August 16, 2017

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The Quest for Peace and the Question ‘Why’

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By Gabriel Phillips

I first travelled to Hiroshima when I was 10 years old. For first time visitors to Japan, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial acts as a site of modern pilgrimage. Both the city, museum and its park are almost unique as they stand as a monument of history where all nations and peoples’ histories converged at one point.

Even as a child you could feel the magnitude and gravity of the museum weighing down on you. The melted faces of the statues screamed out at you, while the stopped watches, scorched clothes and bricks with their human outlines provided a dark, sorrowful sight that made you realise the impact of the bomb. For many, history is just numbers and names, but to see the story up close provides you with an entirely different perspective.

The second time I visited was during Golden Week, and I spent a much longer time reading the visitors book that countless people have signed. Nearly all wrote the same message, about their sorrow for lives lost, their hope for peace and most of all the evil of war. This is a message that was recently echoed by President Obama when he visited Hiroshima. He did so as the first sitting US President and it was a historic moment. The call for peace and rejection of extremism is always a popular one and is certainly praiseworthy that we should follow.

However, one passage in the visitor’s book stood out from everything else. “A very nice museum, but some very trite propaganda”. The brutality of the message shocked me into reality. Certainly, the museum is a very important part of the world’s history. It documents the aftermath of one of humanity’s most important events but it fails to ask the solemn question ‘why’.

Learning history at British schools is often portrayed as a tedious affair, mainly because you spend a significant amount of time learning the names of dead Kings and Queens, people that rarely matter to your everyday life. However, the names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are seared into your mind as turning points in the history of the world. My teacher always had a policy that he would never say whether something was right or not, good or evil. Instead, he would always present us with the facts and the context before leaving it up to our own judgement.

Humanity doesn’t progress if we just accept what we’re told and the moment we stop questioning events and accepting a singular truth, history dies a little. Even if the museum portrays a view that the nuclear bomb was the single most evil event in world history, that does not mean we should automatically accept it as such.

I spoke to my grandmother recently about my trip and having lived through the Second World War, I asked her opinions on the dropping of the bomb. “We thought at the time it was the right thing to do” she said. When I asked whether she thought the same now, she didn’t hesitate with her response.

When I left the museum after my second visit, my accompanying friends spoke of the guilt they held and how ashamed they felt for the dropping of the bomb. Despite reminding them that our nation (Britain) had no input in this decision, they still refused to accept anything else. When I pressed them for further details, they all admitted that none of them had studied the history and became angry when I questioned their beliefs.

Touring the rest of the Peace Park, I felt an odd sadness. The memorial itself had been turned into a mere selfie opportunity with tourists of all ages and nationalities posing by it in order to test the latest Snapchat filter. It felt that as the history faded into distant memory, so too did our understanding of it. I arrived at an unfortunate time as it was when the museum was undergoing refurbishment and was soon to open a new exhibition

Perhaps I shall revisit Hiroshima and the Peace Park in 10 years. Maybe then, I can see the new building through a fresh perspective and my views will change yet again. Until then whenever we talk about Hiroshima and the history that surrounds it, we should always repeat the same question. Why?

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