Tag Archives: China

August 6th, every year

Sky at dusk

There are some dates that are not ordinary dates: March 11th, June 4th and two dates this week, August 6th and 9th. So much is written and said every year about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and every year it seems too much, and never enough.

It seems too much because it feels so overwhelming, the images are so iconic and so horrific. Interspersed with interviews with survivors, dignified and mildly-spoken elderly Japanese people who re-tell their stories of the hell they experienced. It is hard to know what to think, other than, make it stop.

And every year, nothing is ever enough, because the years pass and it doesn’t seem like we ever gain any clarity, we make no progress to making sure it can never happen again. I have no words of wisdom, I only have some snapshots of what I have heard from Japanese people over the years. In the absence of anything else, I offer them here:

About fifteen years ago some students made posters about their grandmothers in my class. Two students wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One wrote that her mother was outside Hiroshima that day, but went into the city in the days following the blast. She swore that she would never tell anyone what she had seen, because she didn’t want to pass on the horror, ‘but she did,’ wrote the student. She didn’t write any more, but I always wondered what her grandmother had told her.

Another wrote that her grandmother’s beloved brother was caught in the blast, but wasn’t killed that day. Instead, he died in her arms a week later, poisoned by radiation. ‘It broke her heart.’ Although she went on to marry and have children and grandchildren, there was always heartbreak because of the brother she had lost. Hers was a life put back around unimaginable grief.

There is a remarkable resilience in the human spirit. People live through horror and somehow put their lives back together around it. In China I have met people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, who were treated very badly, got sent down to the countryside, but then years later returned to the city, maybe had neighbours who were part of their persecution, and somehow manage to live with that.

When I first lived in Japan, I met a woman who had lived in China as a young child. I don’t know why her family was there, but her mother had died and as the Japanese retreated she and her father tried to get some money to get back to Japan. She stood by the side of the road, holding her mother’s beautiful kimono, begging strangers to give her a few coins for them.

I have a friend whose mother is from Hiroshima, and was a small child on that day seventy years ago. She was outside the city, but saw the flash when the bomb was detonated. It’s one of her earliest memories.

Mine is of my brother and our dog.

Hers is the flash of the atomic bomb.

What’s yours?


August 9th


 In Japan August 9th and all the commemorations and remembrances that are every year connected with this date are already over for another year. Here in the UK there are still a couple of hours left. This morning I read an article someone had posted online about the decision by the United States to use atomic bombs to end the Pacific War. While the points it made were ones I had read before, specifically, that Japan was already defeated, but that the US had dropped the bombs to test its new weapons and also to warn the Soviet Union not to try to invade Japan, the quotes from high-ranking military personnel against the bombings were new to me. It all got me thinking about what was done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and so I have had these thoughts going round and round in my head all day.

The official line is, I suppose, that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (August 9th) were necessary to end the Pacific War, that without them the war would have dragged on, and even more people would have lost their lives. This is based on the events in Okinawa, where Japanese civilians fought and died or committed suicide, and there was massive loss of life on both sides. It was believed, apparently, that the same pattern of events would have unfolded across Japan. Certainly, Japan was already on its knees. And equally certainly, the Japanese people believed their leaders (as did the people of the other countries involved in the war) and would have done what they were told. But the atomic bombs? Were they really necessary? Were they really the most appropriate and most expedient way to end the war?

I am no historian, though I do find history fascinating. I really don’t know whether the decision to use the atomic bombs was the correct one. That is why I chose a blur for a picture at the top of this post, because I just don’t know.

But emotionally I know that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wrong. There is something deep and instinctive that reacts in me, that just screams that it was wrong. Even if you want to argue that one atomic bombing was expedient, ended the war, how do you justify the second, over Nagasaki, three days later? And so today I have had three things replaying in my mind, and all I can do is lay them out and wonder if, in writing, I reach some kind of understanding.

Over twenty years ago, when I was first living in Japan, I met a woman who attended the same church in Yokohama. She was maybe ten years older than me and was from the Pacific North-West of the US. Her parents had worked in some capacity on the atomic bomb programme and she was absolutely adamant that it had been right to drop those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t remember discussing it with her in any detail, I just remember her being totally convinced and insistent that the bombings were necessary. It came up in conversation, and it just hung there.

