting. Edward is the author of Pilgrimage to a Gingko Tree (2008 WordTech Communications) and Part Darkness, Part Breath (2008 Plain View Press) as well as five chapbooks of poetry, the most recent of which are The Luminous House (2007 Finishing Line Press) and Backyard Passages (2012, FootHills Publishing). Exercises for Poets: Double Bloom, co-authored with Scott Minar, is available from Prentice-Hall. In 2007, he was given the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.