April 12, 2012

In Japan, March 3rd is called Girl’s Day, or Festival of Dolls; May 5th is called Boy’s Day, and is celebrated by flying colorful carp kites from rooftops.  The modern practice is to combine the two celebrations as Children’s Day, on the 5th day of the 5th month.  The double five is an auspicious number.

On May 5th, 1976, I rode the train from Iwakuni to Hiroshima, a distance of 40 kilometers or so, to have a look around.  My friends and I were young Marines stationed at MCAS Iwakuni.  We were all avionics techs, on weekend liberty.  On the ride into the city, we saw lots of carp kites flying from balconys and roofs.  Someone said that it was for Boy’s Day.

Hiroshima was a bustling place.  There were people rushing along the morning sidewalks, dressed in business uniform, except for one tiny old woman I saw, in full kimono, clicking along on wooden shoes.  She was old Japan; most of Hiroshima was new Japan. This was only 21 years after the A-bomb called Little Boy had flattened the city, so everything there was shiny and new, having been completely rebuilt after the war.

The first thing on our agenda was to see the door-opening ceremony at Sogo Department store.  At precisely 10am, a girl in a green uniform came outside, made a little speech, bowed a couple of times, then went back inside.  Then the doors were swung wide open and the waiting shoppers surged inside, led by a small detachment of U.S. Marines.  There was a double row of green uniformed store personnel bowing, in unison, to all the customers.  We made for the escalators, and rode up floor after floor, heading for our objective, at the top of the building.  At every floor we turned the corner and rode the next escalator, ever upward; at every floor, salesmen and salesgirls bowed to us as we smiled and swept past.  There was a jewelry floor, and a stereo floor, and a toy floor, and more.  Like good Marines, we advanced without hesitation, getting ever closer to our target…

…Which was the penthouse cafe, a few steps above the rooftop childrens’ playground, where we had the first espressos they sold that day.  Having taken the high ground, we enjoyed the view, which included the Hiroshima Whale’s baseball stadium, and Peace Park.   Victorious, we descended in a leisurely manner, stopping to admire the outrageously expensive merchandise on our way down to the street.

We strolled through the Ginza eating things, then we visited the Park, which was filled with school children and their teachers, on a mass day out of class to celebrate Children’s Day.  There was a clock that tolls at 8:15 am every day; there was an enormous Buddhist bell, the Peace Bell; there was a Childrens Memorial, draped in thousands of origami cranes; there was the skeletal remains of the Genbaku Dome; and there was the Museum, which documented and explained the horror of Hiroshima’s nightmare-in-daylight, with pictures, videos, and artifacts (like clocks and watches all stopped at 8:15, or the shadow of a man burned onto concrete, by the photoflash of a nuclear chain reaction overhead, in the morning sky.  It was all too much to take in.

But one moment of that day in 1976 stands out in my memory above the rest: a young Japanese woman shyly approached me, gestured at her Instamatic camera, smiling.  I understood that she wished to take a picture of me.  Yes, I smiled and nodded.  She handed the camera to a companion and stood next to me as the photo was snapped.  She had no English, I had no Japanese, so we bowed in parting.  

I have often wondered if that picture still exists, in some old album, or maybe now on a hard drive, in Japan.  I think I might have been wearing a red plaid shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.  My hair was cut in a military manner, and I was wearing wire-rimmed glasses.  We posed directly in front of the Museum, in the center of the last picture posted above.  (Just in case circumstances, and the power of the  internet, conspire to reunite me and the person who snapped my pic in Hiroshima’s Peace Park in May of 1976.)  Anything can happen; I know.

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