I spent the hours before last week's devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan surrounded by memorials of another great Japanese national tragedy. I was in Nagasaki, immersed in the memory and imagery of the aftermath of the most powerful weapon ever used by mankind against mankind.
The sites related to the atomic bomb that was dropped over the city on Aug. 9, 1945, don't merely chronicle the destruction of a city and the large-scale suffering that followed but actively take a position promoting the grand and elusive cause of peace.
The various memorials are deeply moving. Many take the form of statuary and architecture: A simple black column stands directly below where the bomb exploded, positioned dead center among a series of concentric rings. A church tower that survived the blast has been moved onto the same site.
Nearby, Peace Park has a large fountain whose spray suggests the wings of a dove, and its grounds are filled with impressive statues, many donated by countries around the world.
And then there's the Atomic Bomb Museum, whose exhibits chronicle suffering that parallels the scenes of hell in the Inferno of Dante's "Divine Comedy."
Near each site related to the bombing, one sees racks of what look like colorful scarves. Upon closer inspection, these flowing ribbons of color turn out to be chains of origami cranes.
I found the explanation for the cranes in the Atomic Bomb Museum's bookstore. A children's book tells the story of Sadako, a young girl who had escaped visible injury in the atomic blast in Hiroshima but who, at the age of 10, developed leukemia. She had heard that if you wanted something badly enough and made 1,000 origami cranes, your wish would come true. So she borrowed whatever scraps of paper she could find in the hospital and started folding.
It's unknown for certain if she ever reached her goal; she died of the disease, caused by exposure to radiation, at the age of 12. Since then, origami cranes have become a ubiquitous symbol of the fervent wish that the use of nuclear weapons will never occur again.
In Peace Park, sculptor Seibou Kitamura created a giant "Peace Statue" and wrote the following statement inscribed on a plaque near the statue:
"After experiencing that nightmarish war,
That blood curdling carnage,
That unendurable horror,
Who could walk away
Without praying for peace?"
Peace activism can be inspiring, or it can be viewed as unrealistic idealism. But as the artist's poem suggests, if you survived a living hell or watched your daughter die at the age of 12, who can blame you if your life's mission becomes a single-minded pursuit of peace?
March 11 turned into a very long and emotional day for me, steeped in exposure to the destructive powers of both mankind and nature.
There is little we can do to prevent an earthquake or tsunami. But one leaves Nagasaki with a respect for those who are moved to try to halt mankind's destructive tendencies, whether by working to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, by creating art that reflects the pain and hopes of survivors, by documenting and displaying the graphic evidence of nuclear warfare or even by saying prayers while folding sheets of paper, one after another, into 1,000 colorful cranes.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.