Friday, August 14, 2015

After the war ends

I just read Kazuo Ishiguro's "An Artist of the Floating World." I picked it up in a hurry. I was thinking about Japan and Hiroshima. I knew I liked his writing. I did not give much thought to what the story might be.

The book is about a retired artist and teacher of art, Ono. The storyline is just an excuse for us to learn what he is thinking and remembering, but it begins with Ono trying to arrange a marriage for his daughter, Noriko, and then uses his reflections on a few family conversations to get us thinking about something that rarely catches the eye.

Rarely, even for people like me who do spend time reading about conflict and its aftermath.

The story is set in the period right after World War II, when Japan was being refashioned under the auspices of an American occupation. Ono has lost a son in war, and has also, like much of Japan, been a part of the militarisation of Japanese culture in the preceding decade or so. He has willingly been a part--however small or large--of the state's mobilisation of society in support of its military campaigns across Asia. The war is over, a climate of shame and distancing now surround the war effort and people like Ono have to live uneasily with their work--neither acknowledged nor forgotten. Ono moves from denial to expressing remorse to finding a way to justifying his actions in the course of the novel.

There are no direct conversations about this issue between Ono and his family or acquaintances. One reads the situation--of a society coming to terms with its own temporary transformation--through Ono's thoughts. Even the family's comments are very subtle--the elder son-in-law expresses disgust over those involved in the war effort going unpunished, the elder daughter hints that their family may be coming up short in the pre-marital investigations and Ono simply adds these things up his own way.

The larger questions the book raises are valid even where the war or conflict effort is more marginal than it was in 1930s Japan. Are we all complicit in actions a state takes in our name, when we do not expressly protest? When all of society seems to be moving in a certain direction, is it right or fair to single out individuals for their small part in a large war-machine? What happens after a war? Who gets to be called a war criminal and who is to be labeled a victim of circumstance? There are no answers to this. The book ends on a surprising note; having seemed to alert Ono at every turn on the consequences of his wartime actions, his family dismisses the importance of anything he did, cautioning him not to have delusions of grandeur.

This is a book I will remember whenever I sit down to write about post-conflict justice and reconciliation and whenever I participate in discussions on impunity. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

To remember Hiroshima: Memories of a peace pilgrimage

October 1985. I am visiting my friend Masumi at her Tokyo home. The two of us, 21 year olds, have spent a crazy day at Tokyo Disneyland, enjoying ourselves like 8 year olds with permission to wander alone. We get home at midnight to a note from her parents. They have bought tickets for us to go to Hiroshima. We will leave just a few hours by the Shinkansen (Bullet-train). I am overjoyed and touched. For a person who decided at 7 she was going to work for world peace, this is a pilgrimage she has hardly dreamt that she would make.

A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park begins at the Atomic Bomb Dome. This was the building upon which the bomb was dropped. The vertical walls survived. Nothing else within or in the area did.

There are photos of us before the dome. We are not smiling. We are not smiling in most of the Peace Park photos. How could we be?

The Peace Park is full of monuments to various groups of people who were killed--in this locality, from that profession, of that ethnicity--but those were the days of 24-exposure film and I have photographs of just a few.

This is the Prayer for Peace Statue. The plaque next to it bears a poem by Shinpei Kusano. Translated from the Japanese:

Over the crescent moon in the sky
A tangible statue of a mother and her child stands.
This is the symbol of lasting peace.
Dear little child, embraced in your mother' s love, play the gold trumpet.
Sound the clear tunes of peace over the earth and to heaven.
Puffing up your cheeks, play the gold trumpet, the tunes of No More Hiroshimas,
No matter what our future will be like.

This was the memorial to students mobilized for the war effort. In 1944, there was a grave labour shortage and the government required middle and high school students to work in munitions and ordnance factories. 6300 died on the day of the bombing. (Source)

We were students ourselves. I had just got my MA in International Relations and Masumi was studying at Waseda. Older than the students who died but close enough in age to feel terrible anguish. On the other hand, who wouldn't feel anguish?

This is the Children's Peace Monument. Sadako's story is well-known. She was two when Hiroshima was bombed. Nine years later, she was diagnosed with leukaemia, an effect of being exposed to radiation. 

It was believed that folding a thousand origami cranes would help cure any illness, so Sadako folded cranes tirelessly. Still, she died. Children (and adults) now bring cranes to the Children's Peace Monument in her memory. 

