“The day the first atomic bomb was dropped, it was a fine day,” recalled retired Bishop Joseph Noriaki Iida of the Diocese of Kyushu, Japan. An exhibitor at the 2003 General Convention, Iida was a 16-year-old student at a naval academy 10 miles south of Hiroshima the day the Enola Gay dropped the bomb.
Iida and other students were in an upstairs room on that cloudless morning. “It was wartime, but it was so peaceful,” he said. “All of a sudden, I felt like the room of the study [was] dyed purple, just one instant. It was like a big short-circuit of the electricity or a direct thunderbolt struck you without sound. Later, my classmates who were sitting by the side of the window felt heat on their necks.”
“After a few moments,” he continued, “a big great push of wind struck the building.” Students held their desks as what felt like an earthquake shook them. A “very strange silence” finally broke with an announcement: “Abandon ship immediately!”
Students rushed to the staircase to descend to an underground shelter. Through a window in the stairwell, Iida glimpsed the explosion’s “bubbling cloud.”
“Nothing happened, no noise of airplanes or anything,” he said. So, one by one in order of seniority, the students emerged from the shelter and watched the cloud become mushroom-shaped. Initially, they believed a weapons magazine on the other side of the mountains separating the academy from Hiroshima had exploded. Then they believed it was a special bomb.
The academy’s officers formed a search corps and went to Hiroshima the next day to find “total destruction of the city by a strong bomb.” A few days later, they were told it was an atomic bomb. Iida later heard some of the searchers died of radiation effects.
“At night, the mushroom cloud became, how can I describe, almost pink at the bottom but purple at the top,” Iida said. For the son of an Episcopal priest, it brought to mind “the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire” that led the Israelites.
“The mushroom cloud faded away in two days,” he said. A week later, the emperor declared total surrender. A week after that, the academy was dissolved, and the students were sent home. During his train ride home atop a coal carriage, the train stopped for half an hour at a train station, blown away except for its platform.
“From the top of the carriage, we could see the total destruction of the city of Hiroshima,” he said. “We could not see any dead bodies on the ground. The air was full of the stink of the dead, burnt bodies, and some of us even vomited.”
Back home, 20 to 30 miles north of Nagasaki, Iida’s father was worried about the Episcopal priest serving that city. “I went into the city and saw the total devastation,” Iida said. Standing atop one of the city’s surrounding hills, he could see total destruction on one side, land “full of green” on the other.
Another piece of Scripture came to mind: “Today I lay down two ways: the way of life and the way of death; the way of blessing and the way of curse.” As a Sunday-school student, he had considered the passage strange: Who wouldn’t choose life and blessing?
“At that moment, I felt I deeply understood that we had chosen the way of death three years ago” when Japan declared war on America, he said.
“Right after that experience, my brother was using my old textbook on Japanese history,” he continued. “The book was blackened, only a few sentences left on each page. What it meant to me was that what I had been told was totally wrong.” The emperor declared he was not a living god, contradicting what Iida had heard all his life. Iida said he felt an “unfathomable abyss,” as though the world had turned upside down.
“After the war, we were informed [about how] the Japanese army did [the] Nanking Holocaust and Nazi Germany killed six million people,” he said. He wondered how people could do such cruel things.
He spent 10 years – attending high school and college and working as a missionary – looking for answers. He contemplated joining the communist party and spent a summer reading the Bible cover-to-cover, seeking to understand Christianity so he could refute it as a communist. In the end, he discovered “the answer is the love of God.”
While communist literature proclaimed love of proletariat but hatred of the bourgeoisie, he said, the “Bible says unconditional love, love against those you persecuted you, who hate you.”
He concluded: “Christianity is superior. That’s why I became a priest of the Anglican Church.”
It also took him a long time to decipher why he equated the pillars of cloud and fire – symbols of God’s protection of the Israelites – with the mushroom cloud, Iida said. A bomb might be cause of jubilation for the Koreans or Southeast Asians who the Japanese oppressed or for the American soldiers, he mused. But for the Japanese, who lost hundreds of thousands of innocent people, the bombings also provided freedom from totalitarianism, militarism, colonialism and racism, he said. The bomb “was God’s judgment and God’s mercy at the same time.
“I’m not affirming or justifying the dropping of [an] atomic bomb by any means,” he said. But he believes God “can use not only the good thing but also bad things to do his will.”
Peace Garden visit
On Wednesday, Bishop Iida will travel to the Lyndale Park Peace Garden in Minneapolis for an interfaith service commemorating the event that changed his life.
At 8:15 Wednesday morning, exactly 58 years after the first atomic bomb demolished Hiroshima, an interfaith gathering will pause in remembrance. Beginning at 7:30 a.m., Episcopalians and others will read poems and sing songs and hang paper peace cranes in the Lyndale Park Peace Garden, culminating with that moment of silent commemoration. Throughout the day, members of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship will give conventioneers origami cranes folded by people across the country.
“I always think about how Aug. 6 in the Episcopal calendar is the Feast of Transfiguration,” said Episcopalian Marj Wunder of Edina, Minn., who was instrumental in creating the peace garden. “There are lots of ... metaphorical kinds of messages there about the light that transformed the world, and then we had another light that transformed it for evil.”
Wunder is founder and coordinator of Minneapolis-Hiroshima Friendship Cities, which fosters Minneapolis’ “friendship city” relationship with Hiroshima. Neighboring St. Paul is a “sister city” to Nagasaki.
In 1983, Wunder and her husband visited Hiroshima. “It proved to be just a life-changing experience.”
Wunder brought with her a notebook of messages written by people in Minneapolis. She presented this to the archives director at the Hiroshima peace museum, who arranged a visit with the museum director. Wunder told him a peace group in Minneapolis hoped the museum could contribute a memorial item for a peace garden. This started a process leading to the dedication of the garden on Aug. 6, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the bombing.
The museum donated a portion of a bridge railing at the epicenter of the explosion. “It truly, truly is a historical, priceless relic,” Wunder said. “For them to so graciously offer this to the city of Minneapolis based on this sort of modest request, it still overwhelms me 20 years later to think about it.”
The pillar-shaped relic stands at one end of the garden, a similar-looking curbing stone later donated from Nagasaki stands at the other. Nagasaki sent a stone given by a citizen who had seven of them. “To him, they represented the seven members of his family that had been lost in the bombing,” said Wunder, calling it “a real symbol of reconciliation.”
Wednesday’s ceremony will include a retelling of the story of Sadako, a Japanese girl who died of radiation sickness before she and her friends could fold 1,000 cranes, which legend says will cause a wish to be granted. Retired Lutheran Bishop Lowell Erdahl also will speak.
Episcopalians can catch a 7 a.m. shuttle from the Convention Center to the ceremony, but they must reserve a seat Tuesday at the EPF exhibit (booth 231) in the Exhibit Hall.