The Hiroshima Peace Park was bordered by cherry trees in full bloom when I visited the city in April. Their indescribable beauty softened the powerful impact a visit to Hiroshima has always had on me. Nagasaki, some 275 miles down the coast, was two weeks later in the growing season, and banks of azalea bushes were coming into full bloom just in time for Easter. This was my eighth visit to Japan, often with financial and moral support from my meeting, Central Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting committees. It had been ten years since my last visit, and I wanted to learn how atomic survivors, hibakusha (he BAK’ sha), were dealing with their challenges. I learned some encouraging and some somber news that will interest Friends.
I first came to work for a year in 1966 at the World Friendship Center with Barbara Reynolds. She was a Friend from Yellow Spring, Ohio, who lived outside of Hiroshima with her husband, Earle, beginning in 1952. In 1958, they sailed into the Pacific testing zone when the "Golden Rule" yacht was forbidden to sail into the zone. In 1965, Barbara and Dr. Tomin Harada, a local surgeon who worked with the Hiroshima Maidens, started the World Friendship Center. Later, Barbara was given honorary citizenship by Hiroshima City, a rare honor.
The first atomic bomb, which exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, affected about 427,000 people. The second one, which exploded over Nagasaki on August 9, affected about 298,000. These two catastrophes left 725,000 hibakusha (including both those who survived the initial explosion and those who did not). At the end of 2005, an estimated 266,000 hibakusha, or 37 percent, were still living; their average age is now 74, with the youngest 61. After some years of pressure from hibakusha, the Japanese government began to offer welfare benefits to them in 1957, increasing the amount each year, with the total depending on the severity of their injuries or conditions. The U.S. government has never offered any financial aid to hibakusha.
Hibakusha have written numerous personal accounts—there must be at least 30,000—of how individuals experienced the blast and how they coped afterwards. In the early 1980s, survivors began to tell their stories face to face with small groups of people, often school children, who came to the cities to learn about the atomic blasts.
These experiences have a powerful effect on both speaker and listener, for the listener hears a firsthand account of the wrenching experience, and the speaker sees the story’s impact on the audience. The storytelling movement, as it is called, has blossomed in both cities. In Hiroshima, there are 18 different organizations for survivors who tell their stories to live audiences. At the end of 2003, the Peace Culture Center reported that a total of 2,299 storytelling events had taken place since 1987, and a total of 3,846,250 listeners had heard hibakusha tell their stories. What an amazing movement!
In both cities, as first-generation survivors died, new storytellers have taken their place. I met a number of storytellers who were volunteering for the first time. When the anniversary of the explosions reaches an even decade (1985, 1995, 2005), it seems as though many survivors who were not active before then say to themselves, "Well, I made it to this anniversary, but I may not make it to the next one," and begin to take some sort of action, like telling their story or guiding visitors through the peace park.
One such person is Mitsue Fujii, who was six at the time of the bombing. Only in the past few years has Fujii-san been telling her hibakusha story. She was living with her aunts in Hiroshima when the bomb exploded. Her mother came into the city, and as they walked through Hiroshima they saw smoking trees and people asking for water. They returned to the farm outside the city, their own residence. Two years later, her mother died; her father, previously sent to Burma with the army, never returned and was presumed dead. She was living with her grandfather when he died in 1949. After that, she and her brother lived on the farm as orphans and took care of each other. Later she found work in a hair salon and married another hibakusha. They had two children. In 1995 she finally received her hibakusha identity card; this entitled her to welfare benefits and free medical care.
Others who are now telling their stories were infants at the time and have no living memory of the explosion, but they do have memories of being discriminated against. Potential in-laws were fearful about possible children, so marriages often were not permitted. And in the workplace, employers were fearful that hibakusha had health risks and would miss a lot of time on the job, so they often refused to employ them.
Second-generation hibakusha are beginning to tell their stories, too. The Japanese government does not keep statistics on second-generation survivors, so no one knows how many there are. But I found it interesting that one taxi driver I met was second-generation hibakusha, as was the Japanese man sitting next to me on the plane back to the United States. Second-generation survivors receive no welfare benefits.