This is the cenotaph to those who died in the atomic bomb attack. Through the arch, you can see the A-Bomb dome.


As if one atomic bomb were not horrific enough, a second was dropped over Nagasaki three days later, on August 9, 1945. This Peace Bell is a gift from the people of Nagasaki to the people of Hiroshoma.

Every year, the Mayor of Hiroshima reads a peace declaration on August 6. The Declaration is then placed in the Peace Museum. This is the one from 1985, the fortieth anniversary year. Here is what it says:

"No more Hiroshimas.
It was forty years ago today during the hot summer that the heat waves, fiery blast, and radiation emitted by the first nuclear weapon ever used against a human target burned all living things in a blinding flash and turned the city of Hiroshima into a plain of scorched rubble.Standing in the ruins, we, the citizens of Hiroshima, foresaw that any war fought with nuclear weapons would mean the annihilation of humanity and the end of civilization - and we have consistently appealed to the world for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.
Despite these untiring efforts, more and more nuclear weapons have been produced; they have been made more and more sophisticated; and they have been deployed ready for strategic and tactical use. Humankind continues to face the threat of nuclear annihilation.Although the nuclear superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, finally resumed their long-suspended negotiations on nuclear disarmament this March, the talks have made deplorably little progress as the superpowers use the facade of negotiation to jockey for advantage while they expand the nuclear arms race into outer space.
Today's hesitation leads to tomorrow's destruction.In order that Hiroshima's inferno never be repeated anywhere, we strongly urge the United States and the Soviet Union, who hold the fate of humankind in their hands, to halt all nuclear testing immediately and to take decisive steps at the summit talks in Geneva toward the total abolition of nuclear weapons in the interests of all humankind.
As the only country to have experienced nuclear devastation, Japan and the government of Japan should steadfastly adhere to its three non-nuclear principles policy and should take the initiative in seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons. A census of A-bomb victims is being conducted this year, and it is our sincere hope that all due measures will be taken to mitigate the suffering of A-bomb survivors on the basis of the principle of national indemnity, taking into consideration the distinctive characteristics of ailments induced by atomic bombing. 
Along with these efforts, Hiroshima, an A-bombed city, has been devoting itself to building a city dedicated to peace - a living symbol of the ideal of lasting world peace. It is in this spirit that we are hosting the First World Conference of Mayors for Peace through Inter-city Solidarity this year, for it is our hope that all the cities of the world aspiring to lasting peace will be able to develop inter-city solidarity transcending national boundaries, ideologies and creeds and will impart added momentum to the international quest for peace. 
This year also marks the International Youth Year. We hope that the young people of the world - the leaders of the twenty-first century - will inherit the Spirit of Hiroshima, strengthen friendship and solidarity among themselves, and exert their utmost efforts in the cause of peace.The fates of all of us are bound together here on earth. There can be no survival for any without peaceful co-existence for all. Humankind has no future if that future does not include co-prosperity. In order to save this verdant planet from the grim death of nuclear winter, we must draw upon our common wisdom in overcoming distrust and confrontation. Sharing our planet's finite resources in the spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation, we must eliminate starvation and poverty.
No more Hiroshimas. 
We must strengthen the bonds of friendship and solidarity among all peoples so as to save the world from the evil of war. 
Today, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, we pray for the souls of the A-bomb victims and rededicate our lives to the eradication of nuclear weapons and the pursuit of lasting peace.  
August 6, 1985 
Takeshi Araki 
The City of Hiroshima"

This sculpture marks the 1981 visit of Pope John Paul II to the Peace Museum. The sculpture bears an excerpt from his address

"War is the work of man.
War is destruction of human life.
War is death.
To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future. 
To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. 
To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace."

"To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace."

Nothing left to be said, is there? 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Saying goodbye

How many of you have difficulty saying goodbye to objects? I do. I wear clothes until they really should not be worn at all. I hold on to gadgets long after others would declare them obsolete. I used never to give away books until I saw how much others yearned for them. And I have had cupboards built to house old letter and cards.

When I was really, truly young, out of every letter pad I bought, I kept one sheet for posterity. So obsessed was I over the idea of posterity, that I would date my book purchases with an 'AD' in order to help the material culture scholar of the future date my books to the right historical period--the period of purchase and enjoyment, not the period of publication, that is.

