What the abyss of history teaches us about our development

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What are the implications of historical anguish for how we educate and develop as people today?

This is a question I have been contemplating in light of my travels to places of deep historical suffering in Japan, and the conversations I had there with educators and peace workers.

I use the words “educate” and “develop” in a rather broad sense, and I believe they are bound together. The word “educate” derives from the word “educe”, which means to draw out or develop something that is potential. This can take place in a school system, but coming to full maturity is of course an ongoing process that transcends the school boundaries. It involves how we see ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, our relationships with those close to heart and those further away.

Whether it’s in a history class, or in reading or casual conversation, it’s easy to be detached from the episodes of suffering that have marked the intersecting and winding roads of history. Yet who’s to say if you’d even be in that class, or that conversation, had a different road been taken in history? Our actions, and how they help us grow and change, are always one step further on these paths. If we look behind our shoulder, will that help us determine the direction we’re heading in?

We know so little of what came before us. There are the multitudes of thoughts and actions never set to paper, and there are so many records that were destroyed or lost. And yet still we have a sense that history is a labyrinth in which some of us love to lose ourselves.

Then there are others who, faced with a question from the present day, trace its thread a few years back till all of a sudden they find themselves at the brink of the chasm of deep history, that which lies before the memory of everyone you’ve ever known. You innocently wondered how electricity charged your iPhone, then went all the way back to 1831 when Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction despite facing poverty and jealousy. Ok, but can’t we have more widespread wireless charging? Well, Nicola Tesla was onto wireless transfer of energy in 1897. Ok, maybe you can ignore the history for now and tend to something manageable, like Snapchat.

wanderer above the sea of fog
Wanderer above the sea of fog, Caspar David Friedrich

Journeys in Japan

In May and June of this year I visited a number of historical sites in Japan that emblematise not only the extreme suffering humans can visit upon one another, but also the enduring will of the human spirit to prosper from such incomprehensible lows. The greatest goods can sometimes flourish from the toughest trials, as Dante taught us in his journey through Hell to reach the vision of Heaven.  

These sites included the memorials to the atomic bomb victims in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the places where Christians were continually persecuted in Nagasaki prefecture.

Persecution of Christians

Roman Catholics began arriving in Japan in the 1540s with the missionary work of Jesuit Father St Francis Xavier, of Navarre (part of modern day Spain). The missionaries were met with relative success for the first few decades of their residence in Japan.

Yet distrust of colonial European powers, among other factors, eventually led to persecutions and bans on Christianity. In one such instance (1597), 26 Christians were rounded up and crucified outside Nagasaki. The youngest of them was a 12-year-old boy, St Louis Ibaraki, who continued singing toward Heaven even when he had an ear cut off.

The final ban was instituted by the shogun (military dictator) Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1614. The Tokugawa shogunate would rule Japan from 1600 till the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It was under this regime that thousands of Christians were forced to renounce their faith, or face martyrdom.

After this ban, it was assumed that the Christians dwindled away into oblivion. It was not until 1865 that the Hidden Christians were rediscovered. A group of 12-15 Japanese men, women and children of the Urakami district of Nagasaki assembled outside the newly built Oura Church, still with the ban of 1614 in effect. Three women approached the priest there, Fr Petitjean, telling him that “the heart of all those present is the same as yours.”

Oura Cathedral, Nagasaki
Oura Cathedral, Nagasaki

These Christians had persisted despite 250 years of isolation, and yet their suffering was to continue. The instability of the new Meiji government in the 1860s-1870s meant that there was still a distrust of foreign influence, and so the Christians were tortured and exiled to different parts of Japan.

Nagasaki bombing

And finally, on August 9, 1945, the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki only 500m from Urakami Cathedral, leaving only part of the facade intact (feature image depicts the wreckage). The courage, love and dedication of Nagasaki’s citizens shone out during the aftermath of the explosion. Dr Takashi Nagai, a medical doctor nursing an injury from the bomb, found the scorched remains of his newly married wife three days after the explosion, a charred rosary in her hands. For two months after the bombing he devoted himself to rescuing injured people at the hypocentre of the explosion.

burnt rosary beads in Nagasaki
Rosary beads of Midori Nagai, Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

In his speech to a gathering of scholars, scientists and representatives of the United Nations university in Hiroshima (1981), Saint Pope John Paul II reflected on the implications of the nuclear age and the tragedy of war:

The moral and political choice that faces us is that of putting all the resources of mind, science and culture at the service of peace and of the building up of a new society, a society that will succeed in eliminating the causes of fratricidal wars by generously pursuing the total progress of each individual and of all humanity. Of cοurse individuals and societies are always exposed to the passions of greed and hate; but, as far as within us lies, let us try effectively to correct the social situations and structures that cause injustice and conflict. (par.4)

The Pope’s injunction to tackle the root of evil within ourselves and society is a perennial message that continues to renew one’s efforts in the evolution of more harmonious human relationships. His words echo a strength of the Japanese people that I had been observing: the persistence of the Christians in Nagasaki despite torture, and Dr Nagai’s courage despite atomic ruin.