Also, more hibakusha are traveling independently to take their stories abroad. An example is Michiko Yamaoka, a Hiroshima Maiden of the 1955 trip to receive skin grafts in the United States, who is currently a board member of the World Friendship Center. In May, she was invited to spend a week at Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland to tell her story to students.
In Nagasaki, the storytelling movement was inspired by the visit in 1981 of Pope John Paul II. His speeches strongly encouraged hibakusha to work against nuclear war. He said, "War is the work of man. . . . Humanity is not destined to self-destruction." According to Sumiteru Taniguchi, a leading hibakusha, three Nagasaki organizations currently sponsor storytelling: Nihon Hidankyo (a national organization of hibakusha), Nagasaki Testimony Society, and Nagasaki Peace Promoting Society. Nagasaki hibakusha are more active and better organized than I remember from previous visits.
In addition to a vigorous storytelling movement, there are other current energetic initiatives. The Global Citizens Assembly, an annual conference, gathers over 5,000 people for three days. The first assembly was held in 2002. It includes a hibakusha forum, a peace education forum (predictably a major hibakusha area of interest), a forum for local groups working on resistance to nuclear weapons, a forum that works on nuclear-free zones, and a forum of parliamentarians from foreign countries.
Another initiative involves youth. During my first few days in Hiroshima, I saw a national TV news report showing survivors standing in front of the peace statue in Nagasaki Peace Park. I noticed that there were about 50 teenagers in school uniforms also standing in the vigil line. Seeing this age group here was unusual! I learned that since 1998, Nagasaki has sent one or two teenagers to either the United Nations in New York or to the International Disarmament Agency in Geneva with 1,000 paper cranes as a symbol of world peace. The trip has become so popular that each year about 60 teenagers from Japan apply to go! A local organization has formed in Nagasaki to raise money for the travel expenses—such developments of infrastructure signal permanence and commitment.
From earlier visits to Nagasaki, I knew that the atomic bomb had exploded over the Catholic section of the city. Since U.S. military leaders did not know what effects the bombing would have, they wanted photographs of the damage. That day, Nagasaki was covered with clouds that parted only slightly above Urakami, the Catholic neighborhood, where the bomb was dropped. Near the epicenter was the Urakami Cathedral, which in 1945 was the largest Catholic cathedral in Asia. It was badly damaged, with the upper half of one of the steeples blown off. Since then, the cathedral has been rebuilt, and I decided to attend Easter mass there.
As I waited outside the front entrance of the cathedral on Easter morning for my friend Masohito Hirose, I had a lovely view of the Urakami valley. The once badly damaged statues that stood outside the cathedral had been cleaned, repaired, and returned to their places. I remember being told that Portuguese Jesuit missionaries brought Catholicism to Nagasaki around 1580, and I noticed that all the women wore lace mantillas—a continuation of Portuguese tradition.
After mass, Hirose-sensei showed me a small prayer room to one side of the main cathedral. Large brass plates hung on one wall, recording many of the 10,000 known names of the 15,000 Catholics who died in the 1945 atomic explosion. It is unusual for the Japanese to single out individuals, so the brass plates are an exceptional record. As we looked, an older couple searched for a relative’s name.
In 1986, after I had interviewed survivors in Nagasaki, I sought out and thanked the peace museum director for his help, and he asked if I had questions. I said that I did not understand why Catholic survivors had such a large impact on the total Nagasaki survivor population since they were only a small percentage of it. He replied, "You do not understand the full situation. The atomic bombing was the fifth time in Nagasaki history that the Catholic population almost collapsed." With a shock, I realized that the atomic bomb was in effect a continuation of systematic repression and pogroms against Catholics that had occurred in 1610, 1839, 1856, and 1868. These brutal attacks forced Catholics to go underground, but they did not give up their faith. The history of these "hidden Christians" is best portrayed graphically with small ceramic statues that show Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, holding an infant—blending the images of Buddhism and Christianity. Freedom of religion was established by 1890, and by then Catholics could worship openly once more.
