A lesson in empathy

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and today marks the same anniversary for Nagasaki. When I visited both cities during the mid-1990s I went to each city’s peace garden and atomic bomb museum. I was deeply moved by the sight of old men and women, then fifty years removed from the bombing, crying as they moved through the museums. Their pain had endured through all that time.

On Thursday, now seventy years from those horrific events, I watched BBC news coverage of Japanese men and women now in their eighties and nineties sharing their stories. Again I was deeply moved, partly because this is a horror that could be visited on any of us, and partly because this happened in a country that is dear to my heart. The old people telling their stories reminded me of the beautiful old obaasans and ojiisans who were my neighbours and my friends’ parents and grandparents when I lived in Japan, and their younger selves who experienced these horrors could have been, in a different age, my lively and fun-filled thirteen and fourteen year old students.

I had been watching some of the BBC coverage on the Internet after the girls had gone to bed. But Lily snuck out of bed and asked me what I was watching. I gave some thought to whether I should discuss it or not. I decided to explain it to her.

So I told her that on this day seventy years ago a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, a city in Japan, and hundreds of thousands of people had died and many more were made very sick. Of course, she wanted to know why this had happened. She knew about World War II and I explained that lots of different countries were involved, some fighting on one side, some fighting on the other. I explained that the Japanese army had done bad things in other countries, but that many people – including me – didn’t think that made it right to drop these two terrible bombs on Japan.

She asked some other questions and I tried to answer them as best I could. Then she said, ‘You know when I’m naughty to Katie, you always tell me to think’.
‘Yes’, I said, not sure where her train of thought was going.
‘You tell me to think how I would feel if someone pinched me, or called me names I didn’t like’.
‘Yes, I do’, I said. ‘Think about how you would want someone to treat you’.
‘Well’, Lily said, ‘I think someone should have told those people to think before they dropped that bomb. How would they feel if someone dropped that bomb on their land? How would they feel if someone made their house go on fire and if their family was killed?’

Well, Lily, I guess you’ve just figured out empathy.

PS: Here’s a link to a child-appropriate story film about Hiroshima.


5 thoughts on “A lesson in empathy

  1. Hi Martina,
    perhaps you should tell Lily about Pearl Harbour what the Japenese did to the americans. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stopped World War II.

    • Hi Michael, Thanks for your comment. I didn’t tell Lily about Pearl Harbour but I did tell her (in an age appropriate way) about the Rape of Nanking and about Korean comfort women. And when she asked the inevitable ‘why?’ I explained that it was believed that the atomic bombs would hasten Japanese surrender. The Japanese military and government were not innocent victims of these bombs, but there were many Japanese victims – women and children, those who objected and even young men conscripted against their will. War raises no end of philosophical and moral questions but raising those questions doesn’t preclude honoring the memories of the civilians who died.

  2. The Japs brought the wrath of the US and it’s Allies down on themselves because of the atrocious treatment that they dished out to their prisoners of war. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children died in the camps and even those who survived the brutality and were released suffered for years from having been maltreated.
    You need to read up and educate yourself on the atrocities that they committed before empathising with the brutes.

    • Hi Mel. Thank you for your comments. Actually I’m pretty well versed on Japanese history and the events leading to and during the Second World War. The Japanese military was guilty of terrible war crimes perpetrated against military and civilians alike. But two wrongs never make a right. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki raises difficult philosophical and moral questions about the value of human life. Many innocent Japanese people suffered horrifically as a result of those bombs, just as many innocent Chinese suffered horribly in Nanking and elsewhere at the hands of the Japanese. But the Japanese children who died instantly or slowly and horribly did not bring ‘the wrath… down on themselves’. We can’t change history but we can make sure that these atrocities are not forgotten and aim to build a world where they don’t happen again. Teaching a child the lesson ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ seems like a good place to start.

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