On March 11 an earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, releasing radioactive contamination in a country all too aware of the horrors of nuclear fallout. The heartbreaking images of loss brought back vivid memories of a visit to Japan last August.
Originally I had not thought of my trip as a pilgrimage, but that was what it became. This proud son of a World War II veteran of the Pacific theater embarked on a journey of sorrow and hope to a country I knew little about.
The church of Japan was marking the Ten Days of Peace, which begin each year on the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. In an instant those bombings took the lives of over 200,000 men, women and children, the great majority innocent civilians; over the years tens of thousands more died from the effects of radiation.
Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, the archbishop of Nagasaki, had invited me to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my capacity as director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop Takami is a kind man who radiates the peace he seeks to build. The archbishop was in his mother’s womb in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing. He lost family members the morning of August 9, 1945. But he also found something—a passionate commitment to peace and a world without nuclear weapons.
This is the paradox of Nagasaki and Hiroshima: people have turned the agonizing pain of the events of 1945 into a vibrant mission for peace. Just consider the names of places in both cities: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum, the Children’s Peace Memorial, the Peace Bells, Hiroshima Memorial Cathedral for World Peace, Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. The examples go on and on.
Testimony to Horror
At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Miyoko Matsubara, a hibakusha or atomic bomb survivor, offered a moving testimony. This frail woman, speaking in labored tones due to a stroke, gave witness to her experience as a 12-year-old girl in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Only 50 of the 250 girls at her junior high school survived the attack. One of her companions perished as they struggled toward safety; she still feels guilty for not being able to help her friend. Scarred and a victim of discrimination, Miyoko painted a haunting picture of devastation and desperation. Despite her experience, she spoke of the kindness of Americans she later met. By her own account, she came to recognize that the real enemies were war and nuclear weapons.
Miyoko’s story reminded me of that of another girl, Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was two years old at the time of the bombing of Hiroshima. Ten years later, like so many others who died of radiation illnesses, she contracted leukemia. Following a Japanese tradition, she set out to fold 1,000 brightly colored paper cranes in the hope of being granted a cure. Sadly, she died at age twelve, but inspired by her story each year countless paper cranes are folded in the memory of the victims of the bombings. They are displayed all over Hiroshima and Nagasaki as signs of hope for world peace and a world without nuclear weapons.
At the Children’s Peace Memorial we watched a group of smiling Japanese kindergarten children arrive with their brilliantly colored cranes. Tears came to my eyes, remembering images of the incinerated kindergarteners of 1945. In the faces of these very lively children there was hope for a different future. That hope was also evident in high school students from Hiroshima and Okinawa who were collecting signatures on a petition for peace and nuclear disarmament in the shadow of the Hiroshima ruins. Last year they collected 45,000 signatures from visitors from countries all over the world. Their message was simple: “No more Hiroshima. No more Nagasaki.” Another sign of hope was a meeting of students from South Korea and Japan at the Catholic Center in Nagasaki, where they were building bridges of understanding between former enemies.
The situation in Japan should not be idealized. As we marched from the Hiroshima Peace Park to the Cathedral for Mass on the eve of the anniversary, some groups shouted counter messages, which my translators were embarassed to translate, but these hecklers were a small minority. More troubling was learning that the majority of people in Japan, like the majority of Americans, are uninformed or apathetic on issues of nuclear disarmament and peace. While thousands take part in memorial events and peace activities, many more thousands go about their daily lives without much thought to the events of 1945. I wonder if the Fukushima crisis will shift more attention to the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
This apathy makes the mission of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that much more important for the people of Japan, the United States and the world. As I said to youth gathered for a concert sponsored by the Archdiocese of Nagasaki’s Justice and Peace Commission, “The young people of Japan have a special mission to keep the memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima alive. … [Americans] need to be reminded of the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons. The world needs to be reminded.”
From Suffering to Peace
In addition to destroying Urakami Cathedral, the bombing of Nagasaki devastated a Christian community that had kept the faith in the face of great persecution. In 1550 Saint Francis Xavier sowed the needs of Christianity in Japan. The church flourished in Nagasaki until the faith was outlawed for two and a half centuries. Many were martyred. When Japan reopened itself to the world in 1864, hidden Christians were discovered, descendants of an underground church.
Perhaps it was this experience that helped the church in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to turn their terrible suffering into a mission of peace. Those who died in the bombings were victims of war, but their memories are being kept alive in a way that makes them martyrs to the greater cause of a world free of the nuclear threat.
The church in Japan works with other religious traditions and many people of goodwill. Though Christians make up just .5 percent of the population, they are strong in faith. The liturgies I attended in both cities were spiritually moving and the singing was vibrant. The commitment to peace was evident—in prayers, on posters and banners, in the veneration given to a scorched head of a Statue of Mary, the only piece of the once magnificent high altar of Urakami Cathedral to have survived the atomic blast.
In several presentations, I was asked to share the work of the church in our own country and the teaching of our bishops on nuclear disarmament. In my reflections, I quoted  Cardinal Francis George, former President of the U.S.C.C.B.:
The horribly destructive capacity of nuclear arms makes them disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons that endanger human life and dignity like no other armaments. … Although we cannot anticipate every step on the path humanity must walk, we can point with moral clarity to a destination that moves beyond deterrence to a world free of the nuclear threat.
The response of these Japanese audiences was always the same: gratitude.
There is much work yet to be done if we are to honor the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Last year the U.S. Senate ratified the New START Treaty to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals as a step toward mutually verifiable nuclear disarmament. Now the Senate must take the next step and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty . Longer term, our nation should work for a world free of the nuclear threat, but we also need to embrace the sorrow that is necessary to ensure that we remain faithful to that task. As the U.S. bishops wrote in their pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace , we must shape “the climate of opinion which will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing in 1945. Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of finding a way to repudiate future use of nuclear weapons....”
Last year, Archbishop Leo Jun Ikenaga, president of the Japan Bishops' Conference, reminded the Catholics of his nation: “In the Peace Message After 60 Years from the End of World War II, the bishops of Japan stated, ‘We Japanese are being called to honestly accept our history, a history which includes the violent invasion and colonization of other countries, reflect on it, and share the historic recognition among ourselves. We believe that to do this will be to promise not to repeat the tragedy and also to commit oneself to the future.’ To courageously admit one's failures and implore forgiveness before God is not to belittle oneself, but rather to approach the real human figure as Christ desires.”
If the bishops of Japan can call their people to repentance, perhaps U.S. Catholics can respond to the call of the bishops to express sorrow for the deaths of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In doing so, we need not “belittle” or minimize the sacrifices of those, like my father, who served our nation and a just cause with honor.
My pilgrimage to Japan was one of both sorrow and hope. I grieved for the many lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the people killed on both sides during the war. But I also found hope in the people of Japan who are working to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons.