Journey of Repentance 2009

Bill Bichsel’s Journey of Repentance 2009 by Kristi Nebel

I suppose my feelings about casting crumbs to the water is close to my heart for a couple of conflicting feelings.  Forgiveness is associated with guilt and like others I’ve spent plenty of time healing myself for what I blame myself for, be that reasonable or not.  I had an experience in 2009 having to do with forgiveness. 

Steve and I got an email then from our friend from mutual involvement in many anti-war activities, Father Bill Bichsel who was a famous protester against nuclear arms.  We had spent time with him on the streets of Tacoma protesting the war in Iraq so he invited us to join him in the Journey of Repentance to Japan for a tour of the commemorations of the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We felt honored and decided, after some deliberations about how to pay for ourselves, to join his group.  He had been hoping to pull this together for quite a few years and was coming down to the bottom of his bucket list of things he felt he needed to accomplish before his impending death from congestive heart failure.  He wanted the group to include representatives of varied faiths and diverse ethnicities so we joined two Buddhists, a Mexican immigrant, a Japanese immigrant, a Native American, a Franciscan monk, a fifteen-year-old Methodist and her mom, three young women who had just graduated from college, and four members of Veterans for Peace Chapter 134 Tacoma.  It was a thirteen-day trek and we all did some preparations with Bix for it, with the knowledge that we were on a mission of repentance for the sin of bombing those two cities.  We carried cards with us to give to anyone interested to explain what we were doing as we wandered around cities attending the Atom Bomb Conference as well as meeting with the Japanese Peace Council and going to the Atom Bomb Art Museum.  In Tokyo we were interviewed and followed by national press journalists, so it became clear eventually who we were to the general public.  We all wore these red neckerchiefs naively thinking we might need to easily spot one another in crowds though I can say for one that I stuck out like a sore thumb as a blonde white woman, everywhere I went.  Our quest was to collect and to bring home the stories of the hibakusha.  That is the word for the last living survivors of the atom bombs.  We had a videographer who recorded one full, and very moving, story told by a hibakusha, and when we returned it was translated for the first time into English.

Before we left though I had a distinct problem with our mission.  I believe that the act of ASKING for forgiveness puts the other party in an uncomfortable position of imposition.  That is, if the other party feels that the act is too big to forgive, which seemed to me to be the case with a couple of atom bombings.  So though I was honored to be included in the group I nonetheless wanted my opinion known.  I wrote a letter to the editor of the Tribune expressing that opinion and immediately regretted it.  When I saw the reactions of the readers in feed-back I realized I had just fed fuel to the fury of the populace of Tacoma who were overwhelmingly united against our mission.  Tacomans believe that those bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified because they ended the war.  Which is untrue.  Japan had already agreed to sign a treaty of surrender before the bombings began.

We went to the formal commemoration ceremonies in Hiroshima and then in Nagasaki along with the many international attendees of the Atom Bomb Conference.  In Nagasaki near the end of our tour we went to the Museum of the Atom Bomb and I remember seeing a big color photo on the wall showing a boy lying on his stomach on a table.  His skin had fallen off his back.  It was an unforgettably bloody and gruesome sight.   I couldn’t erase it from my conscience, nor could I un-see it.

Later that evening A few of us got wind of a party for the registrants of the conference so we went though we had no appropriate clothes.  Steve and I enjoyed a big, formal buffet with silver service and a no-host bar.  Steve handed his water glass to the bartender for a refill but something was lost in translation and he got a full glass of whiskey.  We shared that glass until we were feeling no pain.  About that time an older Japanese man approached me eagerly.  He extended his hand toward me with a smile and gave me his card.  It showed the photo I’d seen earlier in the day of the boy on the table with his skin sliding off his back.  He said through a translator, “This is me!”  I gasped and told his translator how shocked and glad I was to see him alive and well after seeing this photo on the wall of the museum.  He is a retired post office employee who now spends much of his life touring the world to tell his story and to spread the word of the horrors of nuclear arms.  And he wanted to know if he could answer any of my questions.  I guess he had been looking for one of our group for this purpose and he probably spotted my red neckerchief.

Now I should tell you before going any farther in the story that I remember sitting next to Steve on the plane with a little sheet of paper reading the general protocol of polite behavior to prepare for Japan.  It mentioned that direct confrontation is considered impolite.  For example, asking a blunt question is not good.  Anything requiring a “yes” or more especially “no” response makes them uncomfortable.

But by now I was a bit ripped and I lost my filters as they say these days.  I said to his translator, “I have a hard time with this group I’m with in that we’re asking for forgiveness.  Like, I can’t imagine how you of all people could possibly forgive us, the Americans, for this terrible act after all you’ve been through.  Can you tell me please, how can you possibly forgive?  Or do you forgive?”   By now his translator was weeping as she translated.  His answer was that he had spoken to many people all over the world who had opinions about nuclear arms that were different than his and in order to try to win them over he needed to face down the impulse of being unforgiving in order to see them as human beings capable of hearing his message.  So that was my lesson on repentance and forgiveness.  If this man could forgive, anyone can.

Something musical happened earlier in the day at the museum when we all finished our tour and went to the tearoom.  I sat there digesting all I’d seen and it totally sank in that around 74,000 souls simultaneously in one split second flew away.  So I began singing this song.  It became the theme song for our group.  The song was “I’ll Fly Away”.