By DARRELL MIHO
HIROSHIMA, Japan.—The shrill call of cicadas filled the morning air while hearts grew heavy as thoughts turned toward that fateful day 65 years ago when the first atomic bomb to be used in warfare was dropped on Hiroshima, instantly killing an estimated 100,000 innocent people.
An estimated crowd of 55,000 endured the heat and humidity at the 2010 Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony held at Hiroshima Peace Park. It is a day spent remembering a day many would rather forget. But those who show up cannot forget that day, nor the terrible days that followed. As the name suggests, this gathering is not only about remembering those who died and suffered, but also reminding us to work toward peace.
At 8:15 a.m., the audience stood while a bell for peace was rung eight times. Setsuko Thurlow, who now resides in Toronto, recalled that moment 65 years ago. “I saw the bluish-white flash and I still remember the sensation of floating in the air. That’s the end of my consciousness. When I regained consciousness in the total darkness and silence, I couldn’t move my body so I knew I was faced with death.”
She said she escaped being burnt alive with the assistance of a faceless voice which told her “keep pushing, keep kicking. I’m trying to lift the timbers which is keeping you [from moving]. I’m trying to free you.” Some of her classmates were not so lucky.
Officials from 74 countries is the most ever to attend the annual ceremony. The attendance of U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, who presented a floral wreath, marks the first time an American diplomat attended the Peace Ceremony and is viewed by many Japanese as a good sign that perhaps President Barack Obama would visit Hiroshima in November when he attends the APEC Summit in Yokohama. Representatives from nuclear weapon states France and Great Britain as well as the United Nations also made their first appearance.
U. N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s childhood memories of trudging through mud toward the mountains while his village burned behind him during the Korean War is what motivated him to become a peace seeking leader. “All those lives lost, families destroyed – so much sadness. Ever since, I have devoted my life to peace. It has brought me here today,” Ban said.
As a hibakusha, Thurlow believes Ban’s presence helps recognize the seriousness and the urgency to the war problem. For her, the ceremony gave her an opportunity to contemplate and reflect what it was all about. “It was painful to remember, difficult [to]remember, but [we]say to those [who]perished that we haven’t forgotten them. We’re here.” And to let them know that “we have been working all these years to prevent the recurrence of that terrible thing which happened.”
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan noted in his speech that “the horror and misery caused by nuclear weapons must never be repeated. Japan, as the only country to have been struck by nuclear bombs, has a moral responsibility to take leadership to a nuclear free world.”
This leadership role was shared by Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, a long time proponent for peace, who urged the government of Japan to “take the lead in the pursuit of the elimination of nuclear weapons.”
Every August, people focus their attention on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for world peace, but the Japanese people focus their attention year round. Ban acknowledged their peace efforts, both young and old. “A more peaceful world can be ours. You are helping to make it happen. You, the survivors, who inspired us with your courage and fortitude. You, the next generations, the young generation, striving for a better day.”
Children in Japan are very keen towards peace in their world. Mikina Takamatsu, a sixth grader at Fukuromachi Elementary School in Hiroshima, stood on a wooden riser alongside sixth grader Kazuhiro Yokobayashi from Furutudai Elementary School to convey the youth of Japan’s commitment to peace.
“There are many serious problems in the world today. Many children have lost their smiles in the conflict and poverty that surrounds them. Sad things such as bullying and violence are taking place in our everyday lives. If we do not work to resolve these problems, there will be no future for us.”
After the ceremony, thousands of people fanned themselves as they patiently waited in line in the sweltering heat in order to pay their respects. Like Emperor penguins, they shuffled their feet and slowly inched toward the Cenotaph where the names of those who have died have been laid to rest.
Every year, the crypt is opened and the names of those who have passed away the previous year are added and then sealed for another year. It is a ritual that has been repeated 57 times since the Cenotaph was completed in April of 1954. This year, 5,501 names were added during the ceremony.
The Hiroshima Peace Ceremony is an annual reminder to everyone that it is our responsibility to create a world of peace. While there were several speeches given by much older dignitaries, the words of Takamatsu, the youngest speaker, summed up the feelings of many who were present.
“We cannot change what happened in the past, but we can learn from it and if each of us acts with the strong desire for change, we can build a peaceful world.”