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Virtual 'Fireside Chat' Explores Healing After Conflict in Hiroshima and Northern Ireland

As part of the five-session Peacesharing Forum: “Uplifting Youth Engagement for Building Peace” on March 30-31,  Global Peace Foundation hosted an informal conversation to explore the reconciliation process and learn lessons from two historic experiences—Hiroshima and Northern Ireland—with very different histories yet a similar goal of healing from their past. Post-conflict peacebuilding involves forgiveness, yet also justice and mercy.

Dr. Tony Devine, Vice President of Education at the Global Peace Foundation, introduced the healing after conflict “Fireside Chat” with Ray Matsumiya, Founder of the Oleander Group, and Eva Grossman, founder of the Center of Democracy and Peace Building.

Eva met Ray while participating in one of the Oleander’s organized tours to Japan. Eva's experience in Japan focused much on Hiroshima, both the city and countryside.  The group was able to experience and share the peacebuilding paths in Japan and the peace culture that developed there.

Eva has been living and working in Northern Ireland but as a Polish national she experienced Hiroshima on many different levels. Visiting the museum commemorating the losses suffered from the detonation of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, she couldn't help but think of the atrocities of Auschwitz in Poland and the sheer scale of human suffering. Walking around the peace park, looking at different symbols such as the eternal flame or peace bell, brought her back to Northern Ireland and the contrast that Hiroshima was able to move on and through a conscious decision create a culture of peace.

What saddened Eva was that in Northern Ireland the focus still leans towards the past, towards the Troubles and unresolved issues. In Northern Ireland, the pain is still there and the journey of healing is still just beginning. Belfast is still seen around the world as a symbol of the divide and the troubles of the past rather than the symbol of hope that it also embodies. Since her trip to Hiroshima, Eva has brought back her experience and has shared it with the Northern Ireland community she works with to help interpret the active choice of building a peace-focused culture that looks forward to learning from each other in the peacebuilding process.

Ray Matsumiya shared that there is often a big focus on the day that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The Oleander group equally focuses on what happened afterward and the transformation, healing, and resilience of the people of Hiroshima.

The nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima Aug 6, 1945. Some areas of Hiroshima reached a temperature of 6,000 degrees Celsius, which is the temperature of the sun's surface. The bomb left the marks of vaporized bodies on structures as well as heat marks branded into flesh. In the first year, 140,000 people died from the detonation, with many more following in the years after due to the effects of radiation poisoning.

Lessons of the past for future generations were not messages of anger, victimhood, or revenge but rather for global peace. This perspective set the tone of what would grow to be the peace culture in Hiroshima. 

One of the best metaphors for Hiroshima’s path towards healing and reconciliation, Ray explained, is Japan’s practice of Kintsugi, the art of fixing cracks in pottery and covering those cracks with gold enamel. Brokenness becomes part of the story of the pottery and the brokenness and repair adds to its beauty.

Immediately following the bombing, Hiroshima started piecing itself back together. One day after the bomb dropped, municipal workers restored electricity, two days later bankers returned to work, one week later the street trolleys returned to the streets, six weeks later schools reopened.

Hiroshima became more beautiful than it was before. Lessons of the past for future generations were not messages of anger, victimhood, or revenge but rather for global peace. This perspective set the tone of what would grow to be the peace culture in Hiroshima. Not even a year after the bombing Hiroshima erected a peace tower. In rebuilding plans, peace was forefront and reflected in every part of the reconstruction. Today this is seen in every aspect of the city from politics to education, and to an extent it has been mainstreamed and commercialized. Peace is incorporated in everything from stores and cafes to museums and street names. This makes Hiroshima a special place to bring people together to study resilience and reconciliation.

Dr. Devine: What has been your most valuable lessons or experiences around healing the past?

Eva: The true measure of peace and reconciliation is humility and patience in my opinion. Once in Colombia, post-peace agreement, everyone was frustrated and impatient, and we had to remind them that in Ireland we were 20 years out from our peace agreement and we were still on our journey. So it is important that we remember that peace takes time. Learning from Hiroshima, there needs to be a shared sense of humility to overcome the traumas and hurt that still exist. One example that embodies this humility and patience is that of Carmilla, a peacebuilding organization in Northern Ireland.

Ray: We work primarily in the Middle East and one idea our participants are often struct by is resilience. So often in their experience when something bad happens the response is to regroup and keep moving forward. Where their story diverges from Hiroshima, though, is that the tragedy in Hiroshima ended a war. It wasn’t just another day where past harms and future uncertainty were tied together. In Hiroshima the devastation was so large and there was so much to do to rebuild that they didn’t have time to reflect on the past. They had to move forward quite immediately.  

Dr. Devine: Conflict is always part of the past, but we don’t actually live in the past, we live in the present and the future, so how do we inspire a future-focused, solution-oriented perspective while at the same time honoring the past?

Eva: There are whole generations that have never experienced conflict in Northern Ireland and only know about it through what they are told and what they learn from others. This ties back to peace education; we must be careful of what and how we learn together, and how we honor the past.

Hiroshima following the bombing in 1945 and today.

You address the different stories or sides of a conflict and here we still have sides that are still very alive in the hearts of the people. Though complex, the solution to move forward must focus on the potential of the future. We all have a shared story in our turmoil and pain no matter the side, but we also have a beautiful story of potential for the future and we get to decide that story now. We don’t want the next generation to remember the pain or glorify the violence; we want them to cherish the peace and what has been achieved.

Ray: One of the greatest takeaways is that the present so much influences the perception of the past. Interpreting the past in the present and into the future, the people with the most agency to do that are the victims. If victims forgive and they want to move on it is easier for the society to move on. In Hiroshima the bombing marked an end but was also what the victims saw as the end of the world if ever used again in any potential third world war. Thus they fought for world peace. That is a very different context than in the Middle East, so their journey with reconciliation and peace will look different.

Dr. Devine: How can we generate hope in the new future we are looking to co-create with the people and world around us?

Eva: There is this great quote, “there is no way to peace, peace is the way,” and I think we could expand that to trust and hope, that there is no way to trust, trust is the way; there is no way to hope, hope is the way. In a very practical way, we must embrace and celebrate the mundane encounters. One action can change a life and a story can change the world.

[Eva then shared a video on the Hiroshima One Thousand Crane project, the twelve-year-old girl that inspired it, and the symbol of peace it has become around the world.]

Ray: One of our favorite groups to work with are teachers because of the multiplier effect. Most teachers teach 200-300 students a year and they feel so inspired by Hiroshima that they not only go to their classrooms, they also train other teachers about what they learned. Peace in our own context often seems overwhelming and daunting, but when you see tangible examples from other contexts, they can see more possibilities. Peace is multicultural, it is the same around the world, sometimes it just takes an example or inspiration. Despite conflicts around the world, we as humans are resilient and made to move forward.

The Peacesharing Forum was co-sponsored by the Global Peace Foundation and Co-operation Ireland and is now available to watch On-Demand.