Hibakusha in NY: Ichi go, Ichi e

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There are so many stories about hibakusha—too many to absorb.  But there is always one story that will stay with you.  Always.  You just have to find it.”  These are the words a young woman “Ami” told Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, author of the memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Rizzuto  weaves transcripts of her interviews of the atomic bomb survivors, the hibakusha, and her own narrative of piecing together this story, infusing the personal and political elements that shape memory and history.

It is UN Disarmament Week, and two hibakusha have come to New York to serve as ” Special Communicators for a World without Nuclear Weapons.”

Wan and I had a chance to hear them speak  at Teachers College in an event organized by the Peace Education program.

“Call me Grandma,” Kazue Sueishi told the intimate classroom that had filled to hear her story.  Born in America, Sueishi returned to Hiroshima as a child with her parents.   She recalled her parents talking fondly of America.  In her nursery school, she remembered being asked to draw something.  She drew something beautiful with lots of crayon colors, and when asked what it was,  she said, “America”

When the war started, she said.  She didn’t feel angry.  She saw a silver  American B-29 plane everyday.  She would refer to it as an angel.  “Good Morning Angel,” she would say.

On August 6, 1945, her family had finished breakfast (an American style breakfast she added).  She was 18 years old at the time and worked in a military factory.  She had a slight fever and stayed home sick that day.  She was out on the street with her friend when it happened.  Blue sky.  Powerful flash.  She covered her eyes with 4 fingers and ears with her thumbs, then slid to a safe spot  like a baseball player sliding into home base.  B-29 had left Hiroshima.  She talked about the burns on her father, how the school building collapsed on her brother.   She saw school children 5-6 years old escaping with their teacher, crying out for their mommies.   She had given them a drink of water and umeboshi pickles which soothed them temporarily.  Later she went to check on them, and all of them were dead.   That is the reality of the bomb.

Later Sueishi—because she was “made in America”—had the opportunity to return to America.  She did not speak any English and on the boat ride over she only knew the words apple, cracker and water.  A man on the ship taught her two English phrases.  “Don’t touch me” and “Shut up”  She didn’t know what they meant but practiced saying them to herself and greeted her fellow Americans with “Don’t touch me. Shut up” when she arrived.  Grandma had a great sense of humor.

Nobody talked about the bombings, she said.  It had been 5 years, 1950, when a caucasian man came up to her and said  “You killed us in Pearl Harbor”

All of a sudden her memory started to come back.  She didn’t have anger or hate toward this man.  She felt sorry for him.  Maybe he had immediate family in Pearl Harbor, she wondered.  With her limited English she responded:

“You America/ Me Hiroshima/Bomb Hurt/You Brother/Me Sister/I love you.”

From that night on the memories came back, she was having a bit of a mental breakdown, and pimples and bruises all over her arms.

“In here,” she pointed to her heart, “there is a scar that never disappears until you die.”

“We are the last ones to be called Hibakusha.  There should be no more.”

She asked  us to repeat the following.   In similar fashion to the people’s microphone at the OWS protests, we echo:

Rest in Peace

We will not repeat the same error again

No more Hiroshima

No more Nagasaki

No mor war

May Peace Prevail on Earth

Setsuko Thurlow shared her story as well.  Born and raised in Hiroshima, Ms. Thurlow was 13 years old in 1945.  She was in 8th grade, but at that time, she wasn’t doing academic work.  The girls were mobilized to work for the army, decoding messages.  On August 6, the major gave his daily pep talk about patriotism and service to the emperor.  She remembered a white flash and then “floating in air.”  In actuality, the building was falling and her body went with it.   She landed in the rubble, and heard other voices shouting out for help.  There was a voice of encouragement too, one that guided her toward the  sun. When she got out, the rest of the building caught on fire. Only two other girls survived.  The others were burned alive.

There were the images.  Streams of people like ghosts.  Swollen bodies.  People holding their eyeballs in their hands.  Stomachs burst open with intestines.

