Reflection from Hiroshima

Bishop Breidenthal traveled in September to Teipei, Taiwan, for the annual fall House of Bishops meeting. He sent near-daily reflections to the diocese via e-Connections  of his time in Taiwan, one of sixteen nations and regions outside the United States represented in the Episcopal Church. (You can see these reflections in the e-Connections  archives)

At the conclusion of the week-long meeting, Bishop Tom and Margaret spent four days in Japan with other bishops and spouses as guests of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Anglican Church of Japan), visiting places where that church played an important role in post-World War II reconstruction. One of those places was Hiroshima.

Dear friends,

I am writing to you as we hurtle toward Tokyo on a high-speed train. Low, dark-green mountains (with lots of tunnels) swiftly alternate with light green rice fields and neatly-packed towns. It is our second day in Japan. Tropical storm Fung-Wong passed over Taiwan quickly, dumping torrential rains but leaving the airport up and running by Tuesday. After a final dinner honoring our wonderful Taiwanese hosts, the bishops said their good-byes to one another until next spring, and on Wednesday morning we went our separate ways – some to Hong Kong, The Philippines, Korea or Japan for follow-up trips, and others heading straight home. Margaret and I joined about twenty bishops and spouses bound for Osaka and thence by train to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima. It’s hard to find words for what I saw and felt there.

One of the five rivers in Hiroshima

One of the five rivers in Hiroshima

Yesterday evening was easy. We were hosted in the evening by bishops of the southern part of Nippon Sei Ko Kai (The Anglican Church of Japan) and the clergy and lay leaders of Church of the Resurrection in Hiroshima. Next morning, Margaret and I walked out into the city, soon after dawn. Hiroshima is very modern, with broad, elegant avenues, surrounded by forested hills on three sides, with five tidal rivers flowing in parallel streams to the ocean a few miles to the south. The city’s modernity is not surprising, since it was flattened in an instant by an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945.

We had no idea that we were so close to ground zero until we began to notice small shrines everywhere, and then, in the middle of a cluster of classy hotels and fancy shops, a grove of trees identified as “atomic survivors.” I was so taken aback by this that I remember their names, printed in Japanese and English on each tree: hackberry, persimmon, holly. I think what came home to me was how unusual it was that these trees had survived – God only knows how. A few blocks west and we were at one of the rivers. An inscription at the entrance to a bridge – again in English as well as Japanese – described how people who had been just far enough from the “hypo-center” to escape incineration threw themselves into the river seeking relief from their burns.

We walked back to our hotel in time to board a bus that would take our group the short distance to the Peace Memorial Park, which occupies the area directly below where the bomb detonated in the air and directly above what had been the city’s downtown. Members of Church of the Resurrection (originally named Church of the Advent, but renamed during the reconstruction), and two very knowledgeable and vigorous octogenarian guides, took us through the Peace Museum, which chronicles the atomic event in often graphic detail.

Japanese schoolchildren at the Children's Memorial

Japanese schoolchildren at the Children’s Memorial

Aside from acknowledging that I found the topic and its presentation overwhelming, I want to mention two things that struck me. First, there was no hint of anti-American sentiment at any point in the exhibits – just the steady message that nothing like this should ever happen again. Second, the museum was full of Japanese school children from all over the country, all wearing their school uniforms. Our guides told us that it is considered a crucial part of every Japanese child’s education to understand what happened at Hiroshima and to be formed into a peace-maker. I noticed one little boy who was burying his face in the back of his friend. He could no longer look at the exhibits. I have to say I felt the same way.

After the museum we walked to the Children’s Memorial where we prayed, rang the prayer bell, and offered origami cranes in memory of the children who perished. We then visited the Memorial Mound, which rises above a crypt containing the ashes of over 70,000 dead, hastily cremated in what had been a Buddhist temple courtyard nearby. In all, 100,000 people died instantly or within several days, and several hundred thousand more from radiation sickness over time.

Some of the folded cranes

Some of the folded cranes offered over the years

What are we to do with this as Christians? It is hard, even in hindsight, to unravel the complex motives and pressures that led to America’s decision to drop the bomb, still less to understand what led Japan to pursue its aggressive expansion in the first place. It’s too easy to boil it down to militarism, a sense of entitlement, fanatic nationalism or the need for more land. What Hiroshima brings home to me is that we are capable of doing horrific things for seemingly good causes. We can also break the cycle of hatred and retribution if we choose to take the painful but holy path of reconciliation. At its heart, that is what Hiroshima stands for today.

It’s what the Nippon Sei Ko Kai stands for as well, at least now. But by its own admission, this was not always the case. Last week in Taiwan we were addressed by Archbishop Nathaniel Uematsu, the Primate of NSKK. He talked about how, during the five decades when Taiwan was a colony of Japan (from the late nineteenth century until 1945), NSKK built churches and held services, but never invited the Taiwanese in or engaged in any kind of missionary activity. The church was just there for the Japanese occupiers. The same was true in Korea, which Japan annexed in 1910.

Archbishop Uematsu pointed out that NSKK is now suffering the consequences of its early partnership with power. The Anglican Church of Korea, along with other Christian denominations, is large and growing, precisely because it has always been perceived as an advocate for the poor and the oppressed. Similarly, the Taiwanese Episcopal church, though small, includes 5% of the population, and is growing in numbers. By contrast, NSKK has never claimed more than 1% of the population of Japan, and it is struggling to grow. Why? Because, said the Archbishop, it is still viewed as elitist.

The 'Atomic Dome'

The ‘Atomic Dome’

Nevertheless, he went on to say, NSKK has acknowledged its elitist past, has repented of it, and has entered into the work of reconciliation and spiritual renewal. In 1996, Nippon Sei Ko Kai took responsibility for its role during World War II and for its role in the preceding occupation of China and Korea. It also apologized for its failure to witness to the Gospel among the Taiwanese. At the same time, it declared its primary mission to be to the poor and the forgotten. It has become a consistent advocate for ethnic minorities in Japan, under-served children in rural areas, people with disabilities, and victims of natural disaster (most notably, people rendered homeless by the Fukashima nuclear power plant disaster). And it has entered into close partnerships with its Anglican counterparts in Korea and Taiwan. It may not be growing, but it is spiritually alive.

I wonder what we in the Diocese of Southern Ohio can learn from all this. Our situations and contexts differ, but less than we might assume. We are often driven by agendas that have nothing to do with Jesus, and we eventually reap the results of that disjunction. But the Good News is still there for us at every moment. We can repent, and our very repentance can release new energy and new possibilities for fellowship in Christ.