Building a Peace Park

"I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds."
--Robert Oppenheimer quotes the Bhagavad-Gita after witnessing the first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert in July, 1945.

It was the height of our nation's Cold War -induced nuclear fear--movies such as The Day After helped make Ground Zero a household word, and Marj Wunder was concerned about what the world was coming to. Nightmares of nuclear annihilation plagued adults and children. Horrific images of bombs that could lay waste to nations and leave the earth poisoned and dying were imprinted on our collective subconscious. Now that her own children were leaving home, Marj Wunder felt she finally had time to do something.

"I'm not assertive or really an organizer type person," says Marj. But she did want to make a difference in whatever way she could. So in 1983 she went to a meeting in Minneapolis for people interested is commemorating the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She felt a little nervous going to an unfamiliar neighborhood at night to meet with strangers, but it seemed important to attend. Especially since she had just learned that her husband was being sent on business to Hong Kong, and the two of them would have the opportunity to visit Japan.

The meeting was sponsored by Friends for a Non-Violent World, which was one of a coalition of groups that planned the yearly commemoration of the nuclear bombing of the two Japanese cities. In a previous meeting this ad hoc committee had prepared a wish list of possible materials and activities for the observance from August 6­9. One was that a small amount of dirt or some seeds could be brought back from Hiroshima to be used in a ceremonial tree-planting or in the dedication of an international children's peace garden. Marj felt she could help here.

Marj's impending trip also inspired her to start carrying around a notebook. She asked Minnesotans to write little messages to the people of Hiroshima. She didn't know what she was going to do with the book when she got to Japan, but she felt it was important for ordinary U.S. citizens to communicate with ordinary citizens of Japan.

Marj and her husband, Hal, got to Japan on the evening before Palm Sunday and attended a service at the Hiroshima Peace Cathedral the next day. After the service, a gentleman approached the Wunders and upon discovering their interest, offered to take them to an ancient rock garden near their hotel that was very close to the epicenter of the nuclear blast that leveled the city in 1945. The garden had been reconstructed and was full of blooming flowers. It made Marj think of Minneapolis, and her mission to bring back some part of Hiroshima for a commemorative garden back home.

That afternoon the Wunders visited the Peace Museum, an experience they found difficult and moving. They were the only Westerners. A large model in the center of the museum displayed the city before the bombing and indicated where the bomb went off above the city. The remaining exhibits displayed the results--unadorned, factual, and graphic.

More than 100,000 people ultimately lost their lives due to the Hiroshima uranium bomb alone. Many died in the initial explosion, which was hot enough to melt stone and sent out a shock wave that smashed the pillars of buildings into the earth like pegs and burned the outlines of vaporized people onto walls. Thousands of men, women, and children drowned in Hiroshima's rivers, trying to slake the unnatural thirst brought on by the radiation poisoning. Thousands more fled the city in a stupor of pain and disbelief, splintered glass and wood from their houses lodged in their flesh. They walked in silence, and held their arms out from their bodies zombie-like to avoid chaffing third-degree burns. Tens of thousands died with little anesthesia in makeshift outdoor clinics. In subsequent years thousands more would die from leukemia and other illnesses associated with radiation poisoning.

The day after this education on nuclear war, the Wunders went back to the Peace Park and Museum with the book filled with messages, poems, and art from Minnesotans. Marj still wasn't sure what to do with the book, so she went into an office and was eventually directed to an archivist at the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation.

The archivist was Miyoko Matsubara, and she was very interested in the book Marj brought from Minneapolis. Miyoko had been severely injured when the bomb was dropped in 1945. She had belonged to a brigade of junior high school students building fire breaks in the city in anticipation of an incendiary bombing. At the time, allied forces had been fire bombing Japanese cities with conventional weapons. While over 200,000 people lost their lives to the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, over one million men woman and children were burned to death in firestorms caused by "conventional" incendiary bombing. As it turned out, of course, Hiroshima received the nuclear bomb. Disproportionate numbers of school-aged children were killed by this blast due to their service on the firebreak brigades.  

