If that building were to speak

Picture book review, from Tokyo – When we speak of Hiroshima today, a site that has become a part of human history  stands apart from the city’s food, its produce, and culture. The UNESCO Heritage Hiroshima Peace Memorial, covers what is today known as the A-bomb dome. Standing on the bank of the river for more than a century, its presence alone tells a story.

Hiroshima resident and poet Arthur Binard gives it a voice in 『ドームがたり』 (Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks) (Tamagawa University Press, 2017), illustrated by Koji Suzuki.

Affectionately known as just “Dome” by Hiroshima people, Dome starts off by greeting the reader, thanking us for dropping by to visit. Like a seasoned speaker, it points out the slight inaccuracy of the name of the nearby tram station, before introducing itself. Fathered by Czech designer Jan Letzel, it was built in 1915 to showcase Hiroshima goods and produce. It had a few other names before “Dome”, whether it was goods or industry, there was always a part of it that was “Hiroshima”. That was until Japan went on the road to militarization, war broke out, and people came to talk about doing things “for the country”.

Dome recalls, as a cicada flew by in the height of summer 1945, an American plane dropped something that cracked open overhead in a blinding flash. The cicada and “Hiroshima” were destroyed that day, Dome says, and since then many things have become very clear through its airy skeleton head.

It sees the world as a makeup of particles. Radioactive particles, it explains, are like teeny tiny shards of glass. Glass hurts, but these particles are so tiny that we cannot feel them, even as they keep buzzing and zapping. Dome also reminds us of the Makurazaki typhoon that struck a month later, washing much of the radioactive particles into the ocean, sending them buzzing across the seas. Further afar, it sees the many particle islands and mountains formed in the course of tests all over the world, and discharge from contraptions humans built to harness the power of this relentless zapping.

How long do these particles continue to buzz and zap? Dome wonders, but hopes that the birds and other friends who visit don’t get hurt by some particle lingering in some dark corner of its bare frame.

After Dome tells its story, Binard provides an epilogue to explain the relationship between Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239, which were respectively used in the warheads of the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki three days later. He also reminds us of the significance of the plague engraved with “e=mc2”, which is a result of US censorship of the nuclear bomb, and the world order dominated by the nuclear powers ever since.

Nearly 7 years since the tsunami hit Fukushima Daiichi, I found this picture book drawing clear links rooted in nuclear power, something that some have tried and failed to harness. Today other nations are conducting nuclear tests for energy sources and consumption underpin industry, trade, affluence and economic growth. This trend of thought seems set to continue in the near future, at least, as calls for a return of morality in economics grow. Therein lies the need to share Dome’s story and Binard’s commentary for future generations.


Title: 『ドームがたり』
(Doumu gatari, lit. Dome story / Dome speaks)
Text by Arthur Binard, illustrated by Koji Suzuki
Publisher: Tamagawa University Press, 2017

Told and retold, time and again

Book review, from Tokyo – My daughter came home from school one day and said, “We’re going to read 『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』(Iwata-kun chi no obaachan, lit. Iwata-kun’s grandmother) soon in ‘kokugo‘ class,” adding that she had already read it in her textbook, and everyone that had said it was “totemo kanashii” (a really sad story).

Kokugo” (lit. national language) is a curriculum for teaching grammar and all those rules to set children off on the way to mastering Japanese. Incidentally, “kokugo” text is also used as daily read-aloud homework, sometimes for weeks on end.

Remember the days when we would just rush to finish homework, put it off till the due date, or end up forgetting about it? When this sombre tale is read at rocket speed by the most eager of beavers, the listener (me) is left puzzled, confused, and agitated. That is until, the fact hit home – it was homework.

After flipping through the textbook, I later found myself poring through this picture book that had to be brought over from another library.

『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』 is based on the true story of a girl who survived the atomic bomb, told by her daughter to elementary school children, and then by a boy, who is her son’s school mate, to the reader. The boy calls her son Iwata-kun, and the girl in the story is Chizuko, Iwata-kun’s grandmother.

Written in Hiroshima-ben (dialect), the book starts with the school’s annual sports meet. In the usual red-versus-white matchup, Iwata-kun and the boy are on opposite sides, but when he runs his race, Iwata-kun roots for him all the same, because they are friends.

After the sports meet, they have lunch and take photos as usual, but Iwata-kun’s grandmother politely declines. The boy knows why.

He heard her story from Iwata-kun’s mother at school during “heiwa gakushuu” (lit. peace studies session). Iwata-kun’s grandmother’s home once stood near the Hiroshima Prefecture Products Exhibition Hall. The boy’s school is near today’s UNESCO World Heritage Atomic Bomb Dome.

During the war, Iwata-kun’s grandmother Chizuko was a high school student, the eldest of four siblings – one baby boy, one girl excited to soon be going to school, and Kayo-chan, Chizuko’s fourteen-year-old sister. They had prepared to leave Hiroshima for somewhere safer and had taken a family photo together in an empty house.

