Updated: Apr 7, 2020
By Representative Denise Provost
As a post-World War II child, whose US Marine father was deployed in the Pacific Theater, I heard a lot about how the Japanese “deserved” the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I also saw the photos in Life Magazine of the devastated cities; people afflicted by radiation sickness; babies born with deformities; children dying of leukemia and other cancers. How could these people have “deserved” the horrors visited upon them and their families?
Spending my formative years in the days of duck-and-cover raids and fallout shelters, I needed to understand better the events that gave rise to the Atomic Age, the shadow of which is still upon us.
In 2016, I was chosen to take part in the University of the Middle East Project’s pilot Oleander Initiative program to be held in August of that year in Hiroshima. I attend the program with a dozen English-speaking teachers from the Middle East and North Africa, a handful of other Americans, and young Japanese staffers.
Hiroshima was a revelation: the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb had branded itself as a “city of peace” by 1947, observing the anniversary of the bombing as its “Peace Festival.” The completely devastated area beneath the bomb’s ground zero was rebuilt in 1952 as an enormous Peace Park. Hiroshima is a destination for people from all over Japan — especially in August, with its oppressive humidity, and the nonstop, high-pitched chirp of cicadas.
Punctuating that sound during our stay was the drumming and chanting of “peace marchers.” These groups of people, many of them elderly, walk to Hiroshima from other Japanese cities, carrying banners. In its own way, Hiroshima is still a kind of “ground zero,” but now for the movement to put an end to nuclear weapons.
Some at the forefront of this movement are hibakusha, survivors of the August 6, 1945, atomic blast, or their offspring. In 2014, there were still almost 60,000 hibakusha still living, although their average age was approaching 80, and only a fraction had ever spoken out about their experiences. Fortunately, a number of their stories have been collected and preserved.
We met Mr. Horie Soh, a slight, modest man who spoke in English about his current activist life, as the Chairman of the Committee to Close the Ikawa Nuclear Power Plant. “I don’t want my grandchildren to ask me, ‘Grandpa, didn’t you do anything to help us’?” he explained. Mr. Soh told us that he was 5 years old and walking with his 15 year old sister about 3 km from the blast site when “a flash and blast came,” and his sister covered him with her body to protect him. He went on to tell us of the radioactive “black rain” that fell, the badly burned people he saw, and the transformation of the local elementary school into a cremation site for the dead. “Please keep my story for your country’s people,” Mr. Soh asked — and that was all he asked.
As we toured, I wondered if my presence, as an American, would be resented. Yet I was welcomed warmly by all I met — one older woman at the conference handed me a tiny origami rabbit she had made, and with tears in her eyes, spoke what may have been the only word she knew in English: “happy.” Others put leis of paper cranes around my neck.
Indeed, most of the origami creatures I saw in Hiroshima were cranes — garlands of cranes, thousands of cranes, in every color, made by hand across Japan and the world; brought to Hiroshima to bedeck every memorial stone, statue and plaque. This custom is inspired by the life of Sadako Sasaki, a girl exposed to the atomic blast at age two, who died of radiation-induced leukemia at 12. She had tried to cure her illness in accordance with the belief that folding a thousand paper cranes would bring fulfillment of a wish — she managed to fold 644, some of which can be seen in the Peace Memorial Museum.
Hiroshima, in August of 2016, was full of women — some of them hibakusha — whose clearly expressed wish was a peaceful, weapons-free world. They held their own Women’s Forum at a conference we attended. There, Mrs. Hideko Matsumoto told this story:
“I was in school, and saw a great orange flash. I went under my desk, but when I looked to see what was happening, I was sprayed with window glass, which became embedded in my arms, and everywhere. I left school about noon, and walked past people with their skin falling off, terribly burned, bodies swollen, crying out, dead. I saw one woman lying on the ground, her fetus coming most of the way out. I stopped and prayed for her.”
Hiroshima is full of stories, and it is hard to imagine anyone being unaffected by at least some of them. Hiroshima is an almost mythic place; its Atomic Bomb Dome — the broken remnants of the only recognizable building left standing under the hypocenter of the blast — and Poland’s Auschwitz concentration camp are the only two “negative” United Nations-designated World Heritage Sites. They remind us that human exterminations of other humans — whether conducted on a mass or individual scale — are the ultimate “never again” for humanity.
On the anniversary of these bombings, the world needs to do better than just remembering the atrocities — we need to pledge to eliminate nuclear weapons. As the Peace Marchers and conference attendees often chanted: “No more Hiroshimas. No more Nagasakis.”