Story by Michael Bacon
Photo by Joseph Meadows
We arranged to meet at the bridge at the head of Peace Park, the American girl and I. The bridge there is shaped like a junction, and spans a stretch where two branches of the river converge – or diverge – depending on the flow of the tide. Sharing a narrow space, we watched the lanterns pass below us under the bridge, moving upstream on the currents flowing inland from the sea. She looked over the edge and scanned the river, following the lights as the two of us stood silently together.
Earlier that day, we’d met up with several other JETs as part of a group. About a dozen of us had sat on the stone steps above the waterline with beer cans and rice balls, something tantamount to a picnic. Down by the lower steps, funny little crabs and silver insects had run about our feet and dashed for cover in the cracks along the walls. She’d sat on the steps talking to the others for a while before leaving so she could watch the procession passing by her apartment, somewhere further upstream. She’d told me she wanted to take the time, apart from the group, to think about what it all meant.
The lantern floating ceremony is practiced at this time of year all over Japan. Tiny paper lanterns with glowing fires within them are released onto the surfaces of rivers and allowed to float away on the current. From bridges, parks and riversides, people watch the lights winking and drifting along in the currents, bunched together like reeds.
In respect of Hiroshima’s yearly life, the festival’s timing is said to take on a greater importance. The lanterns are released as part of Obon, the festival for the dead, but in Hiroshima the August 6 ceremony takes place on another important day in the city – the anniversary of the atomic bombing. In Japan’s Buddhist tradition, the purpose of releasing the lanterns is to guide the spirits of the dead to a peaceful afterlife, away from the material world. In light of the bombing, the lantern festival’s significance is deepened.
One of the things I’ve come to understand better in my time here is that nothing seems to have any meaning intrinsically; a large part of the substance of life here is made up of the silent interactions taking place each time you draw out sense from strange symbols. It’s not that I was naïve to it before, but the idea resonates more strongly now. It’s echoed in Japanese aesthetics, in the notion that beauty exists purely because we are here to appreciate it.
At the time of last year’s festival, having just arrived in Japan, I remember the lantern festival meant very little to me. I attended the peace ceremony in the morning. It was just a short service, commemorating the bomb and its aftermath. Speeches were read and wreaths laid, and we sat gravely in the sun listening to the translation on tiny radios. I tried my best, but I didn’t feel sad.
There’s a sort of demand on your emotions made on commemoration days – a seriousness that I’ve never been able to conjure at will. I don’t make a very good traveler, either; I’ve ticked off countless temples and shrines here feeling nothing. I’m starting to think that disconnect is the danger of going abroad – I think we go abroad demanding to be moved, as though this is somehow what we were promised when we signed up. At the lantern floating I had expected to be solemnly impressed by the symbolism, but instead I ended up laughing when the little lamps, like rickety boats, collided and caught fire, sinking together in clumps. The sense of awe I had anticipated didn’t materialise.
I’m lying to you. It was there, it just wasn’t coming from the place I’d expected. As my friend and I stood on the bridge, her looking down on the floating lanterns and me looking over at her on the bridge, we were in two remote worlds. My attention wasn’t on the occasion, like hers: on the bomb, the lamps, the river and the sadness. I remember her voice gave away her feelings, hints of emotion bubbling up as she spoke. When I felt something, it came through her.
I suppose the festival takes on a different significance for some JETs. It falls just at the point when the leavers have said all their farewells and are gone, or going home, the new JETs having only just arrived to replace them. It’s a strange time for the stayers, leavers and new arrivals. Perhaps the difference between the two of us was that I’d just arrived. I was still in the process of throwing off an old existence and feeling a new one coalesce around me. I was still excited and raw. Someone told me to start grieving, and I just couldn’t do it. But now I am where she was then — a stayer. I’ve settled and there are scuff marks appearing at the edges of my new world. Some of the people I care for have gone away.
Maybe she just had things in better context. I think that to assume these ceremonies are just about death is a mistake. They are supposed to be about life. Death is just a meaningless cipher if it isn’t put into context. If you distance yourself from the living world heaving and buzzing around while the lanterns float downstream, then the ceremony is as good as a celebration of nothingness. To the ones who stay behind, death doesn’t mean nothing, it means change. We are always saying goodbye to something and greeting something else. I know that when I first understood that, it made me sad – there’s an impulse to cling on to every feeling and moment even as you feel the present being sucked away into the still vacuum of the past. It’s because this is impossible that we have these ceremonies. The peace ceremony commemorates the past so that we don’t forget its importance, then the lantern ceremony celebrates letting go of what has gone so that life can carry on. The only way to engage with these rituals is to place yourself within them and see that your own life follows the same patterns of loss as everyone else’s.
Last year at the peace ceremony I was looking for a kind of commodified spiritualism, that easy answer that pulls travelers across the world to gawk at the exotic and claim they’ve gone Buddhist. It’s easy to have a shallow connection, sitting on the banks of the Otogawa licking an ice-cream, “appalled” at the suffering symbolised in the pretty lights. It’s very easy to decide you can’t truly relate when others have suffered more than you can imagine – and no one you care about has ever died. But I won’t be waiting for the emotion to hit me this time, because I’ve realized that I have lost something. It probably seems insignificant in comparison, but to me it’s larger and more real than any pain I can feel in sympathy, and that is how I will understand the speeches, and the wreaths, and the lights.
This year, I’ll go off on my own to watch the lanterns somewhere upstream, and to think about time, and the things we have, and the things we can’t keep. Perhaps that isn’t much, under the shadow of the bomb, but this year I have my own emotions to bring to the lantern festival, something to help me assimilate the image of the bobbing lights with the heavier layers of meaning compressed into this part of the year.
As I finish writing, the first friend to go home has been gone ten days. I imagine that when the lanterns go out, their tiny frames separate in the currents before dipping under the surface and breaking up into fragments that are washed out to sea. But I don’t know, because looking down from the bridge at the head of Peace Park, all you see are the burning lights, clumping together in groups, dancing, converging then diverging.