Rising From The Ashes: Miraculous Tale Of Man Who Survived Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb A Mile From Explosion

As we commemorate the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, AlterNet interviews Japanese-American author who writes of family’s heartfelt story and offers message of hope.

It was 1945 and 19-year-old Shinji Mikamo was on the rooftop of his Hiroshima house helping his father just like any other day when there was a blinding flash.  As Shinji turned toward the noise, a fireball sent him into darkness. An atomic bomb less than a mile away had just shattered Hiroshima, instantly killing 140,000 people.  Yet, Shinji miraculously managed to survive. 

While he experienced severe burns and wounds and watched his city crumble around him, Shinji managed to overcome extensive physical injuries and extreme hardships that plagued him for decades to come, by adopting a philosophy that allowed him to see past the cruelties to which he was exposed.

Much like many Americans felt following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were filled with resentment and bitterness which prevented many from moving forward from the disaster. Yet, Shinji managed to rise above the hate and forgive those who were accountable, offering a perspective that went against his strictly controlled military regime. 

Rising from the Ashes’ is Shinji’s personal story of survival and forgiveness, written by his daughter, Dr. Mikamo Akiko, in a bid to carry on his message of peace and humanity. On the anniversary weekend of Pearl Harbor, AlterNet sat down with Akiko to talk about the book, Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and the psychological impact of forgiveness. 

JODIE GUMMOW:Take us through the journey of writing this book. What compelled you to tell this story?

AKIKO MIKAMO:I grew up listening to my father’s stories.  Since I was a child, I always wanted to re-tell the narrative of how my father survived his ordeal.  My father offered a unique perspective in that he was less than a mile away from the explosion and yet survived.  My father always raised me to believe it was wrong to hate America or any other nation who commits war atrocities.  He would say, ‘You have to understand the bigger picture of what was happening in the world at that time.  Blame the war on people’s unwillingness to understand another person’s perspective, not on the individual.’ He wanted me to learn English and about foreign culture to act as a bridge across oceans to help people from other premises with different values understand and empathize with one another so that no one would ever suffer from a nuclear bombing again.   So I grew up thinking I am going to write this book and tell the world the story of my family and how they survived. If we have to go through such a terrible tragedy, what can we learn from this? First and foremost, we can hold hands in unity and never allow this to happen again. Our worst enemy of yesterday can be our best friend of tomorrow. It was because of my father’s words that I moved to the United States twenty-five years ago and studied multicultural psychology. It took me three years of comprehensive research before the book came together.

JG:The book is written in the first person as though you are your father telling the story yourself.  Why did you write this book from Shinji’s perspective and not your own?

AK: I wanted Shinji to talk to the readers and talk to everybody in the world.  I knew that this would ultimately have the strongest impact on the readers. This is a person who went through unbelievable physical pain, underwent numerous surgeries without anesthesia, suffered radiation poisoning, lost his entire family to the war and endured extreme poverty and hardships in a tightly controlled strict societal structure where he was considered an orphan, street rat and discriminated against by the Japanese Hiroshima survivors.  Yet, he still had hope and managed to build a family.  He never hated Americans like so many others around him and instead tried to teach people about the power of forgiveness. He got bashed for doing so and for not expressing hate towards the United States. He would say that the events in history, what happened in China and Pearl Harbor, were not because one person was wrong and the other right. Rather, humans have a tendency and weakness to lash out and retaliate against others because we believe in our righteousness. But the paradox is that this is what got us into the disaster in the first place.

JG: Your father, who at 87-years-old is still alive and well, lost his entire family to the war.  How did he manage to survive?

AK:How he survived on the rooftop less than a mile away from the explosion is a miracle. In an explainable sense, my father’s father was a really strong man and pulled him from the rubble literally. He put my father first and refused to let him give up, even when everything looked bleak.  He convinced my father that it was impossible for him to think he could die. A father in Japan has much authority over the family. His father ultimately pushed him through and physically dragged him across Japan looking for help.  From a practical sense, my father heard from medical specialists that radiation intensity is not evenly distributed at all distances.  Some spots have higher levels and lower levels, with the debris in the air affecting its distribution differently.  My father thinks he must have been in the shadow of such debris.  But he did suffer from radiation sickness and tuberculosis.  Yet somehow, he found a lot of angels who were kind and really self-sacrificing and after five days my father was transported to a military hospital alongside other injured civilian employees. The military came and picked him up to take him to the temporary shelter but his father was unable to go.  That was the last time he ever saw his father.

JG: You talk about the political situation in the book and say the public was led to believe the actual reverse of what was really going on. Can you take us through the scene of Japan during that period?

AK:After the Midway battles in the Second World War, Japan started to lose. However, the media was heavily censored and anyone who uttered or talked independently was severely punished by authorities. It was totally military controlled. Anyone who expressed doubt was punished for treason. At that time Japan was so scarce with materials, they put every metal into the forge to make ammunition. Pots and pans were taken, nails, all metals were to be donated or sold to the government forcefully or at very cheap rates. When my father saw a statue of a prominent prime minster laying on the ground to forge into metal, he thought to himself, ‘We’re not going to win’. Placing a statue or picture of a person on the ground is the ultimate disrespect in Japan. If we have to put this prime minister into the forge to melt him to make ammunition, then such scarcity certainly could not point to success.  Yet, when you’re taught that Japan is going to win and the media only shows success of that kind, in consciousness you still believe it.  

