(under Japan, geography uncertain)
The fantastic subterranean cities we passed through amazed me. Countless levels, each side of the corridor packed with every conceivable kind of business, from barber shops and restaurants to toy stores and pet emporiums, the streaming crowds of Japanese seemed, to me, to live their lives in the future, in the ground, in space.
Some of the wide, low-ceilinged corridors even sported a slight concave curve, the rushing crowds of transiting people appearing from beneath the ceiling’s corresponding outbow, the curve appearing to me like a prophecy of a great wheel in space.
It was common practice for restaurants in the transit warrens to feature, in their window or near the entrance, full-scale, elaborately realistic sculptures of the food that they serve inside. Not, mind you, one or two dishes, but more or less every single item on the menu is reproduced in plastic and shellac.
So common was this practice that among the haberdashers and tobacco stores and stationers and hardware merchants we eventually noticed entire stores devoted to selling these models of food – the individual items could be purchased singly or in lots. Twelve-piece sushi assortment, 700 yen. Single scoop of rice, 150 yen. One egg, 50 yen. Seven gyoza, 450 yen.
I carried my rubber egg about with me, thrilled with the incipient gag. Hey Dad! Catch. Ha-ha! Look out! Eventually begrimed, a molding seam appeared; the model lost its’ veracity and I lost interest.
Elsewhere hundreds of thick, black-and-white comic books were inexpensively available. Often stores that carried the books also offerred merchandise that featured characters from these books. At the time, I didn’t know they were manga, or much about them. I recall Captain Harlock‘s greatcoat flaring against the blackness of the interstellar reaches of a child’s lunchbox. The striking image of a Second World War battleship refit as a starcruiser voyaging among the nebulae and and planetary systems of deep space, available as models and on posters. A slender, automatic-toting fellow with skinny tie and square sideburns who appeared to be a spy of some sort was clearly the star of the moment, however, despite my own interest in the space opera material.
Curious, I picked up one of the books (probably a Golgo 13 book) featuring the gun-wielding man, and was shocked and titillated by the violence, sex, and misogyny displayed within. Quickly, I was overcome by guilt and fear that my mother would come across me flipping the pages of the magazine, clearly not age-appropriate for me at 12, and put it down.
Not only were the Japanese sending battlecruisers to the stars and living in enormous experimental space stations, the country had experienced the use of atomic weaponry. The future and the war were everywhere, just beneath the surface of Japan’s cacophonously ordered society. When I held my head at the right angle, I could see it, feel it, practically smell it. This way, the past; that, the future.
The image of the Yamato is a compelling vision of renascence. I was already familiar with the disturbingly casual use of nuclear weapons as plot devices in imported after-school anime fare such as Battle of the Planets. Orange fireballs crop up as predictably as Scooby-snacks, at 20 minutes in, end of act two.
So when our travels brought us through one of the two nuked cities for a train connection, I was hypervigilant. What does an atomic city look like? How do the people who live there act? Is it still radioactive? Will we be safe there, as citizens of the nation that bombed the place? A host of questions raged in my mind, some ignorant, others not. I could tell that my folks were uncomfortable under the onslaught and so I subsided into silence, many questions unanswered.
For many years I have placed this memory in Nagasaki. In preparing for this essay I have concluded that if it ever actually took place in one of the two cities, it must have been Hiroshima. My parents certainly do not retain a recollection of having passed through either of these locales, at least not on that trip. Wherever it is that it occurred, I know that I made the experience into something about the bomb on my own.
From the sea of bobbing heads, the old man hove into view, moving slowly, his grizzled, round face neutral, yet seeming happy. He was not dressed in rags, but he was clearly impoverished.
At first I had a hard time understanding what I saw as I looked at the side of his head. Maybe something, like a small monkey, was seated on his shoulder. I considered that perhaps it was a hat or a hood, or even something behind him that distance and a quirk of perspective had misled me into seeing as an element of his body.
There was no mistake of perception on my part. The man moved by, slowly, age and a lack of urgency marking him as surely as his disfigurement. On the right side of his face, an enormous black tumor clung, the size and shape of a matte-black summer eggplant, malignant-seeming and menacing.
I stared and tugged my mother’s arm, who, noting my wide-eyed gaze and concern, gently scolded me and directed me to keep from staring. As the old man passed behind us, I immediately opened up with my many questions about the use of atomic weaponry and wanted to know if such a growth could result from the use of the bombs. My mother, of course, was unable to answer these questions and again urged me to keep these questions to my self, at least right then.
After all, if my memory is correct, answering your American twelve-year-old son’s questions about the bombing of Hiroshima while within that city’s subway network as her citizenry stream by on the way to their lives is probably one of parenthood’s rarer, less-coveted experiences.