The Battle for a Nuclear-Free World is Not Over
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On a Monday afternoon in late April, Reiko Yamada stood at the front of a small windowless auditorium at Stuyvesant High School in New York City's Tribeca. Her jet-black hair and upright posture made her seem younger than her 80 years, but she wasn’t a teacher fending off retirement. Dozens of students gathered before her to share her story. As a young girl in Hiroshima, Japan, she survived when her city was decimated by the world’s first nuclear blast in the course of warfare, on Aug. 6, 1945.
Through an interpreter, Yamada told the students about her interrupted education, her days during the war spent dismantling some of Hiroshima’s buildings to slow the spread of fire that bombings could cause. She told them about the moment, resting in the shade, that she and her schoolmates noticed yet another B-29 bomber sailing through the sky. The Allied firebombing campaign on Japan had made them a common sight, but this one, as it turned out, carried a different sort of weapon. And she told them about her school’s playground, converted to an open-air crematorium for the dead in the days after the nuclear explosion decimated her city.
Every few sentences, Yamada paused for her interpreter to relate her words before softly picking up again. Soon after that explosion, she recalled, throngs of people flocked outward from the city center. “They were severely burnt, their faces were blackened, it was hard to tell what they actually were,” said Yamada. “It was almost as if many of them were not even human anymore.”
70 Years On
Those who survived the war-ending blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known in Japan as “hibakusha,” a word sometimes translated as “explosion-affected people.” Along with experiences that none have since been able to forget, today’s hibakusha carry passbooks that grant them extra health benefits, conferred by the Japanese state in an effort to counter the physical effects of the blast. Decades after exposure to radiation, victims still suffer from higher than average cancer rates.
Hibakusha today number over 200,000, a figure nearly as high as the number of civilians who perished in the only historical uses of atomic bombs as weapons. By the end of 1945, said Yamada, “210,000 people had died between Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Most of those who perished belonged to Hiroshima, even though the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later was stronger. The latter city’s valleys had offered more protection to its inhabitants.
Together with Michio Hakariya, a Nagasaki survivor, and in partnership the New York-based nonprofit Hibakusha Stories, Yamada toured the city’s high schools this past spring to share stories of their ordeals with students. Twice a year, Hibakusha Stories has hosted a small group of such survivors, guiding them as they visit several schools a day for over a week. One of the organization’s cofounders, Kathleen Sullivan, estimated they have visited around 100 schools – and thousands of students – in New York since Hibakusha Stories was founded in 2008.
But the hibakusha aren’t simply a collection of victims, their stories just windows on the atrocities of the past. By sharing their experience, they hope to inspire the next generation to act for a nuclear-free world.
“As long as we have a voice, obviously we hibakusha are going to continue to work at it as much as we can,” Yamada said. Before slowly unfolding her story to students, she begins with a forward-thinking plea. “There are still so many atomic bombs on this earth, which also means that this world is a very dangerous place. And that's the reason I'm here sharing my experience with you.” The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons notes that today, nine countries possess a combined arsenal of more than 17,000 nuclear weapons.