In recent times, I am learning that objects are no longer created for a lifetime's use--not shoes, not phone, not computers. And the idea of quick disposal (as in the earliest possible cremation of a body) is acquiring great appeal. For reasons of economy and in order to leave a diminishing footprint on my world, I am beginning to try and limit my wants--a lifetime of financial struggle and delayed gratification greatly help.

I am beginning to think of tearing up all those diaries and letters--the historian is losing this battle to the person who wants to say, let me be gone with the  moment. I think that perhaps I am learning detachment.

And then today, copying files out of my previous laptop, I feel miserable that I am forcing that friend into retirement. The Toshiba laptop has stood me in good stead for almost eight years. Eight years of photos and blogging. Eight years of Prajnya planning--all of Prajnya's funtional life actually. Eight years of research and consultancy projects as varied as can be. And many years of teaching myself how to write for newspapers and websites--as opposed to academic writing and blogs. I feel like I am betraying a really good friend. And this, despite the fact that I will still use that laptop for work meetings on Skype--at least for that.

I guess I am not even on the road to detachment yet! After all, last year, when I gave away three boxes of clothes that had been in storage for 12 years, I took photos of everything that wasn't coming home with me.

Parting, even with (especially with) objects, is indeed such sweet sorrow. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Yellow River

Today's musical companion for my evening walk was a lifelong favourite, the Yellow River Concerto. I first heard it in my dorm room in Syracuse, sitting with my room-mate from Macau (via Hong Kong, which still existed back then!). Agnes had a large collection of Chinese music, as I did Indian, and it was the music that played as we both fell asleep. There was something about the still dark Syracuse night and the sound of Cantonese opera that seemed made for each other.

But of all the music Agnes played, and that I taped from her, the Yellow River Concerto remains special. I brought back a cassette where I copied it and as I walked around the Fort or Colaba running errands or getting to class, it played loudly in my ears, reminding me (as it still does) that my world is larger than the place where I sit, that all this too belongs to me.

Reluctant to wear out that precious tape further, I was delighted to discover that Lang Lang had done performances of the piece and that I could buy a recording on CD as well--which is what I played today.

As I sat down to write this post, I finally Googled the Yellow River Concerto, I learned that this piece I love was commonly reviled. That must have something to do with its origins as the composition of a collective in the Cultural Revolution era. There are also suggestions that parts of it were plagiarised. I don't know enough about music to pronounce a judgment on the matter.

I can only tell you that this piece of music has always spoken to me.

In school, studying Chinese geography, we learnt that the Yangtze was the source of both life and sorrow to the Chinese who lived along its banks. Frequent floods and changes of course had a dramatic impact on people's lives and livelihoods. The image I took away from geography class of a large yellowish river, so large you could not see one bank from another, rolling, swelling and rising in rage to consume all in its wake found its background score in the Yellow River Concerto.

Sitting in our little room in the International Living Centre, blasting the Concerto on the boombox, or walking across Flora Fountain with it playing on the Walkman, each time it was (and is) as if a story unfolded before me in four parts.

The first part is loud and dramatic. The river comes at you, all sound and fury, and like a horror movie, you run as fast as you can, but the river is just faster and more determined. Like tsunami waves more than a swelling river, the disaster sweeps everything away.

In the second part, you watch a little toddler sleep. The day gone by has been full of tantrums and tears, and much tearing around in between. The household is in a shambles and its other members are wrecked. But the toddler sleeps gently and peacefully, a cherub. You imagine a calm Yangtze after the floods and fury are spent, utterly still as you pick up the pieces of your life.

In the third, the music reminds you that rivers are centres of life--civilizations grow around rivers. You see the bathers, the swimmers, the people washing clothes, the livestock quenching their thirst and the canals that take water out to the fields. You think of what Will Durant wrote: "Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river." 

The first few notes of the fourth part are dramatic, as if a storm weather warning has sounded. All parts of the concerto, all the moods and movements of the Yangtze come together. Some are sanguine, some are scurrying. This is life. 

I think I am fortunate to be able to enjoy music without making every session a game of Trivial Pursuit and Technical Excellence. I am able to close my eyes and imagine the Yellow River, something I may never see in this lifetime, just by listening to its eponymous concerto and cantata--unfettered by other concerns than this journey in my head. 

Watch a performance of the four parts of the Concerto here

This is a recording of the first movement of the Yellow River Cantata, from which the Concerto is said to borrow a great deal. 

This links to the playlist comprising the full Cantata.