It’s been a few days since I left Japan, so I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience (as well as catch up on my jet lag).
I came to Japan for a number of reasons. I wanted to learn more about the effects of nuclear weapons, experience Japanese culture (which I’ve always had an interest in), and show support for an obviously worthy cause. Coming from a small town, I’d never seen much of social movements and protests until I’d moved to Boston for college. So I thought I’d push myself even farther outside of my comfort zone and participate in my first protest in a foreign country, too.
I think actually coming to Japan gave me a different type of knowledge than a book would. I didn’t just learn facts about the Bikini Atoll incident, but I also heard the sad story of the family of one of the victims. I didn’t just learn about the surprising amount of US military bases in Japan, but I also learned about how those bases affected the lives of citizens that I met and how they felt about it.
It allowed me to see things from the perspective outside the United States, which I was a bit blind to before. I would often see news about President Donald Trump and American current events on Japanese news, which shocked me. We would almost never see any news about Japan’s Prime Minister in American news. I think sometimes in America we forget quite how influential we are in the world. Everyone else seems so far away, and it’s easy to forget about how we affect the world when our everyday lives are not as affected by world issues– things like war rarely come to our soil. When I learned that much of Japan’s food supply was poisoned from radiation during the Bikini incident (and there was no apology), for example, I really couldn’t comprehend that. Things like that don’t happen in the U.S.
As I continued marching and learning more, my thoughts kept coming back to how inadequate my knowledge of all this was, especially as a citizen of one of the aforementioned most influential countries in the world. In history class, we learned that America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the year it happened, and what number of people died. And we memorized that for the test so we could get a good grade. There was no emotion or compassion attached to it. During the march I constantly thought about how these types of real-life experiences I was having should be a part of our required education. You don’t just learn facts; your ways of thinking about people are changed, and the knowledge is put into a real context right in front of you. Japan is no longer just some far away foreign country to me.
I think that often people think of a foreign country as its government or its military. That kind of thinking is what makes it easier to destroy entire cities and wage war in the name of some ideal (or some interests). But we can’t think of a country as some distant entity that is only how its government represents it. Countries are made up of people just like your neighbors, your co-workers, or your family. Without realizing it, I had been thinking of Japan in the former way. But by actually meeting these wonderfully kind people, eating with them, walking with them, and staying in their houses, I made real friends. I don’t think it would be possible to kill so many people when you actually think of them as humans just like your own country’s citizens, or even friends.
Having the power to demolish an entire city of people at the press of a button coupled with this removed mindset I described is a dangerous combination that can lead to horrible atrocities we could never commit in person. It is essential that we change both the mindset and the tools that realize this inhumane evil. We must get rid of these awful weapons and also, critically, we must make real efforts to understand each other through cultural exchange and meeting in person. Moving out of our comfort zones to another culture may be frightening, but the future as it stands looks a lot more frightening.