Several years later, in the summer of 1995, I was in Washington DC and went to the exhibition at the National Air & Space Museum of part of the Enola Gay. It was the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombings, and there had been quite a lot of controversy about the exhibition. The original plan had been for a more balanced, comprehensive examination of the events, but after pressure from veterans’ groups the display had become much more narrowly focused.

I remember seeing part of the Enola Gay, and a sign on it telling people that there was no danger of radiation from it. I remember wondering at the mindset that accepted the inflicting of such a diabolical weapon on a whole city, but felt it necessary to reassure individuals forty years later that there was no radiation to harm them.

There was a video as part of the exhibition, interviews with surviving crew members, and towards the end a recording of the navy chaplain praying with the crew ‘for the success of the mission’. The video ended quite suddenly; the voiceover explained that the crew flew over Hiroshima and dropped the bomb. The Enola Gay flew around and watched the explosion, then flew home, mission accomplished. The end.

I walked out of the exhibition in a kind of daze, shocked that a priest had prayed for ‘success’ in such a context. How could anyone think that God wanted human beings to do these things? And also shocked that there was no mention of how many people were killed that day. There was such a disconnect between the bombing and the consequences of it.

And then, at the end of the nineties I went to work at the school where I still work today. One year the final year students made posters about their grandmothers in English class. Two wrote about their grandmothers’ experiences in the aftermath of the bombings. One wrote that her grandmother lived outside Hiroshima but went into the city in the days after the bombing. What she saw was so horrific that she had promised herself that she would never speak about it, but according to her granddaughter she did speak and told her children and grandchildren what she had seen. The trauma of it still echoed in her granddaughter’s words. Another student wrote about her grandmother and the elder brother she loved more than anyone else. He was caught in one of the bombings and died in her arms, of radiation sickness. It broke her heart, the student wrote. Although she went on to marry, to have children and grandchildren and a full and busy life, it broke her heart and she was never the same again. And finally, I have a colleague whose mother is from Hiroshima. She was a toddler on August 6th 1945. She was outside the city but saw the flash of the atomic blast, and that flash is her very first memory.

Living in Japan, I don’t think it’s unusual to hear these stories. I have heard other stories, of grandfathers judged war criminals, of people stranded in China, starving and orphaned, of people growing up in occupied Korea, believing, knowing they were in Japan. I am not trying to portray the Japanese people as simply victims, or to pretend that the Japanese aggression in Korea, China and other parts of Asia didn’t happen.

But the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are unique in the history of warfare. No other country, as Japan frequently points out, has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Was it necessary to bomb those cities? Did it really end the Pacific War? I really don’t know, because I only have my emotional response, and really, I don’t want to have another response. Some things are so horrific that even being able to comprehend seems beyond my ability. I know the horror is so vast and in knowing that I find I have nothing left to process anything else.

Long shadows, short memories

 ‘Most of us have short memories. This is not strange, for there is too much suffering in life,          especially in China.’

Incense shadows cropped 3

When I was a 17-year-old secondary school student, thinking about what I wanted to study at university, I decided that I wanted to learn a new and difficult language. I narrowed my choice down to four: Arabic, Russian, Japanese and Chinese. I discounted Arabic immediately; as a woman I couldn’t imagine it would give me a wide range of options. At the time (in 1983) the Soviet Union seemed entrenched and I wondered where Russian studies would take me. I was also discouraged knowing that instead of an academic year abroad it was only possible to go there for three months. Japanese was appealing, and in the early 1980s, with Deng Xiaoping opening China and its economy up it seemed that there was a world of possibilities in East Asia. A year later my exam results were in and I was on my way to study Chinese at the University of Leeds and as part of that, a year as an overseas student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Shanghai in the autumn of 1985 was not the city you would see today. The shiny futuristic Pudong was still farmland, there were very few cars apart from taxis and official limousines, a lot of old Shanghai still remained. During that year I travelled both with school trips (to Beijing and Kunming) and on my own (to Chengdu, Lhasa and Guangzhou). I got to know Shanghai, I poked around in the dusty corners of the city and when I needed a break I went to the foreigners-only Friendship Store or Jessica’s at the Jinjiang Hotel and bought nutella, croissants and coffee.

