The Japanese word “Hiro” (H I R O) can be translated into English as “Wide.” The Japanese word “Shima” (S H I M A) means “Island.”
In the Japanese language, then, the literal meaning of the name Hiroshima, can be translated into English as “Wide Island.”
“Wide Island” like “Green-field” or “Ports-mouth” is a name that comes from a physical description of the landscape. As such, the literal meaning is one that speaks to the local inhabitants.
Today, Hiroshima is a city of 1.1 million inhabitants. It is the eleventh most populated urban area in Japan, which is saying something, but not really enough to account for the city’s international renown. In all likelihood, none of us would have ever have heard of the place, were it not for what happened there on the morning of August 6th 1945.
At 8:14AM, on that fateful day, the unparalleled destructive force of atomic fission was unknown to the world. One minute later, at 8:15AM an atomic bomb detonated 1,900 feet above that city and in that one instant, an estimated 70,000 people, or 27% of the total population, perished in a flash.
At 8:16AM, August 6th, 1945, as the mushroom cloud surged over Hiroshima, human civilization, as we knew it, was irreversibly altered, and we were all plunged into a new and terrifying era.
The atomic age.
Today, August 6th, 2023, is the 78th anniversary of that harrowing day.
Because of this, its tragic role in human history, the name “Hiroshima” has been transformed. Its “local” meaning: “Wide Island” has been lost, replaced by a new “universal” meaning.
For you and I, and everyone in the world, including the people of Hiroshima, the name “Hiroshima” now means: “the place where the first atomic bomb exploded.”
This morning, as we contemplate the somber anniversary that I have just described, we are also asked to consider the story that tDebbie just read for us – one that in its own way, is a rather dark and frightful tale.
Jacob – who is the son of Isaac, and grandson of Abraham, finds himself alone in the wilderness, separated from his family, his servants and even his domesticated animals. It is at this moment – when he is stripped of everything he can rely on, that a fearful thing happens – a threat emerges from the darkness…
This is a moment of deep primordial fear.
I ask myself what I would do in this situation…
I would be fixated on one terrible question: can this stranger be trusted, or does this stranger want to hurt me?
If I concluded that the stranger intended to do me harm – I would then be confronted with a perilous decision:
Given this choice, I readily admit to you that I would probably run away, avoiding violence at all costs. I don’t know if this would give me a greater chance of survival – but it would undoubtedly be my instinctive response because, for better or worse, I have no natural capacity for violence.
But the stranger in Jacob’s story immediately attacks him. Even if Jacob wanted to run away, he just didn’t have the chance.
To survive, he had to fight.
And fight he did.
In his desperation, Jacob managed to hold his own. When the stranger found that he could not easily vanquish Jacob, the stranger “struck Jacob on the hip socket; and his hip was put out of joint…”
Then the text reports that the stranger said to Jacob:, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
I want you to hear that again:
‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
What a peculiar response!
Need I point out that this is by no means an intuitive response to injury and trauma?
When I experience dread – my first instinct is to do everything in our power to remove ourselves from that trauma.
But Jacob actually chooses to continue the struggle.
Because he is not controlled by instinct. He is governed by a spiritual intuition. Even though his foe has already inflicted injury, Jacob seems to think that there is value to be found by appealing to this adversary.
Something… something in this confrontation will bless him.
Jacob’s intuition is that, within this fearful and desperate confrontation, there is something, some unforeseen thing, that may transform him.
The landmark book Hiroshima by John Hersey, relates the stories of six survivors of the atomic bombing. Since my father lived (and survived) in Tokyo at the end of the second world war, I grew up with a morbid fascination with the bombing of Hiroshima. I have read Hersey’s book numerous times.
So when I saw that the story of Jacob wrestling the stranger in the night was assigned to this date – the Hiroshima anniversary – I was reminded of the story of Toshiko Sasaki, one of Atomic bomb survivors that Hersey tells about in his book.
When I relate to you the story of Miss Sasaki, a minor clerk at the East Asia Tin Works, I do so at the risk of depressing you, but I hope you will agree that the story is an apt an illustration of Jacob’s peculiar response to trauma:
Remember Jacob’s intuition?
When the stranger asked him to stop fighting, Jacob intuition replied, saying:
‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
Before going on, I must make it clear to you that the narrative I relate here is an abbreviated retelling of material I have gathered entirely from John Hersey’s landmark book Hiroshima. None of this (except for what I have included and what I have left out) is my work. The book, is a harrowing but quick 152 page read, and is, to my mind, required reading for anyone (like you and I) who is unfortunate enough to live under the threat of nuclear war.
On the morning of August 6th, 1945, Miss Sasaki,was up before dawn to make breakfast and prepare lunch boxes for her family. There is a poignant beauty to little domestic details like this, that precede the inevitable cataclysm.
After cleaning up and changing into her factory uniform Miss Sasaki left her home on the outskirts of the city and rode the trams for forty-five minutes, reaching her workplace well before 8. When she sat down at her desk, she had the good fortune to turn to the right (and away from the windows) to chat with one of her co-workers when, at 8:15, the bomb detonated.
