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It was impossible to ignore the three lanky, blue-blazer-clad Japanese teenagers on 10-speed bikes in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park. They laughed, hooted and narrowly avoided crashing into a group of unamused, elderly Chinese tourists posing for a picture. Two old men sitting on a bench smiled slightly. Several feet away, a toddler broke from his mother, flapped his arms and shrieked joyously as he ran at a group of pigeons. The birds waddled away from their tormentor before darting into the late afternoon's turquoise sky. Oblivious to the commotion, a petite, middle-aged, Japanese woman dressed in a blue kimono stood at the Cenotaph, a gray, arch-shaped World War II memorial. Her head was bowed and her lips moved, but her words fell inaudibly.
Through jet-lagged eyes, I watched the tranquil scene with amazement. If it had not been for the woman, there would have been no hint I was standing at ground zero of the most gruesome, instantaneous slaughter of men, women and children the world has ever seen. Fifty-six years earlier, dozens of elementary-school children had been playing where I stood when the American atom bomb detonated above their tiny heads. They were among the first victims incinerated by a shrapnel-filled fireball estimated at several million degrees centigrade. The final death count would exceed 140,000 —mostly women and children—from a bomb affectionately named "Little Boy."
Some scientists predicted that radiation would make Hiroshima unlivable until 2025, but the city recovered long ago. There are enormously wide, tree-lined avenues, rebuilt temples and parks, massive modern office buildings, and a lively, neon-loaded restaurant and shopping district that would make any Newport Beach housewife drool. The city is located on the banks of seven rivers and flanked by mountains. Most people you see are, by American standards, remarkably well-dressed, happy and youthful. Wild-haired skateboarders roam the sidewalks. Though I was there during the week, the city's energy rivaled that of Santa Monica's bustling Third Street Promenade on a Saturday night. I asked a 28-year-old Japanese man, who had been kind enough to engage me in conversation in a coffee shop, why so many of Hiroshima's residents seemed content. He replied, "Why not?"
Visitors to Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum—the official museum of the bombing—are eased into pictures and reports of the atrocity. The ground floor contains maps and pictures that—though sobering—are mild compared to displays at the end of the tour: a slab of stone from a bank building contains the shadow of a vaporized woman; a child's decimated tricycle; a full but fried school lunch box; and graphic pictures of burnt, dying elderly men, mothers and children, some of whom hold their eyeballs in their hands.
It gets even worse. In one of the last display areas, there is an enlarged picture of a little girl, her skinless body covered with blood and pus. Her black eyes reveal unimaginable pain. I stood in front of that picture and fought back tears and anger. Men in the White House, Congress and Pentagon cheered and laughed when they received news of the bomb's "success." Just as I was about to move to the next display, a lone Japanese man in his early 30s began talking to me in his native language. I have no idea what he said, but I could see that he, too, had tears in his eyes as his gaze alternated between me and the grotesque picture. I could only imagine he was asking me how an American could have done this. "I am so sorry," I said softly.
Takashi, a Japanese friend who lost a grandparent in the atomic attack, was waiting on a bench for me outside. He took a long drag on a cigarette and studied me. I couldn't speak. "I am glad you could see this," he said. "I only wish more Americans would."