On August 6, 1945, Chizuko’s younger siblings stayed behind with her parents while she and Kayo-chan went out as usual to “help fight the war”. Chizuko to a canning factory a few kilometers away to the West in Nishikannon-cho, and Kayo-chan among 700 girls to clear space between houses along the main road nearby to stop fires from spreading. They left the house together that morning, smiling and waving goodbye.

As Chizuko chatted before starting work, at 8:15 am, the bomb fell. The factory was flattened. Her first thought was to run straight home, but when she saw people in pain fleeing toward her, she knew she could not go that way. She remembered the family rendezvous point and waited there, trembling. But they did not come. She did meet a relative.

The next day, Chizuko returned to the city to search for her family. She found here way to where she thought her home was, barely recognizable save the few kitchen tiles that remained. There she would find two shreds of cloth, one from her mother’s blouse, the other from her little sister’s dress, firmly pressed together between their charred bodies. There were another two. None of the 700 girls were ever found. On that day, Chizuko had become all alone.

Months after the war ended, the photographer found Chizuko and gave her the photo he had taken that day.

The book then gives us a two-page fold of the blue sky above a huge tree on the school grounds to prepare us for the boy’s closing promise — he will never start or fight in a war.

The adapted version does not mention Iwata-kun’s cheers or the boy’s ending pledge. Without the conversations during the sports meet or with the single relative that turned up at the rendezvous point, it keeps the essence of the thrice-told story to urge an outpouring of emotion.

With the conversations, the tree and the pledge, the picture book engages, offering depth, hope and purpose. Like the story, it should be told and retold, time and again.


Title: 『いわたくんちのおばあちゃん』
(Iwata-kun chi no obaachan, lit. Iwata-kun’s grandmother)
Text by Natsumi Amano, illustrated by Yuka Hamano
Publisher: Shufunotomo, 2006

The little red dot gets a green stamp

From Tokyo, 11 July – Singapore is sometimes referred to as the little red dot, the way the island nation is usually indicated on the world map. The red dot now has acquired a new greenish tinge after gaining a green international stamp of recognition on 4 July. As recently as early 2012, the island nation had yet to ratify the UNESCO convention, but three years on, it has joined the list of cities that are home to a world heritage site.

The Singapore Botanical Gardens does not immediately strike me as even a national heritage, much less the world’s. A vast stretch of tropical green on the outskirts of Orchard Road, the garden city’s prime shopping district, the lack of foliage over its open areas can sometimes be forbidding in the perennial equatorial heat. Add the threat of marauding mosquito squadrons and the park becomes the abode of those ready to brave the conditions in search of free public space that offers the tranquil of nature in a concrete jungle. Many come prepared, glazed with the necessary repellants and armed with tools to beat the heat.

Foggy memories of a handful of visits often bring to mind tourists and expats with children in tow quietly admiring the lush vegetation, contrasted by school excursions in sweltering heat and chatty children rushing past the weeping willow and towering trees along the path. On weekends, the open grounds are often dotted by families and gatherings of foreign workers camped out on the slopes facing the Symphony Stage, sometimes treated to an evening of live relaxing music under the stars.

A public park is the image that first comes to mind. Not especially accessible and not a very generous selection of urban comforts. A landmark that’s been there since who knows when, is another. Today, it faces a high-profile local rival in the Gardens by the Bay. The heritage Gardens are immediately recognizable but it lacked depth in the collective memory, so it was no surprise that the government agencies sought to raise public awareness in a hark back to the years when the nation was known as “campaign country”.

The campaigns would have benefited public support and national pride, but the treasures and the park’s natural gems uncovered by the people closest to the nomination dossier remain unapparent to the broader citizenry. A race through the history of the national landmark on the Internet left many gray areas. Contrast this with a recently re-aired NHK documentary on an ongoing 150-year experiment that is the manmade forest around the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Well-documented and persuasively written, as a viewer I witnessed the experiment, shared the vision and eventually found myself living the dream of creating a self-sustaining forest in urban Tokyo. Singapore’s national media would do well to consider a careful trek through the Garden’s archives and staff to uncover the paths to secrets and stories surrounding the country’s latest global landmark.

The Gardens itself faces many challenges, in presenting its past, living the present and building for the future. Will the ground’s history become plain to visiting eyes? Will people recognize the trees that are more than a century old? Hitachi’s iconic centurion raintree, a species indigenous to the region, draws thousands of Japanese tourists to the Moanalua Gardens in Honolulu every year. How will it ensure that it links with the population and creates new common memory? Will the Gardens grow as an institution for botanic research in tie-ups with local and regional bodies? Budding green thumbs like myself would be looking for some home gardening tips, or practical herb use or cooking courses from a herbarium with big ambitions. A current course covers local plants and their use in Malay food, a promising connection to regional culture and society. The economic gardens could hold hints from the past for the way forward. I, for one, will expect more when its new online registration portal is up and running.

The Gardens probably recognize the work lined up ahead to turn Singapore “from a garden city into a city in a garden”, and it would definitely help to provide more accessible outreach and practical programs, link the people closer to nature and create more space for tired city eyes and souls. This green stamp of approval must give it the impetus and receive the support it deserves.

Singapore Botanical Gardens