Thursday, August 6, 2015

Listen to Those Who Burned When Considering Changing Japan's "Peace Constitution"

Nagasaki, 1945

One day we heard 'he has come home!' so we ran to the house.  But it was his remains. I cried....I thought to myself, 'I will never make war again in my life.'"

---Tosirhiro Fukahori, age 11, Nagasaki, 1945. Living Beneath the Atomic Cloud. The Testimony of the Children of Nagasaki. 1949.

Kazuko Kojima was born in a crowded bomb shelter where her mother was still hiding two days after the first atomic explosion in Hiroshima.  A midwife who happened to be in the shelter helped with the delivery, then died of radiation poisoning.  Like many female survivors of irradiated Hiroshima, looked down upon by many Japanese as tainted by the bomb, she grew up with no expectation of marriage. But before her mother died of cancer a marriage was arranged between Kojima and “a kind man,” much older than herself, and a healthy baby was born. When I interviewed Kojima in Hiroshima in the 1980s, balancing the infant on her lap, she told me that because of her child, she wanted to fight against nuclear weapons.
Model of Fat Man, dropped on Hiroshima from the Enola Gay
On the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when more than sixty thousand persons died in the once beautiful city, atom bomb survivors called hibakusha, who can look back on the experience, as Kojima can, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and asked him to change his mind about revising the Japanese constitution to allow Japan to engage in war.  The U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and three days later, Nagasaki, where 40,000 died immediately and 40,000 later from the bomb’s effects, are the only times, so far, nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. Today the post-war “Peace Constitution,” written by U.S. occupation forces but hugely popular with many Japanese through the decades, is up for grabs. That is a shame, because for decades Japan has shown that a pacifist constitution can work. Hibakusha, who suffered under the ultimate technological weapon of war, are at the heart of Japan’s anti-war movement, and their voices are worth listening to.

     When the bomb fell on her home town of Nagasaki, cleaning woman Tsuyo Kataoka told me in that seaport city that the rays that burned her clothes from her body and temporary blindness prevented her from seeing the destruction around her for weeks. 
        “That atom bomb gave enough agonies to all of us,” she told me.  It shouldn’t be allowed to happen to someone else.”
     Until a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1981, survivors like Kataoka from Nagasaki, home of Japan’s largest Christian community, believed, as many non-Christians did too, that firebombing and especially the atom bombs were a kind of divine retribution for Japan’s wartime actions, or even for personal “sins.” The pope said that was not only bad theology, but a good way to invite history to repeat itself.

     “War is the work of man,” said the pope.  “The waging of war is not inevitable or unchangeable.”  There was no justification, he said, “for not raising the question of the responsibility of each nation and each individual in the face of possible wars and of the nuclear threat.” After years of keeping her experience to herself, Kataoka became an anti-war activist.
Hiroshima, after the bomb was dropped
     A calligraphy teacher, Hiromu Morishita was standing near a river over a mile from the blast’s hypocenter, and survived despite terrible burns. “I came across a group of soldiers whose skin was completely peeled off, like reptiles, below their cap lines,” he recalled when we talked.  “Right after the blast my friend asked me what he looked like, and because his skin was hanging like rags I told him, ’like a melted candle.’ I was obviously in the same condition, but the possibility didn’t occur to me at the moment.”
     Survivors appear frustrated that their stand has made no impression on the Prime Minister, whose government is pushing through bills to weaken the peace constitution.
     "The longer discussion went on, the clearer it became that they were just trampling on the constitution and its renunciation of war and military strength," a member of the survivors group said, according to the Reuters news agency.
     I do not know whether the survivors I spoke to in the 1980s are still alive.  If they are, I believe it is not likely that they, who experienced the atomic bombs in their own flesh and blood, or their daughters and sons, will give up the fight easily. In Japan, I recall one hibakusha in particular, a doctor, who told me speaking out against war was “the only way we can make sense of the fact we survived.”
Hiroshima. Lanterns commemorating the dead floating on river in front of the Peace Dome.
(My travel to Japan was supported by a grant from the Hiroshima International Cultural Foundation.)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

