Japanese and American youth walk a common path together

September 25, 1998

Eight Japanese and eight American young adults found that differences in culture, history and language are difficult but not impossible to overcome during a 16-day Pilgrimage for Justice, Peace and Reconciliation this summer. Organized as a retirement gift honoring former Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning and his wife, Patti, the pilgrimage brought its participants face to face with their sometimes painful common history.

The young pilgrims traveled to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where Japanese bombs brought the United States into World War II; Okinawa, scene of a horrific battle, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, where the only atomic bombs ever used were dropped, killing thousands and ending the war. In each place, they explored the history and the complexities of the relationships among people there and learned that the work of reconciliation is not only hard, it is ongoing.

"We met people who survived the Battle of Okinawa, [Japanese-American] internment camps in the United States and the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and what surprised me again and again was that they were smiling as they told their stories," said Drew Bunting, 23, of Charleston, S.C.

"Clearly it was not from a sense of joy at what had happened. Rather, it demonstrated the mystery of God's healing power. Each of these people had made a decision to go on with life and not to be bitter. They had seen the worst of humanity, but they had responded in the image of God."

During three days in Honolulu, the group attended a Hawaiian service at St. Andrew's Cathedral and toured the Iolani Palace where they learned of the disintegration of the Hawaiian monarchy and its betrayal by the U.S. government.

"One of the most moving moments in our time in Hawaii was to hear from the Rev. Ernie Uno, a deacon at St. Mary's Church in Honolulu," said Thomas Chu, coordinator of young-adult ministries at the Episcopal Church Center, who helped plan the trip. Uno survived the Japanese-American internment during World War II and served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (a Japanese-American unit) in Europe, which helped to liberate the Dachau concentration camp in 1945. "To hear the forgiveness and deep faith in spite of separation from his own family, who remained in camp even after his victorious return, helped us to understand more about the complexity of the war years and to make history come alive."

"I felt overwhelmed by the power of the injustice done to him," said Bunting.

The young delegation also visited the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

"We read and heard a great deal about how frenzied and confused everything was during the attack on Pearl Harbor and in the days that followed," said Emily Bray, 28, of Wilmington, Del. "I was relieved that the memorial was so simple in its approach."

An amazing peace
The group next went to Okinawa, where Browning had served as bishop before being elected bishop of Hawaii. They visited sites related to the bloody Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the memorial to Korean forced migrants and the Himeyuri Museum, honoring girls as young as 14 who were conscripted to be army field hospital nurses.

They also heard testimony from the Rev. Takashi Shinjo at St. Andrew's Church about his experiences as a youth escaping from the battle with his family, hiding in caves.

"Shinjo just had this amazing peace about him. He just sucked you right in," said Jennifer Corwin, project coordinator for the American Committee for KEEP, which provided logistical support for the pilgrimage.

The group was on Okinawa on Aug. 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration and the anniversary of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. Nagisa Uehara, 21, an Okinawan college student, found the visit to her homeland moving.

"At that time, Japanese people had been taught that the American military was like a monster," she wrote in an on-line journal. "Therefore, they believed that if they were caught by Americans they would be killed such a terrible way. ... The man who is a teacher of my school experienced such a terrible thing. When he was 16 years old or so, he killed his mother and sister by himself. Can you believe this? I can't imagine that, even if people's minds were not normal."

A moving moment
At Nagasaki, Mari Kawasaki, 20, a university student from Tokyo, was surprised by her reaction when the sirens blew at 11:02 a.m. Aug. 9, the time and date that the bomb fell in 1945. The group was taking part in a memorial service during Eucharist at Trinity Church at the time. "The dropping of the atomic bomb felt very real," said Kawasaki.

The young adults then had lunch with Kyushu diocesan youth and church members "and were able to share different perspectives," said Corwin. Such discussions were valuable, according to Bray.

"I was very concerned that the Americans and Japanese would be defensive at various points in the trip because of actions taken by our respective countries," said Bray. "It was a happy surprise to see that all the pilgrims were able to go beyond a more historical 'my country, your country' perspective and focus on finding and learning from larger patterns of betrayal of trust, injustice and the humiliation of individuals."

Drew Bunting remembered how the pilgrims were able to see parallels between the injustice of the war and contemporary ills of society.

"One of us had expressed thankfulness that we live in a time of peace. Another, Jolinda Matthews [of Lawrence, Kan.], responded that we do not live in peace. We live in a time when schoolchildren take handguns to school and use them, when starvation is a fact of life in much of the world, and when people still die because of the color of their skin."

Difficult issues
The group's final stop was at Hiroshima, known as the City of Peace. The problems of war and militarism came into stark relief at the Atomic Bomb Dome at ground zero.

The issues were difficult to contemplate, said Gwendolyn Davis, 24, of Los Angeles. "Part of me says that unless we put down our weapons there will be no peace, but the other part of me knows that unless we do so simultaneously and there are no crazies in the world, which won't happen, then there will be no peace."

The group found it wasn't always easy to jet-hop, live in hotels and travel in close quarters for two weeks, but the experience itself was a learning one.

According to Nagisa Uehara, "Japanese culture and American culture are so different. Sometimes it is hard for us to try new things. However, it really touched me that American members were trying to try our culture. I also learned new culture from American members."

From Drew Bunting's point of view, "Although the cultures are radically different, there are basic similarities common to all cultures: the need of God, the need of community, the love of peace and justice. When cultural differences threatened to divide us, it was this common ground that enabled us to continue."

--Ed Stannard is news editor for Episcopal Life, the national newspaper of the Episcopal Church. This article appeared in the October issue.

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