Berkeley’s Aquatic Park was dark Saturday night, but the moon was bright and nearly full when about 400 locals pushed dozens of haunting, peace lanterns onto the park’s lagoon, the fulfillment of a Berkeley man’s promise to an aging Japanese woman.
A mixed crowd, which included graying hippies, rambunctious children and elderly Japanese-Americans, gathered to commemorate the 58th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and make a statement about President Bush’s talk of a new generation of bunker-busting nuclear weapons.
“The Bush Administration has done a great job of reminding us that the nuclear arms race is anything but over,” said organizer Steve Freedkin, vice chair of the city’s Peace and Justice Commission. “It’s part of why this touched a chord and so many people came.”
Freedkin, who has been part of an ongoing exchange of peace activists between Berkeley and Japan over the last two years, said the lanterns have a storied history.
“In Japan, floating lanterns has been a traditional way of remembering and honoring the souls of departed loved ones for a very long time,” he said. “Since World War II, it has taken on a special significance regarding the victims of the two atomic bombings.”
The bombings, which took place on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945 killed more than 100,000 people, and those who attended Saturday’s ceremony said the United States has not done enough to memorialize the deaths.
“It just amazes me how little we talk about it,” said Berkeley resident Sheila Sondik.
Yachiyo Otsubo, 59, who has lived in Berkeley for more than 30 years, said she was an infant in her mother’s arms on a train about 100 miles outside Nagasaki when the atomic bomb tore through the city.
She welcomed Berkeley’s lantern ceremony, which debuted last year, but said the rest of the nation has some work to do.
“People in the Bay Area, they have a very good conscience and a good mind, but it doesn’t happen in the rest of the country,” Otsubo said. “We have to really expand this activity. . .so we can send a message to the rest of the country.”
Participants began showing up at West Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, which sits next to Interstate 80, around 6 p.m. Saturday, piecing together about 260 lanterns made of recycled foam bases, pen cases and sheer onion skin papers. Messages, etched on the side by children and adults, read “Never Again,” “Peace” and “Use Your Words.”
The program began at about 7:15 p.m. with traditional Japanese taiko drumming, an introduction by Freedkin, a speech by Hiroshima survivor Jack Dairiki and the reading of a message from current Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Itoh.
“Fifty-eight years have passed since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but still today, the atomic bomb survivors continue to suffer from a mental and a physical wound that will never heal,” the message read.
“The citizens of Nagasaki are determined to join hands with you and peace-loving people of the world and to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons and for the realization of lasting world peace,” Itoh said in his message.
Freedkin said the Berkeley ceremony has its roots in his March 2002 speaking tour of Japan. During a visit to the Osaka International Peace Center, which chronicles the horrors of the atomic bombings and Japanese aggression in China, Korea and Southeast Asia during World War II, Freedkin said he met an elderly survivor of American fire bombing in Osaka. The woman said she was often too ill to attend annual peace lantern ceremonies honoring the war dead, and Freedkin promised to attend a ceremony in her stead.
“I knew that meant we’d have to create one,” Freedkin said.
Last year, about 100 to 150 attended the first peace lantern ceremony. This year, a larger turnout created some logistical problems—the sound system wasn’t quite loud enough to reach everyone and organizers ran out of lantern-making supplies.
“We had a couple of things that didn’t go right,” Freedkin said.
But Freedkin said one participant offered to lend professional sound equipment to next year’s celebration and another, who works at a wood shop, said he would provide supplies for new lantern bases next year. A third participant, from San Francisco, said she hoped to bring the festival across the Bay next year.
“For every problem we had, just about, some solution came,” Freedkin said.
The hitches in the program could not take away from the spectacle of the lamps that drifted across the lagoon, under a nearly-full moon, as three musicians played the shakuhachi, a mournful Japanese bamboo flute.