During my trip this year, I uncovered somber information about suicides among Nagasaki survivors. There seemed to be more mention of hibakusha suicides in Nagasaki than Hiroshima, but I never saw any firm statistics. On this trip, I decided to ask questions directly. Of the six people I interviewed in Nagasaki, five said they, too, had heard rumors of suicides among survivors. In fact, one said he had tried to commit suicide, but his mother found him and took him to a hospital. Another said she had considered suicide, but her two sisters talked her out of it.
I was hearing that suicides were more common in Nagasaki especially between 1945 and 1957, before government welfare benefits started. I inquired about this. Hidetaku Komine told me that some people believed radiation was contagious and developed fierce prejudice against hibakusha. Permission to marry was withheld, employment was denied (hibakusha were considered too weak to work regularly), and housing was hard to find since most hibakusha were poor. They were also unable to receive medical care. "Given all this," Komine-san said, "Most hibakusha believed that with this prejudice, it was harder to live than to die."
During my visits to both cities over 40 years, I have frequently meditated on how Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors have responded differently to their common experience. A frequently heard comment is, "Hiroshima is angry, and Nagasaki is prayerful," referencing that Hiroshima survivors have, for over 60 years, organized marches, sit-ins and petitions for their benefits, while Nagasaki survivors prefer prayer for world peace. Some reasons that are heard for the latter response are that Nagasaki is farther from Tokyo; that it was hit by the second atomic bomb and not the first; and that fewer tourists visit. Another supposed factor is that the pogroms against Catholics in Nagasaki taught them to respond to crises with silence. Hirose-sensei offered another difference: Through the feudal period, when most of Japan was closed to the rest of the world, Nagasaki was open and many foreigners, especially Dutch traders, visited. This created a cosmopolitan atmosphere. The city developed a reputation for being open to foreigners.
Hiroshima, on the other hand, had no contact with foreigners. After World War II, the regional newspaper in Hiroshima was interested in the effects of the atomic bombing and often carried articles, while Nagasaki newspapers were not interested. In addition, many professors at Hiroshima University became leaders and tried to understand the atomic bombing and its effects. In Nagasaki, professors were not so interested in the effects. Thus, Nagasaki did not develop leaders early on who helped survivors think about the meanings of the atomic bombing.
One highlight of my trip was tracking down an old friend, Ekimi Kikkawa, now 85. I interviewed her numerous times in 1986 and afterwards, when she and her husband were prominent hibakusha in Hiroshima. She joined the storytelling movement early on. Before I arrived in Hiroshima, I knew she was in a hospital, but did not know where. A friend and I decided to do some detective work. We drove to her neighborhood and knocked on doors. Finally we found someone who knew but was reluctant to give out information, wanting to protect Ekimi’s privacy. When my friend told her I worked at the World Friendship Center, her face brightened with a smile, and she told us where to find Ekimi.
We drove to the hospital, expecting resistance from the medical staff. But no: the staff pointed us to the end of a hallway where she was. Even though it had been ten years since we had seen each other, she recognized me right away. She had endured a liver operation last fall. When she proved too weak to care for herself, she was placed in a nursing home. During our meeting, she apologized, saying, "I don’t have a cup of tea to give you." I quickly replied, "You are my cup of tea." Although we were warned she had become senile, we saw no signs of it. She was slower than before, but still sharp and strong-willed.
I sensed that my visit meant a great deal to her and wanted to leave a memento. I emptied out a small plastic purse used to carry small objects and gave it to her, along with a photo of my cat, Lulu. I intend to send her a postcard each month.
When I left Japan in late April, my mind and heart were filled with images and reflections of what I learned, old friends with whom I spent time, and new people I met. The changing nature of the storytelling movement showed me that survivors still want to share their experiences, and people want to hear. I was excited to see teenagers and second-generation survivors joining the movement. The engagement of teenagers and the initiatives of the Global Assembly in Nagasaki are a new source of energy. Learning about suicides in Nagasaki in the early days was sobering and disturbing, while reconnecting with my old friend Ekimi Kikkawa was wonderful. Yet underneath all this news of energy and new initiatives was the constant reality of the massive, continuing pain, injury, and death of hibakusha that we always need to remember. Nevertheless, it seemed that the cities, and the survivors, were blooming. In spite of their terrible and shattering experiences, they remain our teachers.