Miyoko Matsurbara escaped with her life, but had spent the first years after the war hating and fearing Americans. She gradually learned, however, that many in the U.S. were equally concerned about war and the potential for the suffering of innocents. Eventually, she spent time in the United States, where she made American friends and learned English. When she heard Marj Wunder's idea for a peace garden in Minneapolis, she immediately called an official in Hiroshima City Hall's International Affairs Office who called the director of the Peace Museum. Later that afternoon, Miyoko translated as best she could for Marj, the Museum Director, and his assistant.

"I was very nervous by this point because I hadn't anticipated this kind of meeting and I couldn't tell how I was coming through," says Marj. She was intimidated at first by the stern, nonexpressive faces of the officials, but the director registered more enthusiasm when she showed him her book and various flyers and programs for commemorations in the Twin Cities. "He became very interested because he didn't realize that we had such observances of the nuclear bombing anniversaries in American cities."

Then Marj got into the part about the peace garden and the director began gesturing with his hands. Miyoko said that he wanted to know how large and object Marj was looking for. "I had been thinking of a few seeds or a vial of dirt, and I thought, "Oh my! I'm really getting in deeper here.'"

It dawned on Marj that the diplomatic thing to do was to arrange for further negotiations, since she didn't feel she had the authority to speak for Minneapolis or the United States. She offered to report back to her committee and the City of Minneapolis and have further communication done through the mayors' offices of the two cities. The Hiroshima officials agreed and insisted on taking pictures before Marj and Hal dashed off to make their bullet train to Tokyo. "What have I done?" Marj thought, as they sped toward Tokyo. "Not only have I done a sort of pushy American thing myself, but I told them our mayor would be involved. I don't even know the mayor!"

But Marj also marveled at how an ordinary citizen venturing a few tentative steps can find herself in the middle of an international process. It made her reflect on her reluctance to come to Hiroshima, and how she felt insecure asking people to write in her book. How she had been nervous about going to the Friends for a Non-Violent World meeting, thinking that the activists would "think I'm naive."

Back in the U.S., it took Marj almost a year to figure out what to do. "I couldn't just go knocking on the mayor's door." Then she discovered that her friend Larry was going to Japan to visit his son who was an exchange student there. Larry and his son would be touring the nation for a month and planned on visiting Hiroshima. As importantly, Larry had worked with Jan Hively, who was deputy to mayor Donald Fraser at the time. What better way to conduct business than to get Larry to personally deliver a message from Mayor Fraser to the mayor of Hiroshima.

So Marge told Deputy Mayor Hively her full story, and Hively thought Mayor Fraser would be delighted to help out. As per Hively's instructions, Marj and some others on the Hiroshima/Nagasaki commemoration committee drafted a letter to the mayor of Hiroshima, which Fraser used as a draft in writing the official communication. Larry hand delivered the letter from Mayor Fraser to the International Affairs Office in Hiroshima and, like Marj, was graciously received.

The next thing Marj knew, Jan Hively was on the phone asking her to come downtown at once. Mayor Fraser had received a telegram from the mayor of Hiroshima, who was preparing to send a relic stone for the "Peace Garden of Minneapolis." "I thought, what have I done now?" says Marj. "There really wasn't a peace garden as yet."

Marj and some others from the Hiroshima Nagasaki Commemoration Committee went to City Hall and met with Mayor Fraser and Deputy Mayor Hively. "So what do you people intend to do with this stone?" asked Fraser. The Commemoration Committee was just an ad hoc assemblage of peace activists that regrouped every year. It didn't have any funds, long-term plans, or even any real identity. Marj took it upon herself to turn the question around. "Well, Mr. Fraser, the stone is a gift to the mayor and the city of Minneapolis. What can you do with it?"  

The mayor was stumped. Since the parks are not owned or administered by the City of Minneapolis but by the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, he didn't have authority to place monuments in any of the city parks. Fraser therefore assigned Bob Knight to be a liaison between the ad hoc Commemoration Committee and the Park Board. Meanwhile, Mayor Takeshi Araki Of Hiroshima was probably unaware that he was giving a stone to a group that really wasn't a group, to be placed in a park that didn't exist, and even if it did exist, really wasn't under the jurisdiction of Minneapolis anyway.

