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Recollections of Japan

The other day, as I read report after report of  the devastating effects of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the horrendous loss of lives,  two guys  I had encountered some twenty years ago came suddenly to mind.

My mother  and I had made a trip to Japan then to spend time with  my eldest sister and her family residing in Tokyo. We did a lot of  sight-seeing together but  my adventurous spirit also got me wandering around on my own. 

One afternoon, I went on a 2-hour package  tour of  the city and its outskirts and  found myself the only Asian on the bus. The tour guide was a rich source  of information about Japan’s history and culture and, like most Japanese,  he spoke in respectful tones.

It was when we were in the vicinity of Tokyo’s towering landmarks and posh shopping centres that he suddenly changed. He began to boast about Japan’s wealth and status and how Japan had recovered from the setback caused by its defeat in World War 2 and gone on to become  an economic miracle.

“America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Americans did that to us  but see,  today we are so successful.”

I was stunned. The guide had given the impression that  Japan had been a victim of the war,  not an aggressor. What about the massacre of so many,  the butchery of its soldiers?   

My Mum and Dad had shared with us as we were growing up what  life was like during the Japanese Occupation. Many people had been tortured and beheaded, many  women and girls raped.  Ubi kayu was the staple food and food rations were inevitable. And so, when  someone in the neighbourhood was found to have more foodstuff than the others, they were certain he was spying on his own countrymen for the Japs.    

It was during that time  that my  grandmother on my mother’s side, bedridden by illness, had to be carried hastily into the undergrowth because Japanese planes were flying overhead and dropping bombs indiscriminately.  It was during that time too that she passed away because of  her illness and had to be placed unceremoniously on a cart and hurried off for burial. 

As I listened to the guide boast,  I felt deep anger rising within me. I wanted to  shout at him: “Do you know what happened in my country?  Do you know what your soldiers did? Do you know how many Malayans suffered and died?” But I didn’t.  

I said nothing. And neither did any of the Americans and Europeans on the bus, regarding the atrocities committed by Japan during World War 2. We were cowards, all.

When the tour ended, I got off the bus disgusted  –  disgusted with the guide, disgusted with the other tourists and most of all disgusted with myself. 

Some days later,  I began making plans for my intended trip to both Kyoto and Hiroshima.  “A must,” I had been told by friends back home.

The package tour I was on did not go beyond Kyoto. Fortunately,  my last day in Kyoto was to be a free and easy one.  I was thus able to plan my trip to Hiroshima – take the bullet train, spend a few hours in Hiroshima and return in time to join the group for our departure back to Tokyo that evening.

My Kyoto tour guide thought I was out of my mind. “If you’re not here to board the bus with the others, the bus will not wait for you,” she warned.  

And she was shocked at my suggestion that if I did miss the bus, I could perhaps hop onto another of their company’s buses heading back to Tokyo at a later time that day and that I would not mind sitting on the floor of the bus if all seats were taken!  This was totally unacceptable to her.

But Hiroshima beckoned, and I knew that nothing and no one could stop me from going.

My  last morning in Kyoto found me waking up well before dawn. I could not sleep because I was filled with both excitement and apprehension.

I wanted to see history’s shame – reminders  of that August 6, 1945,  8.15am   atomic bomb explosion.  At the same time, a part of me dreaded going because I had no idea how I would respond to what awaited me there. 

It was about a 2-hour journey to Hiroshima. I picked up a map at Hiroshima station and  found my way to the Peace Memorial Park. From a distance I could already see the A-Bomb Dome,  the remains of  the building that had been closest to the hypocentre of the nuclear bomb.   Most of its walls were still standing but  inside the building, deadly heat rays had annihilated the innocent and left a trail of  charred bodies.

At the Park were several other memorials highlighting  Hiroshima’s tragic past, including the Peace Bell which symbolized a hopeful unity of the whole world, the Cenotaph for the atomic bomb victims and the Children's Peace Monument which was dedicated to the children who had died that day. 

The place where I spent most of my time  was  the Peace Memorial Museum. It showcased the terrible things  man can do to man. The exhibits included clothing remnants with burn-holes in them, smashed wristwatches, charred wood of what was once a piano,  burnt human hair, twisted metal, distorted cups and bottles….   

