My Japanese Students and the Atomic Bomb

Hiroshima Flame
Hiroshima Flame

I am a man of many (metaphorical) hats (I don’t own many actual hats).  One of these hats is English tutor.  History and language, especially Asian cultures and languages, seem to fascinate me the most, and within this Japanese has taken one of the top seats in my interests.  And it is partially due to this (and other series of events that I will not go into) that I am now an English tutor to several Japanese students.

Now, when I say tutor, my job is a little different than what some might expect.  Rather than help them with things like homework, my job is to get them to practice correct pronunciation and grammar with a native English speaker, better their fluency with proper and common English, and get them to actually start thinking in English, rather than having to take the time to build a sentence in their head and then speak it, as any student of a foreign language is well aware of doing.  The native Japanese teacher gives the actual teaching, and my job is more as a native language assistant.  Some days it works better than others, but the progression from shy and meager attempts to trying new words and phrases, to starting conversations with me on their own has been very clear.

The setup is fairly simple; a Blue Yeti microphone plugged into my Mac, with headphones to get the best sound and not disturb my roommates, Skype for the most effective voice, video, and text chat (for when writing is necessary or more efficient), and then an app called join.Me for screen sharing.

On this particular day, the lesson the teacher was working on happened to talk about traveling.  It talked about Nara and Kyoto, two former capitals of Japan until Tokyo became the current capital in 1868. We discussed whether the 2 boys (I teach several students in periods over a 2 hour increment) in

A picture of a bell from Hiroshima that I took.
A picture of a bell from Hiroshima that I took.

this period had been there, some of the locations there, and then other places in Japan they had visited.  One other boys mentioned that his class had recently taken a school trip to Nagasaki.

In case your history is a little rusty, Nagasaki was the second city where America dropped an atomic bomb during World War II.  Nagasaki’s destruction is interesting on several levels.  First, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was actually more powerful than it’s more famous cousin in Hiroshima.  However, the environment and conditions around Nagasaki caused the devastation from the explosion to be reduced and less spread out.  A second interesting note is that Nagasaki actually contained a small Christian community.  When Europe came to Japan, so did Christianity, but the faith did not take widely in Japan.  Nagasaki was one of the few areas where it did take hold.

Off the historical reminder, it was pretty clear my students were there about a very significant historical event.  So when my Japanese student brought up the atomic bomb to his American tutor, it could have made for a very awkward conversation.  Talking about one of the most significant points in WWII history, or the history of war, or just history in general, I could have gone the easy way and avoided the conversation.  But why go the easy way when you can go the interesting way?

So I asked the boys in that period, what did they think of the atom bomb.  To describe how one feels about a tragic moment in your nation’s history in a foreign language to a person whose country implemented the tragedy itself, probably not an easy thing to do (and the understatement of the year goes to…).  After thinking about it for a moment, the boy who had brought it up said, “It was very sad,” (another contender for the understatement of the year).  He said how he knew it caused a lot of people harm and death, and that he didn’t wish that on anybody.

I decided to then to show the students some pictures.  In my senior year of high school, I had gone to Japan (my first trip out of the country), and I had visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.  I showed them the pictures I had taken in the museum, which none of the boys had actually visited before.  They were silent but respectful as I showed them the pictures, until one of the boys asked me how I felt about walking through the museum.  After thinking about it for a moment, I told them that I felt humbled (the word I used was つつましい , pronounced tsutsumashii) by what I had seen.  Learning from the history books is one thing.  To stand so close to it, to see the relics in the condition they were in front of me, realize that what is now an ally was then an enemy in my grandparents’ time, and stand at the crossroads of history, that is a totally different matter.  I told them I was humbled by it, that it was something not to be forgotten, and that I, like them, hoped that they would never have to be used again.  I told them that I looked forward to the day when they could be gone forever.

I am thankful for the experiences I have like this, for the technology like Skype, digital cameras, and personal computers that allow me to do this.  For the teachers who allow me to do this, and the students for letting me teach them.  And to God for the blessings of this whole continuing experiment.  People can debate how history might have been if the bombs had never been dropped, or if Japan hadn’t advanced into the cultural and technological powerhouse today.  It makes for fascinating thought to be sure.  In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging in that Yeti microphone, opening Skype, and putting on my headphones.  I’ll keep doing my lesson, focusing on pronunciation, grammar, and letting the boys talk about the anime and video games they like to play.  I’ll let my technology help expand both the students’ and my own horizons.  I’ll take the interesting way.

2 thoughts on “My Japanese Students and the Atomic Bomb

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