Opinion and Editorial

Dare the Japanese dream

Nassrine Azimi (Debate)
Filed on July 6, 2011

Shinzo Hamai, who took over the helm of an atom-bombed and destitute Hiroshima in the spring of 1947 and who, over four terms as mayor, helped stir it back to life from the brink of hell, wrote in his memoirs that so utterly hopeless was Hiroshima’s predicament in those immediate postwar months that he and his friends started a “Dreamers Club.”

“Everywhere we looked stretched scorched rubble and the wreckage of war,” Hamai wrote shortly before his death in 1968. The Dreamers Club gave a space to this handful of young idealists, amidst the chaos of their broken city, to dream of a better future.

Hamai, at the time of the bombing a 40-year-old head of the municipality’s ration distributions and father of three young children, was to become the city’s first mayor elected by popular vote. His uncanny ability to combine organisational skills and political savvy with great idealism, during times when Hiroshima’s very survival was uncertain, made him a godsend.

Some things he got wrong, but legions more he got right. Among his accomplishments were the transformation of Hiroshima from a military city to one known internationally as a city of peace; the wrenching from the national government of all the land that had belonged to the Imperial Army; and, not least, the creation in the decimated city centre of a Peace Memorial Park and Museum, conceived by young, talented artists and architects of the caliber of Isamu Noguchi and Kenzo Tange.

Recently translated into English with the title “A-Bomb Mayor,” the Japanese original of his memoirs is also in reprint, to be released next month. A number of copies are intended for municipal and prefectural authorities in the area stricken by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, silent encouragement from an able and visionary politician, himself a hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivor.

One just hopes a few copies will reach Diet members in Tokyo as well – maybe Hamai’s grit and resourcefulness could snap them out of their doldrums.

For almost four months now since the disaster, with the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continuing unabated, politicians are still bickering, the impending resignation of Prime Minister Naoto Kan seemingly their only major preoccupation.

Whatever the shortcomings of Kan’s administration, at least he has been willing to challenge the status quo of Japan’s unhealthy dependence on the nuclear industry. Indeed, one of his conditions for stepping down is the passage by the Parliament of a bill related to renewable energies. Stunningly, quite a few in the political establishment seem to still believe that this nuclear crisis is a mere domestic issue, to be handled as such – the irony of the world’s energy policies changing because of Fukushima, even as Japan itself remains in the rut, seems somewhat lost on them.

Among ordinary people, though, Fukushima continues to reverberate. In an emotional speech at a literary award ceremony in Barcelona last month, Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most prominent contemporary novelist, reiterated the belief that his nation should have made it its ethical duty, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to refuse nuclear power. Convenience, he said in essence, had been force-fed to the Japanese as a substitute for reality, trumping every other moral and ethical consideration.

Among my Japanese friends, soul-searching about the future direction of their country is rife. Nor are long-time foreign residents immune. A New Zealander friend confided recently that for the first time in a decade he was contemplating leaving. Father of two toddlers, he felt disillusioned by a system willing to distribute thousands of radiation dosimeters at schools, or to keep removing top soil from every public park in the affected areas, but not ready to question the nuclear industry or the kind of politics that had gotten Japan into its current predicament.

Even among business leaders, indignation is leading to action. The most persevering of all is Masayoshi Son, chief executive of the telecom giant Softbank, who has thrown himself into the cause of renewable energies.

Japan has more than enough human talent in every sector of society to turn the recent calamities into an opportunity for change. Such a historical moment in its destiny cannotgo unheeded. But the country needs more politicians of Hamai’s stature to lead the charge.

Hiroshima continues to be transformed by Hamai’s legacy in unexpected ways. In his memoirs, he wrote of the first sighting of sprouts from the burnt stump of a large camphor tree, on the grounds of a temple about two kilometers from the bomb’s hypocenter, tenderly describing the comfort these few humble, green shoots gave a desperate people. Over the years, Hiroshima has designated some 170 trees in 55 locations around the city as A-bombed trees, providing them special care and attention.

Inspired in turn by this legacy, recently a group of friends and I started an initiative to spread the seeds of these resilient survivors around the world. We call it, simply, “Green Legacy Hiroshima.”

Murakami’s Barcelona speech, titled “Unrealistic Dreamers,” was full of pain, but also much hope. Expressing faith in his country’s ability to bounce back by “realigning its mind and spirit,” Murakami said, “We must not be afraid to dream.” Mayor Hamai could not have agreed more.

Nassrine Azimi is senior adviser at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in Hiroshima

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