In Hiroshima, Japan, a Teenager Finds an Unexpected Home

A trip to Japan’s most misunderstood city teaches a young traveler what it means to belong.

In Hiroshima, Japan, a Teenager Finds an Unexpected Home

Writer Daisy Okazaki also illustrated her time in Hiroshima—here she shows the Nozomi bullet train, headed to the city.

Illustration by Daisy Okazaki

On a humid afternoon in Tokyo, I haul a heavy suitcase, an overstuffed Patagonia backpack, a tote bag filled with art supplies, a plastic bag carrying my lunch, and myself onto the 12:04 Nozomi bullet train headed to Hiroshima, my home for the next month.

It’s been three days since I arrived in Japan from California. The train is heavily air-conditioned against the July heat. I stare out the rounded windows and watch the countryside whip by at 199 miles an hour. For the first time, I find myself truly alone in Japan.

My name is Daisy—though, here I sometimes go by my Japanese middle name, Tomoko—and I’m 17 years old. My dad is Japanese American and my mom is white, so in Japan, I am referred to as hafu or half Japanese. The truth is that I’m not really Japanese at all. I’m American, born and raised: My family has been in the United States for four generations. I speak elementary Japanese that I learned through a summer course. My closest family in this country are third cousins whom I’ve never met. Despite all that, in the United States, I am still seen as foreign, apart from the fabric of society. People will ask, “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” The answer they want is not, “I’m from California. I’m an American.”

The author's sketchbook.

The author’s sketchbook.

Illustration by Daisy Okazaki

But while I may be half Japanese, in Japan, I am still viewed as 100 percent American. People here assume I’m ignorant of the culture and are surprised and excited when they learn I eat Japanese food and know how to dance at Obon festival. They also seem to understand—even before I did—that I am part of a separate Japanese-American history: one that involved the hardship of immigration, racism, the internment camps, and the struggle to fit in and create a community.

I’ve always felt a lot of confusion about my ethnic identity. Coming to Japan alone, for the first time, is part of my journey to find out who I am. My parents sent me to Hiroshima—where my dad filmed a documentary years ago—to improve my language skills and cultural understanding. They found me an apartment, helped me get a job at a local café, and introduced me to Tomoko Watanabe: a family friend and director of the nonprofit peace group ANT (Asian Network of Trust) where I will volunteer. But if I’m honest, even with all these things in place, I still don’t know what my grander purpose in Hiroshima will be.

Hiroshima is not an active war zone. It doesn’t need to be braved.

When I told people I was going to Hiroshima for the summer they said things like, “Wow, that sounds difficult,” “You’re so brave,” and “How fascinating.” Hiroshima is not an active war zone. It doesn’t need to be braved. Active radiation levels are now about the same as they are anywhere else in the world. It’s a big bustling city built on a fan of six rivers flowing to the ocean. The population is almost 1.2 million, more than Oakland or San Francisco. It also has a great baseball team called the Hiroshima Carp.

But it’s hard to talk about Hiroshima without talking about its history. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb that flattened the city in seconds. The blast and its aftermath killed 200,000 people, over a third of the population, mostly women and children. Hiroshima is a modern city but it holds shadows of the past, of that suffering.

Four hours later, we pull into the packed train station. Shinkansen run through it on perfectly timed schedules. The platform is peppered with mini convenience stores selling Carp baseball caps and onigiri (rice balls). As soon as I step off the train, I am swooped up by Tomoko-san. She pulls me over to introduce me to a young woman named Jenny who works for her organization; I’ll be sharing an apartment with her for the next few weeks. The three of us head down the escalator into the streets of the city. Iku yo. Let’s go.

Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima's official soul food, is a mix of noodles, cabbage, and pork, topped with a fried egg.

Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima’s official soul food, is a mix of noodles, cabbage, and pork, topped with a fried egg.

Illustration by Daisy Okazaki

One of the first questions you’ll be asked when you arrive in Hiroshima is, “Have you tried okonomiyaki?” The official soul food of Hiroshima, okonomiyaki literally translates to “what you want, grilled.” In Hiroshima, it’s made of a crepe base layered with a lot of other ingredients (cabbage, bean sprouts, thinly sliced pork, noodles) then topped with a fried egg and a sweet-savory sauce. You can also add mayonnaise, seaweed, bonito flakes, and pickled ginger.

Okonomiyaki became popular after the war when people were starving and food was hard to get. Flour (from American military postwar rations) and cabbage were easier to come by than rice and other vegetables, so it was a way of making do with what was available.