In Lisbon -- Echoes of World War II

            There are corners of Lisbon where you can breathe the air of the time of Tango War, the years when turmoil around World War II cut through Latin countries on both sides of the Atlantic. The café where poet Fernando Pessoa wrote every day is still open just off one side of the Rossio Square, and on the other side, tables are full at the Pasteleria Suicá where spies with a variety of allegiances met over dark espressos and egg custard tarts. 
Jewelry stores still offer gold, the bottom-line investment of those days, and pocket shops dispense shots of cherry ginjinha liquor. 
Towering over the square stands a pedestal topped by the figure of Peter IV, King of Portugal, who became Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil. 
Linked to Brazil especially by history, culture and language, and to Argentina and the rest of the South American continent by the politics of Catholicism, in the 1930s and 1940s neutral Portugal served as safe haven and funnel for spies, refugees and war criminals, many of whom found their way to the Americas.
     Along with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (Prime Minister 1933-1968) supported Franco and the Fascists in the Civil War in neighboring Spain. He supplied precious resources, such as wolframite, to the Wehrmacht, and saw the Reich as a bulwark against democracy and communism. Yet Salazar was not racist – he wrote a book criticizing the 1935 Nuremburg Laws that codified Nazi race theory and anti-Semitism.  Salazar reverted to a treaty with the English from the time of the Crusades to insist that Portugal could not align itself with the Axis during the war. 

Railroad Station
Thus Lisbon, the elegant city on the Tagus River Estuary that flows into the Atlantic, a city of trolleys climbing its hills and exquisite tiles facing old buildings, became a haven for the grateful escaping repression, and worse. And for the fortunate with money from both sides, securing their wealth or risking it at card tables and roulette wheels – stories abound of Reich officers gambling side by side with Jewish businessmen and Middle Eastern oil potentates at the Casino above the sands of Estoril beach at Lisbon’s edge. And, a haven for the nefarious, plotting, plotting amid the blooming purple jacaranda trees.
Window today of Bertrand's, World's Oldest Bookstore (1732)

Tango War, the book, is coming.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Archbishop Romero's Beatification: Watching from Afar, Feeling Near

Surrounded by photos of some of the 75,000 persons who died in the war.

Images of the crowd of faithful in San Salvador come across my computer screen where I watch from half a world away, in Europe. White hats against the sun, home-made signs, umbrellas in bright colors for a little shade.  I am sad not to be present in El Salvador, where I spent many years, but join in the alegria, the joy.  I am part of the global crowd participating virtually in churches, schools and like here, hotel rooms, wanting to connect with the event that recognizes the man who stood up for justice, and was murdered for giving his voice to the voiceless.
House wall. Cinquera. The legend reads: "Sooner or later the voice of justice of our people will overcome."

It disgusts me to know members of the hierarchy who have blocked justice in the case of Mons. Romero's murder are present in their clerical robes. But no glory rubs off on them in honoring the martyr. (See my Los Angeles Times story from last year when the beatification was announced: Sainthood Isn't Enough for Archbishop Oscar Romero

Girl at commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the killing.
More important is to see the glowing, intent faces of ordinary-looking Salvadorans who may feel, justifiably, that they and their suffering are honored too, in the church event.  Of course, the people have canonized Mons. Romero long ago.  As often happens, the official Church takes time to catch up with the faithful.
San Salvador. Central Market. 2011.

As I watch and listen, I dig out some photos from the files on this same computer, and realize they tell me as much or more about Mons. Romero than any ceremony, about how he is carried in the hearts of people who may or may not be able to reach the front of the crowd today.

Shop. Perquin

The Archbishop's Human Rights Legal Aid Office risked investigating massacres like the one at El Mozote, where  800 died at the hands of the government army.  Wall painting. Canton La Joya

Five of this man's children were killed fighting on the side of revolutionaries during the war.
"If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people."---Mons. Romero

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Corinto Unmined

During he first reporting trip I made to Nicaragua, in 1983, the United States had mined this harbor, on the small, beautiful bay of Corinto. The revolutionary Sandinista government went on a war footing.  In the capital, Managua, I saw neighbors  digging trenches and practicing drills, armed with sticks, to fight back the Yankee invader who was expected to appear.  Heroes like Carlos Fonseca, founder of the Sandinista Front, and German Pomares, nicknamed Danto, the tapir, were invoked to bring spirit to a justifiably frightened population. In the end, the Yankees did not invade but Pres. Ronald Reagan ordered the CIA to arm the contras forces. They wreaked havoc on the country, with the loss of many lives.  
Today entering Corinto a soft breeze blows as the ship passes a white lighthouse and a statue of Ruben Dario, the renowned Nicaraguan poet who wrote one of his beloved poems on a visit here, Al Margarita del Valle.