Hiroshima: history and peace education

I had heard in Nagasaki that despite the summer holidays extending into August, students still came in to school on the anniversary of the atomic bomb, to learn about peace and history. When I visited Hiroshima, I aimed to learn more about this relationship between history and education, and so I visited ANT-Hiroshima, an NGO devoted to peace-building, education, inter-cultural communication and memorialising the experience of atomic bomb survivors (hibakusha).

After arriving on the train from my Zen retreat, I made my way over the river, down some wide, pleasant streets, and up the elevator of an innocuous grey building to the office of ANT.

I rang the bell.

Ohayo gozaimusu!

I was greeted by a beaming Tomoko Watanabe, the generous, courageous and gentle lady who founded the organisation in 1989. In less than 3 minutes I’d been introduced to everyone in the office, was seated and provided with books, DVDs and Japanese tea and biscuits.

ANT Hiroshima
With staff at ANT Hiroshima, Tomoko Watanabe on the left

Tomoko-san informed me that, while ANT stands for Asian Network of Trust, she also chose the name because, while she was starting out very small like an ant, she hoped that over the years she could build something larger, with “lasting bonds.”

When the ANT staff took me out for okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), I learnt that peace education is also spread throughout the Japanese curriculum, but that there is a lot of emphasis on Japanese history post-1945. This has made international relations in East Asia particularly thorny, as some argue the education system doesn’t clearly portray Japan’s role in initiating conflict in the Pacific, and all the atrocities that went with it such as the Rape of Nanking and the lethal human experimentation of Unit 731. These are the observations of those who see Hiroshima’s peace advocacy as “playing the victim.”

The staff at ANT acknowledged these concerns as real issues that are likely to persist for the foreseeable future. Yet the sheer scope of the tragedy visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki imbues their work with an international humanitarian vision; such a tragedy should never be repeated, for anywhere or anybody.

The work of ANT is both practical and symbolic, and taught me how storytelling plays a key part in bringing history to life and promoting harmony. They were co-creators of the Green Legacy Hiroshima Initiative, which propagates the seeds of trees that survived the atomic bomb and sends them all around the world as symbols of peace enduring through suffering.

A-bombed tree

One may doubt the efficacy of such symbolic efforts. Yet the practical and the symbolic dance together to yield meaningful action. The practical without vision is likely to falter, a blind charioteer; while the symbol without action lacks substance, it’s all icing and no cake.

In the case of ANT, their actions include recording the experiences of A-bomb survivors, building health care facilities in Pakistan for Afghan refugees, and financial support for schools in Pakistan in the wake of the 2005 earthquake. They also support international efforts for nuclear abolition such as ICAN, which, among other things, charts the decline of nuclear warheads worldwide (there are some caveats and stumbling blocks despite overall decline, such as the modernisation of weapons).

I was surprised at first to think of Hiroshima’s legacy inspiring Japanese aid to Afghanistan, perhaps because I’ve grown up seeing humanitarian efforts through the Western media. Yet that is the power of history and the power of a symbol. It need not inspire action or reflection in a 1:1 correlation, nuclear issues to nuclear issues. Symbols are open to interpretation and creativity, and so ANT devotes itself to ameliorating suffering around the world, be it related to the devices of humanity or natural disasters.

This struck a chord with me, as I have encountered stories of suffering in my own educational experience. I have taught students whose homes, communities and religious sanctuaries were destroyed by ISIS. These young people keep their stories locked inside, attempting to adjust to their new society. They lament that these losses are given minimal treatment in the media, while the Kardashians receive recurring airtime for their successes and failures in Photoshopping body-marks.

There may be something to this imprisonment of our darker stories. Shame perhaps, or anguish at renewing the losses. Yet there is great power in sharing them.

atomic bomb dome Hiroshima
Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, a symbol of recovery from nuclear war that was almost demolished

Tomoko’s story: "What is death? What is life?"

After visiting Hiroshima Peace Park and Memorial Museum, I sat down for some final biscuits and tea with Tomoko-san. The office was quiet, and in listening to her story I fell into a rare state of deep attention.  