Nobody had the strength to shout.  People simply “shuffled” escaping to the hillside.

She came across those asking for water.  There were no containers or buckets.  She went to the stream and washed the blood off of her, removed her blouse and soaked it in water.  The other victims drank what moisture they could from the soaked clothing.

This “primitive support” was all they could offer.

“I watched all night , my beloved city burn.”  People slept on contaminated soil.  “What did we know?”

“For 12 years, the Japanese government abandoned us.”  Gradually people came back to the city.  “If you go there now, you wonder if the bombing really took place.”

Ms. Thurlow had a lot to say about U.S. occupation.  While General MacArthur wanted to modernize Japan, bring labor and agricultural reform, he also brought censorship.  The period after the bomb was one in which the press was muted and many records (diaries, photos, films, medical charts) were confiscated.  She talked about the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission that was set up to gather data on the effects of radiation, but offered no help or treatment to the victims.

Rizzuto’s great-aunt, a Japanese American who experienced internment in the U.S.,  signed up to return to Hiroshima to be part of this commission.  “I thought we were helping,” she told Rizzuto.

“When she found out—and how did that happen?—that she was the enemy, that the US government was classifying all that information so no one could fully understand what the bomb did, that they were offering no help and no medical care—and here begins the outrage—that’s when she became a peace activist.”

Rizzuto learned that the ABCC has changed names to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) in 1975.   She states that “The RERF contradicts the ABCC wholesale, without ever admitting that it is a contradiction.  The mistakes, the manipulation, the evil if there was an evil, are simply gone.”

Ms. Thurlow continued her story  and how she came to  the U.S. on a scholarship to study in Virginia. It was 1954 and the U.S. had just tested the most powerful hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, impacting a Japanese fishing boat.  As a student, she was asked how the Japanese felt about this.  She spoke her mind and then was confronted with hate mail in the days that followed.

In the question and answer period of this talk, a young man asked how they respond to those who justified Hiroshima as the “necessary ” end to  WWII. Ms. Thurlow brought the conversation back to the students who challenged her in Virginia.  Back then, she felt sorry for them.  They, like Japanese soldiers, blindly accepted the narrative given to them by their leaders.  It was then that she decided that she needed to study history.  Now there is some historical consensus that the war was already over before Hiroshima.    And there was no justification for Nagasaki.  “Grandma” reminded us that Little Boy and Fat man were two different bombs.   They wanted to test them.  “We were guinea pigs,” Ms. Thurlow said.

A few days before this talk, I read Evan Osnos’ “Letter from Fukushima- The Fallout,” in the October 17, 2011 issue of the New Yorker.  In addition to discussing the events at the nuclear plant in Fukushima after the earthquake and tsunami earlier this year, Osnos provides a brief history of how Japan “became the most devoted, and improbable, advocate of nuclear technology, ” and the U.S.’s role in encouraging that development.

I wondered if the victims in Fukushima were also hibakusha. A young man in the audience of the talk recently came back from a Fukushima conference and heard the survivors refer to themselves as hibakusha.  He had asked a question about where the discussion on nuclear energy was in the context of disarmament.   Ms. Thurlow essentially linked the two.  She believes nuclear energy generation contributes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

At the end, Grandma posed a simple unanswered question for us all.  “Why do people make bombs and then use them?”  “I need an answer”

I am still absorbing all of their stories. I was struck by something I read in Hiroshima in the Morning.  Rizzuto interviewed a priest who tells her this:

Ichi go, ichi e (one time, one meeting)

Each time we encounter another person in our lives, he tells me, it may be the last time, and it may be very important, something may happen in that moment to change both of our lives… This is our time: just once, you and me.

I think about how wonderful this is to apply to the present. To be our better selves in each moment.  How not only physical encounters, but also encounters with words, books, stories, have the same potential—to change you.  To stay with you. Forever.

Ichi go, ichi e.

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