In town, signs advertise help with U.S. visas.

Maria Elena Sanchez, municipal delegate for the Ministry of Education, praises Rosario Murillo, head of government communications and wife of Pres. Daniel Ortega, as a "model for women," who has pushed up the percentage of women in government positions to the highest they have ever been.

Teachers at the local school recounted their memories of those awful days in the 1980s, when the small boats they call piranhas came in at night with their mines.  They recall walking the 20 kilometers to find shelter and military trucks arriving to take out those who could not walk, as aircraft bombed the gasoline storage tanks at the harbor.  They recall going to the countryside to teach literacy.

Today Nicaragua enjoys a democratically elected government headed by the Sandinista party, and with Costa Rica, can boast the lowest crime rates in Central America. Health care is available for those who need it, and youngsters can read and write.

It's a tragedy so many lives were lost at one time, but a visit to Corinto today makes the visitor feel the country lives in hope for the future .

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Shrouds on Shore and At Sea

            The fish market in Manta, Ecuador, is busy on the morning of Good Friday.  Most customers browse and buy among the open tables where every type of edible sea animal is laid out, most I could not name, their colors a range from black to steel gray to a peach the hue of human skin. Farther down by the waves on Playita Mia, as it is called (“My little beach”) a father and son stand on the beach with a scale attached to a stick to measure certain specimens as they come in for buyers who walk across the sand. “How much did that one weigh?” I ask about a shiny dark blue monster being tossed into the back of a pick-up that has driven across the strand to collect it.  “Fifty pounds,” he said.  

 Near the market more fishing boats are being built, huge, some just ribs of the wood called guayacán, others almost finished with fiberglass.

The Good Friday procession of about fifty people is wending its way around streets near the church called Dolores, named for Our Lady of Sorrows. I hear the sound of wooden clacks meant to mime the sound of a whip on the flesh of the Christ who carries the cross. At a corner, when the women protest the punishment, the soldiers beat them back.  It’s theatre, but it’s disturbing to watch. A young priest wearing a black baseball cap, processing before a statue, is the most benign figure of all.  An hour later, when the procession returns to the front of the church for the crucifixion (with ropes), the crowd has swelled to hundreds. Roman soldiers with whips and women with covered heads meant to be grieving, a Herod and a Simon of Cyrene, the pious faithful, young acolytes carrying a square red cloth into which bystanders toss a few coins and bills.

            Daniel, the taxi driver who is a native of Manta, said twenty years ago a cargo plane full of flowers crashed into the church and incinerated all the buildings for an entire square block.  It had been evening, so few were inside the church, but of course people occupied the houses and shops, and many died.  Daniel pointed to a rooftop. From there a man had tossed down a nine-month old girl, who was caught and saved although the man – her father – did not.  The neighborhood pharmacist always sat on a little bench outside his shop at that hour and later was found there where he could always be found in life, carbonized in place.  Only the old bells and a stone Madonna, now looking down from a campanile, survived from the church.  How could that happen?  Daniel looks up at Madonna in the bell tower. “It’s a miracle,” he said.
            We shove off from shore about five p.m., and later, , a padre and some passengers conduct a service of meditations on the Stations of the Cross before about fifty persons in the small theatre.  Scenes from a Mel Gibson movie about the Passion of Christ appeared on screens on either side of a makeshift altar.  The year before, said the couple next to me, they were on the ship at Easter on a sea day when the padre celebrated Mass on the aft deck with the ocean as a backdrop, and the memory to them – you could tell – was beautiful.

            Inside the Dolores church in Manta the crucifix and saints had been covered with dark  purple cloths, as the custom goes, to be lifted on Easter Sunday.  I rise on Holy Saturday at 4 a.m. somewhere off Panama, to take the elevator to the twelfth deck where, midships, the astronomer and nine other passengers have gathered to watch the  lunar eclipse.  (“You don’t have to be crazy to be here,” whispers the man next to me, “but it helps.”)  The sky is completely socked in, although early arrivals said they had seen Orion briefly.  Now, no Orion, no moon.  The celestial bodies too, like the figures in the church, were hidden behind a dark shroud. Eventually, I get a cup of coffee and go down a few decks where I can watch the sun not exactly rise, but gradually pink the clouds in a lightening sky.