She told me about how her mum was a nurse and survived the atomic bombing. Her mother went on to marry her husband, but was plagued with fear that their child would be born with 6 fingers on each hand, a victim of lingering radiation.

Thankfully, Tomoko was born safely and grew up healthily. Yet for decades her mother never spoke about the attack on their city. It was only when Tomoko had her own children, and they questioned their grandmother, that she broke her silence.

Learning about her family’s brush with death, and the fear they had for her as a child, Tomoko began to question the narrative and meaning of her life.

She asked herself: “How can I live my life? What is death? What is life?”

With an A-bomb survivor in her own family, she realised her life was inseparable from that tragedy, but what, she wondered, was her purpose? She told me that she prayed a lot, to God, or Buddha, or to what exactly she knew not, waving her arm in the air. What emerged from her reflections was the seed of ANT-Hiroshima.

I was struck by her deceptively brief yet penetrating questions about death and life, two small words that are icebergs of unknown depths.

I asked her: “What is life?”

She paused, smiled, and told me that life is one step at a time, not trying to be far ahead in the future and getting lost. It is a narrow, difficult, winding path, and one that, in order to be fruitful, requires guidance, dedication and contemplation.


So, to return to my question: What are the implications of historical anguish for how we educate and develop as people today?

Pope Saint John Paul II, in the address cited above, stressed the importance of “generously pursuing the total progress of each individual and of all humanity.” Education often seeks this goal today, prioritising not only academic excellence but the development of the total or “whole person”—emotional, physical, social, spiritual and so on. In Catholic contexts this stems from the social teaching that humans are made in the image of God, endowed with dignity and called to a rich, wholesome life, not solely the maximisation of technical skills.

This is a noble goal, and a lifelong process. Engaging with suffering nurtures students’ capacities for emotional, psychological and spiritual development.

Pope John Paul II praying at Hiroshima
Saint Pope John Paul II, praying at the cenotaph memorial to atomic bomb victims, courtesy of Vatican News.

It takes a variety of skills and attitudes and beliefs to come to terms with anguish, especially that which is deeply rooted. Purely intellectual understanding of history may not be sufficient to address the pains of the past, as pain requires empathy to be understood. Engaging with pain grows our capacity for empathy and humility, which in turn can help us to delve deeper and relate more authentically.

Understanding the trials of those who have gone before us give us some idea of the extent to which we can be pushed, of the responsibilities we can shoulder in our own lives. Tomoko said that life is a narrow, difficult path. And from the repeated tragedies of Nagasaki we see a macrocosm for the seeming randomness of suffering that can be visited upon even an individual life, like that of the physician Dr Nagai. We are caught up in networks beyond our control, that stretch out in space and deep into the temporal abyss of history.

We need not start an NGO, something rather large and potentially “famous”. We need not even try and right the wrongs of a particular episode of conflict. Like ANT’s creative use of Hiroshima’s legacy of peace, we may see potential to emulate the strength and generosity of those who have gone before us to connect with the people we encounter in our everyday lives. For me, this could be encouraging the stories of students and refugees from the Middle East.

If history is an abyss, then the episodes from the past are all manner of different rocks, lying in the darkness of crevasses and strewn across slopes. We are climbing up the shadowy mountain of time, and with each day that passes another pebble falls from beneath our feet to join the chasm of the past. It is a toil to ascend the mountain; we know not where its peak is. If we shine a light on those innumerable stones below, the quartz, the obsidian, the crystal, the light they reflect may just illumine a part of our path forward.

Future directions

There are many other things to consider when tackling history, education, or both. In the future, I would like to explore the following:

  1. The importance of education in developing virtue. In the history of philosophy, virtue has been tied up with education and with active excellence. I discovered this when studying Greek philosophy, and in my conversation with philosopher and educator Dr Tadashi Nishihara from the Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University. You may remember him from my article, Wrestling with 3 questions on Zen Buddhism. We also discussed “contemplative pedagogy”, which unites reflection with action, perhaps in a similar vein to what I discussed with Tomoko Watanabe.
  2. The history and philosophy of education more broadly. What’s changed in how we conceive of education? What’s stayed the same and perhaps ought always to stay the same? I’m especially interested in this given that the public education system apparently grew out of the Industrial Revolution, a relatively recent event.
  3. I’ve mentioned in this article how the way we interpret the past can create rich and helpful effects. However, the opposite is also true. People have interpreted the past to justify positions that actually had reprehensible consequences. For example, Hitler’s Third Reich saw itself as the fulfilment of the first two “German” empires: the Carolingian Holy Roman Empire (900-1806) and the German Empire (1871-1918).
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