a thousand paper cranes

I started learning Japanese when I was in grade five. It was easy to tell that our teacher, Mr M., was rather passionate not only about the Japanese language but also about Japanese culture and everything else to do with Japan. He’d often teach us random tidbits of information that weren’t necessarily relevant/important to us learning the language. (But I suppose you could argue that fostering an interest in Japanese culture would help keep us motivated and enthusiastic about learning the words.)

For example, amongst other things, he taught us this kids’ rhyme about “demon’s pants” (I really don’t remember how it goes but there were actions you performed with it as well), and we inadvertently learnt the word for “octopus” when he taught us a counting game. He taught us about the Sapporo Snow Festival (which I finally got to attend last year, and hope to return to one day), and he also introduced my class to the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.

You might have heard of the story even if you haven’t studied Japanese. Basically, it’s about a young girl who develops leukaemia after the bombing of Hiroshima in WWII. Since her prognosis isn’t very good, someone tries to offer some hope by telling her that she will be granted a wish if she folds a thousand paper cranes.

In teaching us about Sadako, Mr M. also taught us a bit about the actual bombing of Hiroshima. I’m not sure if this was still in grade five, or maybe it was six or seven, but we were still kind of young at the time. Of course, we’d learnt about WWI and WWII, and had some understanding about war from regular class, but he showed us a different side of it (usually we just got taught about the ANZACs and Gallipoli).

Something that stuck with me all this time was the impact on civilians – people going about their day, aware of the potential presence of danger but oblivious to the extent and imminence of the threat. And in a moment, their world is devastated beyond imagination.

Perhaps Mr M. didn’t go into too much detail (though I vaguely remember seeing a rather disturbing image of a woman whose chopsticks had pierced through her lip because she had been eating at the time of the blast) but it really left an impression. I knew that when I visited Japan, I wanted to visit Hiroshima.

Before the trip, a friend of mine advised that I should reserve a whole day for the Peace Museum and Memorial Park. It wasn’t that it would take that long to go through everything, or that there’s massive queues, but you need to reserve a whole day because after visiting, seeing the exhibits, the memorials, and learning about what happened, it’s hard to do anything except reflect and feel sad.

I studied Modern History in high school, I’ve visited museums and watched documentaries about war. All this, and all the books, movies, articles, ANZAC Day services – nothing hit me as heavily as the experience of going through the Hiroshima Peace Museum, and seeing the various monuments in the Peace Park.

It would have been easy to have left Hiroshima out of our itinerary (it was the southernmost city we visited) but I’m glad we went. We travelled there via bullet train from Kyoto, leaving most of our luggage in our Air BnB (we were only staying one night before returning to Kyoto).

In our hotel room, alongside the Bible and a Buddhist text, there was also a children’s picture book about the bombing of Hiroshima. It’s easy to see how the city’s identity has been shaped by this historic event, but it’s not about wallowing in sadness – it’s about promoting peace. And, through the sadness, there is a positive – almost buoyant – feeling in my memory of Hiroshima. It’s kind of like that feeling when the hero in an anime is almost defeated, but they find some reserve of strength within themselves.

I can’t say that I think about this experience very often in day-to-day life, but I do think of it now and then (such as now, almost a year since I was there). I feel like the Peace Museum wasn’t made entirely to commemorate those who were affected by the bombing, but is primarily meant to serve as a reminder of past events, and thus help ensure history does not repeat itself. (Hopefully.)

I wonder if Mr M. felt the same about Hiroshima – maybe that’s why he wanted to teach us, young children, about this horrific event.


6 thoughts on “a thousand paper cranes

  1. I haven’t visited Hiroshima but I went to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum) in Jerusalem. And it is true. It’s impossible to resume your normal life after you step out. It takes some adjustment to transition (you reminded me that I heard the paper crane story when I was a child – I wonder from whom!).

  2. Your description of the experience visiting the Hiroshima Peace Museum sounds a lot like visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. There’s a sad numbness that lingers for a long time afterward, and will unexpectedly wash over you from time to time.

    Mr M sounds like he was an amazing teacher. He taught beyond the basic elements needed to learn the language and inspired something far more important – he infused an interest in the people and culture.

    • I think it must be that these things are so unimaginable that when we see real evidence of what happened, it really leaves a lasting impression. “Sad numbness” is a very good way of describing it!

      Yes, Mr M was an excellent teacher – certainly good enough that I still remember him and his lessons!

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