When I visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what impressed me most was not the landscape of destruction - which has been replaced by green lawns and pink azaleas, carp ponds and statues, billboards for Coca-Cola and museums full of tourists - but the continuing public presence and quiet grace of the bomb victims, known in Japanese as hibakusha, who still populate these cities in the tens of thousands.
For years, legions of these now elderly witnesses have tolerated the probing of strangers, visitors to the afflicted cities from whom they ask for nothing but interest. They sit upright and still in interview rooms at the peace museums, while volunteer interpreters translate the questions directed at them - questions that must seem grimly repetitive: "Where were you at the time of the bombing? What did you see, feel, do?"
Groups of Japanese schoolchildren sit in classrooms or outside on the grassy museum grounds, dressed in neat dark-blue and white uniforms and listening dutifully to survivors telling their stories. How strange it must feel, for the survivors, to talk to them. Most were the ages of these children when the bombs were dropped; many were not with their parents or siblings at the time because the attack happened in the morning, soon after children had left home for the factories, fields and schoolyards where they were doing their war work.
Some of the survivors' families, each member at a different distance from ground zero, had been separated by the forms of their deaths in concentric rings moving out from the target. Those closest in were vaporized instantly, leaving nothing behind but in some cases a silhouette on concrete or a toy or a part of a bicycle; those a little farther from the hypocenter, caught by the blast wave, were crushed by collapsing buildings or had their eyes or intestines vacuumed out at high speeds; farther out still some burned, some succumbed to radiation, ballooning into inhuman shapes, some were blinded, others rendered sterile by the rays; and others changed subtly and invisibly, at a cellular level, so that nothing was apparent right away but years later cancers would grow.
In Hiroshima, bombed Aug. 6, 1945, no warning was given of the air attack, and thus no escape was possible for the mostly women, children and old people who fell victim. In Nagasaki, American planes did drop warning leaflets - but not till Aug. 10, a day after the city was bombed.
When I asked Tomei, a survivor in Nagasaki, if he recalled these leaflets - which told of the devastating power of the new bomb and said: "Attention, Japanese people. Evacuate your cities" - he said he remembered them well. "The leaflets were a great help to us," he said, and smiled gently. "We had nothing left, because every single thing had gone into the war effort or been destroyed. Toilet paper was scarce."
Decades later, Tomei had found humor alongside a hard memory, and even at the time of the bombing, in the thick of the aftermath as survivors wandered aimlessly through the flattened city in the radioactive black rain, injured or stricken with grief, victims did not forget the habits of language and deference their culture had given them.
For as they encountered other survivors - those who were worse off than themselves, badly injured or carrying a dead child in their arms - they tended to ask for pardon. They said, for example, "Please forgive me, for my legs were spared and yours were not."
This happened all over the city, survivors expressing their remorse to strangers for what they perceived as their relative good fortune. Their civility has been well documented, but still stays the heart. "I am sorry," said one of them, bowing, with the skin of his arms peeling off in strips. "I regret I am still alive while your baby is not."
"I am sorry," another said earnestly, with lips swollen to the size of oranges, as he spoke to a child weeping beside her dead mother. "I am so sorry that I was not taken instead."
I had hoped that going to Hiroshima would reveal something small, gritty and precise to countervail the epic quality of historical accounts. What I did not expect was to feel that the sound that still echoed in that place was less the blast itself than the language of restraint and simple gestures that led victims, of all people, to apologize.
© 2005 New York Times, Co.