It was the tricycle. A small, rusted tricycle that changed the way I looked at Japan.
The year was 2011, just months after the tsunami, and at first I enjoyed the absence of other Westerners. I wore my status as a foreigner like a shiny badge of honour.
“I’m not scared,” I thought. “I’m here even though everybody else cancelled.” I resented the occasions when I did see another white face because it intruded on my fantasy that I was a fearless adventurer. A pale Scottish woman gets to feel exotic infrequently, so the sensation struck me as something to be relished.
Initially the children’s attention only reinforced the “fascinating and courageous alien” persona that I had adopted. The first set approached at the top of an outdoor art gallery’s viewing tower in Hakone. I didn’t notice them gathering behind me until I heard a chorus of “Excuse me!”
Five shiny-faced Japanese schoolchildren, aged perhaps ten or eleven, had arranged themselves in a neat line. They wore matching blue baseball caps above their bright jeans and T-shirts. The memory of their smiles stays with me: tiny teeth and wide grins, beaming curiosity and optimism. Each clutched a clipboard as they spoke in unison.
“Hello. We are elementary school pupils. May we please interview you?”
Startled, I agreed, and an apple-cheeked girl with perfect plaits stepped forward and recited,
“My name is Riko. I like red. What is your favourite colour?”
I gave the matter some attention and decided that it was green. Riko stepped smartly back into line and the next child took a pace forward, this time seeking to discover my favourite number. And so it went on until we had exhausted my preferences on clothing, books and films.
I thought it was a sweet one-off, an oddity that I could tell people about when I got home; but it kept happening. Everywhere I went, groups of children would swarm around me, a colourful throng of caps and rucksacks. They were timid but friendly, more interested in than frightened of this redheaded stranger. Eventually, I found myself on a cruise ship crossing a sparkling lake in the southeast of Japan. The now-familiar footsteps sounded behind me and I turned, ready to chat. But this time it wasn’t just one group of kids: there was an entire school year aboard this boat, and they all had sheets on their clipboard to fill. As soon as I’d dispatched one, another would slide into place. It was never-ending, and I began to resent it. But as I was turning away from yet another cluster of clipboards, I bumped into the children’s teacher.
Smiling, she thanked me for my patience and began to explain. The kids, she told me, were encouraged to speak to tourists when they were on school trips. Such excursions are common in Japan: every summer, flocks of children migrate in all directions, herded by efficient, amiable teachers who usher them onto buses, across roads and into innumerable sites of historical interest. Generally, these places are also full of tourists, many of whom speak English. So the children have little exercise sheets, encouraging them to practice their language skills with visitors.
The teacher finished her explanation and smiled sadly.
“Usually, many tourists. But after Fukoshima…”and she spread her hands wide.
After that, being the only stranger in town stopped being so much fun. I began to think about what it meant: not only for the kids with no one to talk to, but for all the businesses and families who depended on tourism. Despite my fantasies of being an intrepid Indiana Jones-style traveller, the truth was I had come close to cancelling my trip myself. Not long before my departure date, the UK Foreign Office was still advising citizens not to go to Japan. Only a timely change in their advice, along with confirmation that my insurance would still be valid, persuaded me to travel. It made it all the more embarrassing when people came up to thank me for visiting their country, as they did several times. Often their English did not allow them to say more than “Thank you,” and since my Japanese extended only to “thanks,”“hello”and “excuse me,” we’d simply smile, bow at each other, and move on. But I could not forget their courtesy and their sadness.
And what about the people I wasn’t meeting? The ones in the north, where the effects of the tsunami were not mild and inconvenient, like the dimmed lights of my hotel or the slower-than-usual escalators? The people who had lost families, homes, limbs and livelihood? The people who had discovered the true meaning of the word “destitute?”
I kept on thinking about those unencountered survivors as I traveled farther south and found Tokyo’s glitzy shops, Harajuku girls, and purposeful suits replaced by small villages where the only sources of food were rows of vending machines, and industrial towns that seemed constructed entirely of concrete, until you found the ramshackle, slanting back streets. An awareness of sorrow settled upon me, even as I experimented with sushi, met my first Geiko, learned not to call her a Geisha, and witnessed the compelling but uncomfortably fleshy phenomenon of sumo.
Then I reached Hiroshima and the sense of sadness was magnified a thousandfold as I began to learn about the victims of that other, quite unnatural, disaster. Hiroshima is still a melancholy city. Completely rebuilt, its busy streets are nonetheless grey and ugly. Walking around the Peace Museum, it is impossible not to despair at the things that were deliberately done to the grandmothers and grandfathers of the people who live here now. Everything in that museum is terrible, but the worst things of all are the historical documents showing that the decision to bomb the city was orderly, controlled, and dispassionate. Memos and minutes of meetings list the pros and cons of possible targets, citing population numbers, wind directions, and proximity to Europe. Civil servants earnestly seek out sites that have not already been devastated during the war, musing that such a target would make it easier to assess the impact of a nuclear detonation. Presidents and prime ministers are intoxicated at the prospect of demonstrating their unparalleled new power. It is both monstrous and businesslike.
But even when faced with all of the evidence, the numbers involved in Hiroshima are so vast that they are difficult to truly take in. Eighty-thousand dead people. It’s a huge, pulsating, bloody figure. It hangs over the place, heavy and noxious like the terrible cloud that created it.
And then I saw the sanrinsha.
Tricycles ought not to be in display cases. They should be on the ground, with two small feet on the pedals, whizzing about in a garden or a park.
But this one had spent forty years underground, buried in a man’s back garden alongside the tiny body of his son. The anguished father could not bear to leave his boy alone in a graveyard full of grown-ups, so he buried him near their house, with his tricycle beside him. When it was dug up it was black and twisted, with rust on the handlebars and the pedals rotted away.
I looked at this ruined tricycle and I thought about all of the children I’d met on my travels. They were joyful kids, enjoying their adventures and rightly proud of themselves for courageously approaching an unknown Westerner. I could see some of them through the museum’s window, running around in their yellow and green and blue baseball caps. They smiled and laughed and sat next to each other on the ground, just as Hiroshima’s children would have done seventy years ago, while a small group of powerful men drew closer to killing them all.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Roger H. Goun