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A Rabbi Remembers The First Japan Nuclear Crisis

Genbaku Dome

First Posted: 03/18/11 02:06 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:40 PM ET

By A. James Rudin
Religion News Service

(RNS) Japan was the scene of the devastating opening chapter of the atomic age, and now it may be writing the closing chapter on the world's quest for secure nuclear energy.

It is the only nation to have suffered atomic bomb attacks when our nation struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki three days apart in August 1945 -- bombings that hastened the end of World War II.

Now, the current Japanese nuclear catastrophe caused by the earthquake and tsunami may stop any future construction of nuclear power plants on our beleaguered planet.

The United States has 104 of the world's 443 nuclear plants, and the Japanese calamity has surely ended the arrogant predictions that such facilities can survive similar natural disasters, or that nuclear energy can wean us away from our addiction to foreign oil and dangerously mined coal.

If wars are too important to be left to generals, then nuclear policy is too important to be left to politicians, utility company executives and technicians. Maybe it's time for religious leaders to publicly declare there are certain things human beings are incapable of achieving -- like building the biblical tower of Babel or safely harnessing atomic energy.

During the 1960s I was an Air Force chaplain in Japan, where my duties included monthly visits to the Atomic Bomb Causalty Commission (ABCC) facilities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The U.S. Public Health Service established the ABCC in 1948 to study two separate control groups: individuals who survived the atomic bombs and those who were not exposed to radiation. Not surprisingly, those who lived through the attacks were struck by cancer, birth defects, skin deformities, genetic abnormalities, psychiatric problems and other maladies far in excess of the non-exposed group.

Large numbers of Japanese distrusted the ABCC because it was an American-run facility. In addition, it did not provide medical treatment for the victims; its staff only "studied" the problems created by radiation. The commission was closed in 1975.

Many ABCC personnel were American doctors, including enough Jews at both locations to constitute viable congregations. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I conducted worship services for the doctors and their families, set up religious education for Jewish youngsters, provided
kosher food and in some cases counseled Americans who experienced psychological problems living and working in the sites of such horrific destruction.

Frequently, I was the sole Westerner inside the A-bomb museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the only non-Japanese person gazing at the frightening photographs of eerie shadows embedded in concrete, all that remained of people who were instantly vaporized and thrust into buildings and streets.

Sometimes I was the lone Westerner visiting the iconic Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, the only physical structure that survived the atomic attack. I was often the only American who watched Japanese children linking their paper cranes into a chain as a symbol of hope and reconstruction.

Visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki each month for two years brought me into contact with several Japanese clergy: Christian, Shinto and Buddhist. I especially remember one Protestant minister who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, during which he lost his parents, wife and
children.

Stunned and dazed from the attack, he sought the comfort of some relatives who lived in the southern port city of Nagasaki. A day after arriving, he witnessed the second atomic bomb, this time destroying much of his supposed "city of refuge."

In one of its many efforts to build Japanese-American friendship, the Air Force designated me to present the minister with several Louisville Slugger baseball bats for his church team. A faded black-and-white photo taken during the ceremony shows both of us smiling.

Back then, he and I were confident Japan and the world had survived the worst of nuclear disasters. If he were alive today, I am certain his smile would be gone. I know mine is.

Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published 'Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.'

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Filed by Josh Fleet  |