I try okonomiyaki for the first time with Tomoko-san at a lunch place on the edge of the city. The shop is small and welcoming with newspapers and books stacked around. An elderly man and woman sit at a long table, chatting with the owner, Toshiko Kajiyama, a hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) who was just four years old when the bomb was dropped. I sit down at a counter and watch as she quickly and expertly spreads batter rounds onto a sizzling flat grill.

As Kaji-san cooks, she explains that she and her brother were among the many children orphaned by the bomb. The blast killed their parents, destroyed their home and all of their belongings. All she has left of her mother is a crumbling spool of red thread. After the war, she went to live with her grandparents on Shikoku, an island east of Hiroshima. She doesn’t recall a lot from that time, just pieces of memories: the dark red sky over Hiroshima at sunset; sitting by a river as a typhoon brought ashy and radioactive black rain; an American soldier giving her an onigiri.

Kaji-san tops the okonomiyaki with sauce and serves it up with a smile. When I take a bite of the crunchy cabbage, chewy noodles, and sweet tangy sauce, I feel my face light up. The man seated near me looks over. “Oishii ne?” (“It’s good, right?”) With my mouth full, I nod in agreement.

A week into my stay, I meet Masumi Ueno and Yukimi Dohi, curators at the Peace Memorial Museum. The museum houses thousands of artifacts that survived the bombing. Warped roof tiles. Charred fragments of jackets and trousers. A little girl’s dress. A lunch box. A single shoe.

I follow them down a hallway into a temperature-controlled room lined with shelves and shelves of boxes. Dohi-san lays down a clean sheet of paper and takes out a few carefully wrapped objects. With every object comes a name and a story. She pulls out two ceramic buttons and tells me they belonged to 12-year-old Hiroka Nishimoto. After the explosion, his mother searched the city for him for days, but all that remained were the buttons of his school uniform. Next comes a pair of torn pants. They belonged to Yoshiaki Gendo, also 12, who was so injured by the blast, his skin was hanging off his body. His mother had to cut the pants off his legs. He died from his injuries on August 7th, a day after the bombing.

Dohi-san explains that, even as the number of hibakusha decline, people continue to bring in new objects. The objects survive the survivors. They will soon be all that’s left to tell the story.

Memorial activities for the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

Memorial activities for the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

Illustration by Daisy Okazaki

On August 6th I get up at 6 a.m., eat a yellow kiwi, rummage around in my suitcase for an umbrella, and then head to the Peace Park for the memorial of the 74th anniversary of the bombing. I stop by the burial mound for a ceremony for the victims who were never identified. Men and women file up to an altar to say a prayer or make an offering.

At 7 a.m., I walk to the A-bomb dome, the only building near the bomb’s hypocenter left standing. The area is packed with people. Protestors holding colorful banners stand in front of a makeshift stage. Monks sit on the ground hitting a steady beat on small drums. Reporters mill around with cameras. Police officers in riot gear close rank around the crowds.

I weave through and take a seat directly in front of the dome. Speakers talk about nuclear war and the need for disarmament, their voices ringing through megaphones. The tail end of a typhoon is passing over Hiroshima and soon it begins to rain. People raise their umbrellas, creating a sort of canopy as the big drops fall. Then suddenly it is silent. A clock strikes 8:15. The drums stop. At this exact moment 74 years ago, the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Everyone looks to the sky over the river. Peace activists lie on the ground pretending to be dead. I think of the flash, of the heat, of the fire. And then, like a heartbeat, the drums start again, and the moment passes.

Later that night I take an hour off from work at the café and walk to the banks of one of the rivers that run through the park. Visitors from all over the world have gathered to float candle-lit paper lanterns across the water, an annual Hiroshima tradition to honor the dead. By the time I arrive, lines to buy the lanterns snake through the park and into the street, so instead I buy an onigiri at 7-Eleven and sit on a wooden plank next to the water.

The lanterns are bright shades of red, green, blue, yellow, purple, and orange. Light dances across the surface of the water as they bob. Men sitting on paddleboards sail among them, occasionally scooping up the sinking lanterns. One man has set up a chair on his board and I can hear a portable radio as he paddles past. After a while, I get up to leave. I shuffle across a bridge through groups of tourists and watch the lanterns disappear down the river, little souls floating away.

Each year, visitors from all over the world float lanterns down Hiroshima's rivers in honor of the dead.

Each year, visitors from all over the world float lanterns down Hiroshima’s rivers in honor of the dead.