Mr. Knight talked to Mary Lerman, the Park Board horticulturalist, about possible sites for the stone. At the time, the rock garden by Lake Harriet was being recreated following its rediscovery after tornado damage in 1981 (it had become overgrown with a grove of oak trees). A designer was busy replacing stones as they might have existed near the banks of the St. Croix, where they came from back when the garden was created in 1929. Marj went to a Park Board meeting in February of 1985. She was nervous because at the time "peace" was a politically charged word and she was afraid the issue of dedicating a stone to commemorate the first nuclear strike might be controversial.

As it happened, Park Board Commissioner Nancy Anderson felt a particular pull for Marj's cause; Anderson was born on August 6, 1945, the very day Hiroshima was bombed. Nancy motioned to accept the proposal immediately so the stone could be dedicated by the fortieth anniversary of the bombing. (Later, Ms. Anderson would become even more involved in peace work and would represent Donald Fraser in the World Conference of Mayors for Peace in Hiroshima.) The Board voted, and the proposal to put the stone in the rock garden was accepted that evening.

Mary Lerman, the Park Board horticulturalist, worked hard to find an appropriate setting for the stone between February and the commemoration in August. She had been studying designs of Japanese foot bridges and came upon one that incorporated a stone post similar in size and shape to the stone Minneapolis was receiving. The foot bridge was designed with two ninety-degree turns in the middle, which according to Japanese lore, prevent evil spirits from following a pedestrian across the bridge. Evil spirits, apparently, travel in straight lines only.

Meanwhile, Mary and Marj were also busy raising money to have the bridge built, and figuring out how the stone was going to get to Minneapolis to begin with. The City of Hiroshima graciously offered to inscribe the stone with the word "peace" in both Japanesese and English, but the transport of the stone was Minneapolis's problem, or more accurately, the problem of the scattering of people now involved in placing the stone in the park. Fortunately, Roger Kramer, an executive with Japan Airlines and a member of the Japanese American Society in Minneapolis, offered to arrange for the shipping of the stone.

Gradually things came together. Mary obtained a matching fund through People for Parks, and Marge matched $1,000 with donations from the peace community. The stone was shipped, the bridge installed, and on the day before the commemoration, sod was rolled out in this newly renovated section of the rock garden. Thanks to pro bono work by a Minneapolis public-relations company, the event was well covered by newspaper and broadcast news.

On August 5 at 6:15 p.m. Central Time, exactly forty years after the bomber Enola Gay dropped a uranium fission bomb on Hiroshima, Mayor Fraser and Park Commissioner Patricia Baker officiated at the ribbon cutting of the rock garden peace bridge. A stone dislodged from the balustrade of the Motoyasu Bridge by the blast in downtown Hiroshima posted the entrance to the footbridge.

Thanks to Marj and many other behind-the-scenes activists, the relationship that began in 1985 with the placement of the relic stone has developed into the formal connection known as the Minneapolis/Hiroshima Friendship Cities Inc. Through cooperation of the St. Paul/Nagasaki Sister City Committee, the park has also received a relic stone from Nagasaki, which has been posted on the opposite end of the bridge from the Hiroshima stone. Marj likes to remind people that what has come forward with the gift and placement of these stones is as much about a shared vision of a peaceful future as it is a reminder of past horrors.

In 1988 Marj and her husband visited Japan again. This time they prepared two albums of news coverage, and Minneapolitans' personal reflections on the peace bridge and the events surrounding it. They brought one album to Hiroshima and one to Nagasaki, and were warmly received in both cities.  

Mayor Motoshima of Nagasaki gave letters for Marge to deliver to the two Twin City mayors inviting them to participate in the Hiroshima/Nagasaki World Conference of Mayors for Peace. Since then, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have sent representatives to the quadrennial conference in 1989, 1993, and 1997. In 1997, Marj helped represent Minneapolis at the convention. As she told Hiroshima citizens representing the Japanese contingent of the the Minneapolis/Hiroshima Friendship Cities, "We're all just 'ordinary' people attempting to do 'extra-ordinary' things."

This August, the rock garden will be officially renamed The Lyndale Park Peace Garden. It is the only park in the United States that has relic stones from both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The park has become symbolic of not only peace, but the ability of ordinary people half a world apart to come together for a common goal.

Dave Griffin is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Parent.

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