The East Asia Tin works were 16 hundred yards – not quite a mile – from ground zero.
Miss Sasaki was thrown forward from her chair. The ceiling collapsed. All of the cement, wood, girders, furniture and people who were on the floor above crashed down along with the roof that was above that. The bookcases that had stood behind Miss Sasaki‘s desk pitched forward, pinning her down, twisting and breaking her left leg.
Miss Sasaki never lost consciousness, but her leg was in so much pain that she was under the impression that it had broken off completely. The young woman who she had been chatting with a moment before was now pinned somewhere near her in the wreckage, complaining that her back was broken. The two tried to console each other for some time until, eventually, someone could be heard moving about above them. They called for help. The man tried to rescue them and actually succeeded in pulling the other woman out. He burrowed down to Miss Sasaki but could free her because of her trapped leg.
Some time later some men arrived and together they succeeded in pulling Miss Sasaki out of the rubble. Her leg turned out to be in one piece but it was bent at a frightening angle and she could not walk. The men left her in what had once been the courtyard of the East Asia Tin Works, but was now nothing but tangled mass of debris.
It started to rain but she could not move, so she just got wet.
A samaritan, seeing her there, took pity on her and propped a piece of corrugated iron over her. This same man returned a little later with another person he had saved – and then again later with another. Both of these unfortunates must have been out of doors when the explosion occurred because they were covered with terrible burns. Neither Miss Sasaki nor either of her two dreadful companions could move, so they sat there like ghosts, under that mangled shard of corrugated iron.
John Hersey does not offer much detail about what happened during the two days and two nights that Miss Sasaki and her spectral companions sat in that improvised shack of misery. As bad off as she was with her broken and infected leg, Miss Sasaki’s injuries were not as fatal as those of her burned companions. It is likely that they died quietly, and that she, who had enough of her wits about her to gather what was happening around her – had to suffer through that horrifying reality without going mad.
How did she survive?
Hersey does not tell us, but one thing is clear:
She did not let go.
After those purgatorial two days, some Japanese soldiers came and took Miss Sasaki, by truck, to a hospital where she overheard two doctors discussing her leg. They decided it was gangrenous and must be amputated, but in the next breath they lamented not having the necessary equipment to do the procedure. She fainted in fear.
This was to be the first of many hospitals where she would lie for a time, and then be transferred, without getting any meaningful medical attention. Her case just wasn’t bad enough to be taken seriously.
But she did not let go.
Ultimately, she did not lose her leg, though it ended up several inches shorter than her right leg, and her pain was chronic.
In the years that followed, Miss Sasaki’s misshapen leg was only one of her many problems. Abandoned by a fiance, and burdened with the responsibility of supporting her two surviving siblings, her life was a constant challenge. As time passed, the survivors of the Atomic bombing became increasingly stigmatized and socially shunned.
Yet she did not let go.
Through years of incessant and chronic pain, the weight of her responsibilities, and the lingering trauma of the bombing, Miss Sasaki had one confidante – Father Willhelm Kleinsorge – a Jesuit Priest from Germany, who was also a survivor of the atomic blast. Though he visited her often she was impatient with his God who had clearly been a bystander on August 6th 1945.
Still, she was touched by Father Kleinsorge’s faithfulness to her – the distances he walked to see her, even though he, too, had been weakened by the bomb.
Allow me, at this point, to quote directly from Hersey’s book:
Miss Sasaki’s home stood by a cliff on which there was a grove of bamboo. One morning, she stepped out of the house and the sun’s rays glistening on the minnow-like leaves of the bamboo trees took her breath away. She felt an astonishing burst of joy – the first she had experienced in as long as she could remember. She heard herself reciting the Lord’s Prayer. In September she was baptized.
To me, Miss Sasaki’s conversion offers a grace-filled counterpoint to her dark night of the soul under the corrugated iron.
She did not let go until she was blessed.
In 1957, twelve years after the Atomic blast, Miss Toshiko Sasaki was accepted into the “Society of Helpers of the Holy Souls” a French order that had a convent in Japan. With this transformation, she received a new name: Sister Dominique Toshiko. Her likeness can be found pictured in today’s bulletin.
Sister Dominique was not the only one to be transformed and renamed. In this she followed Jacob, who was eventually blessed by the stranger – blessed with a new name “Israel,” for, as his adversary said: “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’”
Today, too the name “Hiroshima” also has a new meaning. While it will always be known as “the place where the first atomic bomb exploded” it is also, universally known as a place that symbolizes and reaches toward the hope of universal peace.
The cover of today’s bulletin shows a picture of the “Floating Lantern Ceremony” that occurs on the Ota river on August 6th – a peaceful and lovely ceremony dedicated to a nuclear free world. This lovely scene – itself also, a counterpoint to Miss Sasaki’s dark nights of the soul – is an ongoing testimony to the new meaning of the name Hiroshima – a name that is synonymous with resilience, and with the truth of Jacob’s intuition:
‘We will not let you go of this traumatic memory, until it blesses us with peace.’