Illustration by Daisy Okazaki

The next day, I ride the streetcar to the ANT office where Tomoko-san introduces me to a man named Shozo Kawamoto. In his mid-80s, he wears wire-frame glasses with slightly tinted lenses and a nicely ironed, light turquoise button-down shirt under a blue vest. Tomoko-san sets out a plate of individually wrapped biscuits and motions for me to sit down as Kawamoto-san shares his story. He was 10 years old when the bomb was dropped, but he wasn’t in the city. Fearing the heavy-firebombing that other Japanese cities suffered during the war, Kawamoto-san and many other young children had been evacuated to the mountains in the countryside. He had been living in a temple there for several months before August 6th. Three days later, he returned to a city in ruins.

He lost his father, mother, older brother, younger brother, and sister. Of his immediate family, only he and his older sister survived. They were able to make their way to what he described as a “safe house” near the train station where they stayed for about six months until his sister died from leukemia caused by the radiation.

Kawamoto-san was alone. His relatives refused to help him. After the war, the hibakusha were treated horribly: denied medical care, food, jobs, and housing. Their mysterious diseases were thought to be contagious. Those who were disfigured were shunned. Japan as a whole pushed them away.

I think of the flash, of the heat, of the fire. And then, like a heartbeat, the drums start again, and the moment passes.

He was eventually taken in by a village official from a nearby town and lived there for 10 years, working as a shoyu (soy sauce) maker. He fell in love with a girl who he wanted to marry. But because he was a hibakusha, her family refused to let them. Hurt and lonely, he left the life he had built and returned to Hiroshima, where he became a member of the yakuza, a Japanese organized crime syndicate. He didn’t tell me much about what happened during that period of his life but as time passed, he was consumed with guilt over what he’d done.

So he moved again, to Okayama, and found a job at a small bento box manufacturing company. Afraid of discrimination, he kept the fact that he was a hibakusha secret. He remembered his mother talking to him as a child about the importance of kindness and honesty; that inspired him. He worked hard and at the age of 50, he was made president of the company.

Around that time, an old classmate contacted Kawamoto-san and asked him to come back to Hiroshima. Kawamoto-san visited the Peace Park and heard stories of the dead. He realized he had to share his story of survival and perseverance.

Kawamoto-san falls silent, nodding slowly to himself. Then he reaches into a paper bag, pulls out an origami crane he had folded—a symbol of healing and peace in Hiroshima—and gives it to me.

Hiroshima's Atomic Dome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hiroshima’s Atomic Dome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Illustration by Daisy Okazaki

At sunset on August 9th, I meet Tomoko-san at the ANT office and we walk together down to the river. It’s my final day in Hiroshima. The following morning I will catch the Nozomi bullet train back to Tokyo, but today we’re meeting to honor the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, which happened three days after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Tomoko-san leads me toward a group of people gathered on the shore. We watch as they light candles in small glass jars and place them by the water, a memorial to the lives lost 74 years ago. We get our own candles and place them by the others before sitting down on a ledge above the riverbank to watch the sun sink below the skyline, leaving behind streaks of pink and purple.

As the sky begins to darken, I notice the outline of the Orizuru tower behind the Peace Park. On my first day here, Tomoko-san had taken me to the top so I could see a panoramic view of the city. She told me that Hiroshima has a spirit, a voice. I hadn’t understood it then, hadn’t experienced enough of the city and its inhabitants to grasp her meaning. At this moment, as I look around me, I think I finally understand what she meant.

This city still has a lot to teach me, and a lot to teach the world (if it will listen), about peace, resilience, and respect for our past.

Candlelight mixes with the lights of the surrounding buildings. It flickers on the carved sides of the park’s stone memorials and on the surface of the river where people gather to mourn the dead. The light even reaches a willow marked with a small white sign: a hibakujumoku, or a tree that survived the bomb.

Hiroshima is both the past and the present. It is unique and sad and beautiful. In the beginning, when I returned to the apartment by myself late at night, when I woke up to a missed call from my parents, I would feel suddenly very lonely and ache to go back to California. But as the days passed that happened less and less. Sitting on a road overpass in the rain, walking along the riverside, or serving drinks to people at the café, I felt completely at ease. Through meeting people like Kawamoto-san and Kaji-san, I was shown an experience—a story much larger than myself.

This city still has a lot to teach me, and a lot to teach the world (if it will listen), about peace, resilience, and respect for our past. I want to do whatever I can to spread those messages. When I first arrived, I had begun to believe that between America and Japan, there wasn’t really any place where I belonged. But living in Hiroshima, listening to the voice of this city, bearing witness to its story, I realize I was wrong. While one trip cannot solve the complex relationship I have with my identity, no matter where I go, Hiroshima will always be one of the places I can call home. And for now, that is enough.

>>Next: A Veteran’s Daughter Searches Vietnam for Clues to Her Father’s Past

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