It was reported that about 70,000 had lost their lives that day. In the weeks and months that followed, however, more and more had succumbed  and  the death toll had climbed to about 145,000.  

What tore at the heart  most  were  the pictures and the reports that relived a time when man’s madness had unleashed a power that brought about in  a split-second vast destruction unparalleled before in human history.

There were  photos  of survivors who had lost their hair and had skin hanging loose. There were reports of those suffering from infections, cancer and other diseases, all resulting from exposure to radiation. Some related the agonizing hours and days of searching for loved ones, only to realize  the awful truth that they would never see their parents, spouses or children again

The most pitiable stories  were of those with disfigured faces and misshapen bodies. Theirs was a living hell because some  in society chose to shun and discriminate against them. In time, the physical afflictions healed but the emotional scars never went away.

I stepped out, disturbed, shaken, sickened and miserable.  I needed air.  I needed open space and sunlight. Actually, I needed to not absorb any more.

Glancing at my map,  I saw what I needed – Shukkeien, a Japanese garden with path bridges over ponds,  flowers, lots of greenery, placid water … an ideal place to recuperate from a numbness born of despair.

The place was not far from Hiroshima station,  just a mere 15 minutes’ walk for me to get to it and catch my train.  

There was plenty of time. I sat down and rested. The minutes went by. I  stayed, collecting my thoughts and steadying my emotions.  I stayed and I stayed.

Finally, when I did glance at my watch, I went into an immediate state of panic. I had less than 15 minutes to get to the station.  

I dashed out of the park to catch  a taxi. None was in sight. I tried to take a short-cut, lost  my way, glanced at my map and realized I was past understanding it.

‘Shinkansen! Shinkansen!” I  cried out, stopping in my run intermittently to ask  passersby for directions. Some looked bemused as they politely pointed me in the direction of the station. Taxis soon passed by but all had occupants.

When I caught sight of  the station clock,  it showed I had just 5 minutes left. Too late, I thought, even as I ran on.   

Cars were at a standstill along the road,  waiting for  the traffic lights to turn green. At that very moment I saw, among them,  a taxi. No  passenger was inside, only some items dumped carelessly on the back seat.

I didn’t bother to ask. I just yanked open the door, plopped onto the front passenger seat, pointed frantically at the station ahead  and said,  “Shinkansen!”

The youthful driver looked at me, nodded and the car sprinted forward the minute the lights turned green. In no time at all his taxi came to a stop at the station entrance.

‘How much? How much?” I said hurriedly.

“No, no” he said. “I not taxi.”

I was dumbstruck. Glancing at the lighted sign on the roof of the car and then at the back seat, it dawned on me it was not a taxi light after all and at the back were theatre paraphernalia -   costumes, drums. 

“I pay you, I pay you,” I cried out,   aghast at my own impropriety.

“No, no.” he said. “No need,” and refused to take the bundle of notes I held out.

 “Thank you,”   I said gratefully and dashed into the building, up the escalator and onto the platform, my heart thumping furiously.

The train was there. I found my carriage,  slumped into my seat,  the doors slid shut immediately and the train sped out of the station.

I could not believe what had happened, and what, thankfully, did not happen – me stranded on the platform and seeing the tail end of the train disappearing!

I caught my breath and leaned back against the seat. I had to gather my thoughts and steady my emotions for I had been living on frayed nerves back there. 
Inexplicably, my mind dwelt on the two men whose lives had touched mine momentarily but in different  ways . One had offended me. The other had shown me overwhelming kindness.

And then, very slowly, a warm and tender feeling crept over me. I sensed a quiet exhilaration within, a lifting up of some burden that had stayed with me for too long.

I looked out at the countryside flying past my window, its fields, trees, blossoms and neat houses disappearing in the twinkling of an eye.

I thought of  Hiroshima’s past that I was leaving behind.

I thought of the young driver caught up unwittingly in my drama. 

And then words formed silently in my head and found their way to my restful heart.

“I forgive you, Japan.”   

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