After I graduated in 1988 I spent about eighteen months working in the UK, and in February 1990 I returned to China, this time to Shenyang, to teach at a college there, but also to brush up my Chinese. At the time, it felt like I had been away from China for a long time, but looking back today after far more years it doesn’t seem long at all. I am also amazed at my younger self, that less than twelve months after June 4th 1989 I was heading back. Shenyang in 1990 was a lot like Shanghai in 1985-6. Visiting Shanghai later in the year I was struck by how much it had changed already. By 1996 the Oriental Pearl Tower was already open, but looking rather ridiculous and stranded in what was not yet the 21st-century city of today.

In some ways I feel a bit of a fraud writing about China these days, because I haven’t been back in so very long. But China has and will always have a special place in my heart. Even though Japan has been good to me, has been home for over twenty years, China got under my skin first. Hearing Chinese spoken around Tokyo by the many tourists that visit Japan now, it stops me in my tracks, opens up a different part of my heart and my mind, pings me back to those early days at Fudan.

So here I am again, marking June 4th, and this year it’s twenty-five years since the Pro-Democracy movement was crushed on the night of June 3rd and 4th. At the time it didn’t seem possible that the Chinese leadership would manage to hold on to power, that surely something would change. But I also remember in the months after June 4th attending public meetings with Chinese students studying in the UK, with human rights groups, and hearing the students speak of their aims. They wanted democracy. What would that look like? How could it be achieved? There were no answers. It was a dream. A wonderful, shining dream.

Twenty-five years later, the Chinese Communist Party  still has its grip on power. There have been plenty of reports in the last few days about the Chinese human rights activists detained in the run-up to the anniversary, the international news broadcasts blacked out, the Internet search terms blocked. On CNN a reporter went to the campus of Beijing University and asked students if they knew what today’s date signified. They looked mystified, asked if maybe it was a public holiday . . . the reporter expressed his disbelief to the camera. Chinese students these days must be so ill-informed! Do they have no curiosity? How can they not know?

I would say, of course they know. They know at least enough to know not to know. The ill-informed student would spill all kinds of beans to the camera. The savvy student is cautious. They may not know as much as we think they should know, but this generation can find its way round some of the roadblocks China’s leadership sets up in cyberspace. They have smart phones and know how to use social media. They know not to speak to every foreign journalist with a microphone and a video camera. A people that has gone through all the upheavals that China has in the last sixty plus years knows what it takes to protect yourself against the Chinese Big Brother.

China doesn’t have the political freedoms the young people in Tiananmen Square dreamed about, sang about, died for. But while their leaders could slam the door on their demands, it couldn’t (and didn’t want to) slam the door on economic development, and so a lot of Chinese people have some of the freedoms spoken of, yearned for, in 1989, at least in the cities. (The ever-increasing gap between the cities and the countryside is another matter.) People have the money to travel, to buy the technology that connects them with the rest of the world. Not all of it, but quite a lot.

They know that today is not an ordinary day. They will know that their government is keeping the lid on whatever they can today. They may not know as much as we would like them to know, they may not be willing to blurt out their thoughts to a passing journalist, but today is not an ordinary day and I am sure people are aware of that. Chinese people have to develop antennae sensitive to what can be said, and to whom. To not have that awareness could be dangerous. Just because they know not to say everything we want to hear out loud does not mean they are not thinking all of it, and more.

In 1925, Lu Xun wrote:

‘Most of us have short memories. This is not strange, for there is too much suffering in life, especially in China. People with good memories are liable to be crushed to death by the weight of suffering; only those with bad memories, the fittest to survive, can still live happily on.’

To have come through the Great Leap Forward, the famines, the Cultural Revolution, and 1989, to be resilient through it all, a short memory, at least publicly, might just be the best way to get by.


June 4th 1989. Never forget.