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PSR in Japan: Voices of Hibakusha

Posted by Mathias Pollock, MPH on September 6, 2012

What were you doing at 8:15 this morning? We can all probably recount different narratives of our morning routines. Wake up, brush teeth, shower, breakfast, commute, work. You go through the motions and hardly give it a second thought.

On August 6th 1945 many of the hibakusha (Japanese for ‘persons affected by the A-bomb’) stories had similarly simple, yet divergent beginnings. “We had just finished the morning meeting.” “I was in my office.” “I had just entered and said ‘good morning’ to my colleagues.” “I happened to be home from school and was reading on the floor with a friend.” “I had just arrived at the bank.” “I had just finished breakfast.”

At 8:15, however, their stories converged with one simple phrase: “And then there was a brilliant flash of white followed by a guttural sonic boom.”

It’s difficult to listen to first-hand accounts from Hiroshima’s A-bomb survivors. It’s hard to imagine not recognizing your own sibling because his skin is sloughing off or picking maggots out of your friend’s wounds with chopsticks while she begs to die. These stories make us uncomfortable, make us want to squirm or be sick. But that is exactly why we need to hear them.

We need to realize that this not the final chapter in a closed history book of nuclear dangers. The nuclear weapons programs that continue to eat up our tax dollars (over $60 billion by US alone in 2011) produce arsenals that simply cannot ever be used. Today’s bombs are thousands of times stronger than the 13 kiloton “Little Boy” that was dropped on Hiroshima. If we or anyone else used these weapons (on purpose or accidentally), it would mean not only the devastation of our enemies, but likely that of our neighbors, our friends, our species and our planet as well.

That’s why it’s not just what the hibakusha tell us of our past that is important to hear; it’s also what they have to say about our future. As hard as it is to listen to these accounts, I can only imagine how excruciating it must be to retell/relive the horror over and over. Yet the hibakusha, and the city of Hiroshima, continue to tell their stories in the hope of achieving a world without nuclear weapons. Here are two; there are many more.

Toshiko Saeki said, “I related my experiences hoping that my talk would discourage people from making war. Our experiences must not be forgotten. What we believed in during the war turned out to be worth nothing. I went through hell on earth so that Hiroshima should not be repeated again.”

Isao Kita said, “The atomic bomb does not discriminate… [it] kills everyone from little babies to old people. It’s a very cruel and painful way to die. I think that this cannot be allowed to happen again anywhere in the world.”

I wish everyone could visit this city. It has a strikingly poetic countryside, delicious okonomiyaki, Buddhist temples that will arrest your soul, and a great blue-collar baseball team (Go Carp!). But what is most memorable is the inescapable thread of tragedy that connects all who walk here, descendants, residents and visitors alike, and reminds us of how fragile life is. The hibakusha are a bridge that transcend history and culture and appeal to our common humanity. That is what I will remember the most from my visit, those words and the humbling feelings they produce.

And when I look at the clock tomorrow morning and it says 8:16, I will close my eyes and be thankful that my morning routine diverges and my life can hopefully continue to enjoy a tenuous peace.

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