Last August I had an opportunity to visit Japan for the first time.  It’s hard not to travel to a new country without preconceived notions of what one might encounter–and the more different a culture is from our own, the easier it can be to latch on to generalizations in order to understand the new situations we’re faced with.  To that extent, Japan fulfilled many of my expectations.  So many people were unabashedly warm and generous towards us–something I had hoped I would find after several wonderful experiences with Japanese people in the U.S. and in my other travels. There were many things I had seen referenced before in our pop culture (vending machines! little buildings! electronic everything! gorgeous landscape! unique religious practices! manga! inappropriate old men!) and on and  on and on.  But for every expectation fulfilled, a whole new set of questions would often open up.  To try to understand another culture is so often to understand only that it will never be understood…that is what I re-learned in Hiroshima.

I went to Hiroshima to understand war–but left knowing that it (and the things it drives people to do to one another) can never be understood.  Perhaps the terrible, uncertain narrative of war is why the facts become so tenuous.  In Hiroshima’s museum dedicated to the nuclear attack, the reason given for the United States’ use of nuclear weapons is cost. The argument is made that Americans wanted the bomb to be used because it had  already cost too much to make it–this certainly does not match how most Americans and many historians understand this shared history.  With lingering controversy over the purpose of and need for the bombing, it is hard not to question  the facts of August 6, 1945.

Today, for the first time since the bombing of Hiroshima, a U.S. envoy was present at the annual peace ceremony in Hiroshima to remember the victims of the atom bomb.  This visit reaffirms that even if our countries can not agree on the facts of that day and how we place responsibility, we can at least agree that a horrific amount of lives were taken, that our histories are united in that painful moment, and that those lives that were lost must be commemorated.