Right after the attack, there were no newspapers, no radios and everything was burned. Hiroshima got the news much, much later.  They didn’t know what the bomb was. They thought it was a series of bombs, not one single powerful bomb. My father didn’t hear the news about surrendering until days after. In the nation, after the bomb, the media changed. And all of the sudden, there was Emperor Hirohito surrendering in his most famous line telling the Japanese people that we 'bear the unbearable' and we 'tolerate the intolerable' but as a nation we have decided to surrender for our future.  The whole country was devastated. He was a living God. Nobody had even ever heard the Emperor's voice up until that point. It was only then that he became a living person. And the whole nation fell apart.

JG:You include both the historical aspect of what transpired and also an ultimate message of forgiveness in your book. Why is this message of forgiveness so important for society today in the current political climate in the context of war?

AM: As a clinical psychologist, I have seen firsthand the hatred and grudges that people on an individual level to a country level hold when they don’t understand things or each other, whether it’s religious, cultural or language. And it’s all based on fear. People strike out with hatred when they feel threatened or deprived or damaged or attacked. It’s universal. It’s not about an atomic bomb or an attack on Pearl Harbor. It all falls under an umbrella of human emotion, which is what gets us into trouble as a society. Every time there is bombing or hate crime, it hurts all of us in one way or another. Holding a grudge is poisonous to our souls. Spiritually and psychologically, it is proven that grudges hurt us but forgiveness helps us heal and sends a positive message to offenders and to our children and generations to come and that has a ripple effect. Forgiveness is the key to solving conflict on all levels.

JG:In the media today, what do you think is greatest misconception about what happened during that period in World War II?

AK:From the Japanese perspective, our government continues to minimize what the Japanese were doing in the Pacific and even now debates the facts surrounding Pearl Harbor.  As for American history, it seems some believe that it was necessary to use the atomic bomb to end the war, but this is not quite true. If you look at historical and legal documentation, Japan had already begun peace talks with the Soviet Union to mediate with the allies before the bombings.  The atomic bomb was not done to end the war.  If that had been the case, the second bomb in Nagasaki would never have been dropped.  In fact, both cities were much more smaller in size than larger cities which had been air-raided many times before, yet remained untouched.

JG: In the book your father says that in terms of who is to blame, the fault lay with the war itself, not the United States. How was your dad able to push aside any feelings of resentment, and instead show the world that it's important for us all to strive to understand each other?

AK: One big factor which shaped his ideology was his own father. In the first couple of days after the bombing, his father saved him and pushed him to live. His father was in a way a renaissance man. He had this foresight and insight and advocated against the government. The reason my father and his father were on the top of the roof in the first place when the bomb struck was because of the government’s ridiculous strict demolition order to destroy certain houses, which my father and his father opposed. The government believed that with all the ongoing air strikes, our homes spread fires.  Shinji and his father were forced to take down their home even though they knew it made no logical sense.  But nobody could question the government.  The government didn’t concern itself with where we would go or make any housing arrangements for its people. They were able to brainwash the masses because everybody believed the Emperor was God. Those who wanted to leave the city were prevented. 

JG:Tell us about your non-profit organization, San Diego Worldwide Initiative to Safeguard Humanity (San Diego-WISH). Did this arise from feeling a sense of responsibility to carry on your father’s legacy?

AK:Yes, I set up this organization to carry on my father’s philosophy.  I started WISH three years ago after I felt I had gained enough perspective, insight and understanding of humanity to put the message of forgiveness and peace together. The message of WISH is to raise awareness for peace education and promotion. We want to educate children so that we will never have a mass disaster like this again.  We do a lot of activities and workshops to teach people how to get along. I feel I was born for that purpose to carry out this legacy to send a message that would positively impact upon people.

JG: Do you have concerns for the future of your own children in today’s world?

AK:I have serious concerns. There is so much hatred in the world. So much premature judgment and people not willing to hear the other person’s point of view. In my work, I teach empathy which is different from sympathy. Empathy means that you can have different opinions but put away your own subjective feelings and judgment even if you think the other side is wrong. Empathy is the essence of providing psychotherapy. My father chose to empathize with Americans to understand the context and environment they were in which led them to drop the bomb. I want people to know that there are ways to let go and find peace and that we can promote love and forgiveness and develop empathy to forge a healthy mental state.

JG:With Pearl Harbor anniversary this weekend, and a film adaptation of the book in the works, what are you hoping Americans might take away from this story in commemorating history?       

AK: My message is that while we must commemorate those whose lives were lost, we don’t have to hold resentment and we don’t have to hate, because if we love ourselves, if we strive to believe in our children and the next generation, then such action is counter-intuitive.  If someone killed my children, sure, I might want to be bitter too. It’s natural. I have a complete understanding for people who may still feel resentment toward the Japanese for bombing Pearl Harbor.  People use grudges as a crutch to live on when have a big blow of huge loss in their life. But the fact is, that’s not going to bring back the lost ones and holding on to hatred will not make you stronger inside. I really invite people to read this story, relate to the universal notions of forgiveness and find a means to apply it to their own lives.

Rising from the Ashes’ by Dr. Akiko Mikamo can be purchased onlinehere.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.


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