The Battle for a Nuclear-Free World is Not Over

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.

“Reiko [Yamada] has been dedicating her life to nuclear weapons abolition,” Sullivan said. “We've been fortunate and blessed to work with her.” Yamada currently lives in Tokyo and visits Hiroshima several times a year. When she and other hibakusha come to New York, Sullivan and her husband open their own homes to them. "It's not lost on anyone," Sullivan said, how difficult these recollections of war may be for the survivors. “The hibakusha really sacrifice their own comfort to retell the story."

Their accounts also break a taboo. Keiko Tsuyama, a Japanese journalist based in New York, said discussion of the bombings’ aftermath wasn’t always possible in Japan. Most survivors “were 50 years old or 60 years old when they started talking about what truly happened that day,” Tsuyama said.

The social climate immediately after the war’s end was closed to cathartic dialogue. In September 1945, the Allied occupation banned Japanese press from reporting on the atomic explosions. In The Struggle Against the Bomb historian Lawrence S. Wittner suggests that the censorship was born of American officials’ fear that “the publication of such material might tarnish the reputation of the United States both in Japan and in other nations.” The deliberate curtailing of information on the bombings may have contributed to the taboo among the survivors; generations later, some are finally telling their stories publicly for the first time.

Robert Croonquist is an educator who, alongside Kathleen Sullivan, co-founded Hibakusha Stories. “We believe in the concept of remembrance responsibility, that we are gifting the youth with these stories,” said Croonquist. “[These are] now their stories to tell, and they have a responsibility to remember them and tell them.”

 Fighting for a Nuclear Free World

Hibakusha Stories and its guests also hope their work will help drive international policy. In recent years the organization has supported hibakusha, by serving as both editors and sponsors, in addressing both the United Nations’ General Assembly and its First Committee, which deals with issues related to disarmament. In an email, Sullivan wrote that while it’s difficult to gauge the impact of these testimonies on policy-makers, Hibakusha Stories’ goal is to seed the next generation to fight for a nuclear-free world. “As far as we are concerned, if one student made a difference with their lives regarding nuclear abolition, this we would consider a measurable success,” Sullivan wrote.

Hibakusha Stories will have to hope it has reached such a student already or can do so in the coming months, as next year will be its last. Croonquist cites two factors in the project’s end date. “Number one, we're pretty much a volunteer organization, and volunteers burn out. Number two is that the survivors are getting really old, and it's really hard for them to come.”

As survivors rather than veterans, the hibakusha still alive today make for a relatively young population of World War II’s legacy. But even the youngest are now moving into their early seventies.

“It's good that [the hibakusha testimony] is happening, because we are losing them,” said Clifton Truman Daniel, who is ex-President Harry Truman’s eldest grandson. Truman, after four years of U.S. fighting in World War II, decided to use the atomic bomb that had just been developed in the United States to try to end the war.

Daniel first got a phone call from a hibakusha named Masahiro Sasaki in the summer of 2004. Sasaki’s sister, who died of leukemia more than 10 years after the bombing, has since become a symbol of innocent victims of war. Her death also highlighted the lingering effects of nuclear exposure.

At the Japan Society just blocks from the U.N., Daniel spoke recently about his professional and personal relationship to the hibakusha, at a lecture alongside Hibakusha Stories’ two guests. Students from six New York high schools were in attendance. Yamada and Hakariya – who survived the bombing in Nagasaki only because his mother insisted he stay home and do homework that day – were telling their stories once more.

“Every year in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as part of the ceremonies they add the names to the memorials of every hibakusha who has died during the previous year,” Daniel said after the discussion. “And it's thousands every year. They're aging.”

The people behind Hibakusha Stories feel that after the organization closes, the network it has created will still prove useful. Back at Stuyvesant High School, one of the storytellers is the grand-daughter of an atomic bomb survivor. She calls herself a third-generation hibakusha, and as interpreters whisper her words back into the ears of the first generation, she tells students, "We have to think of what kind of world we want to live in, of what kind of society we want to live in."

If Hibakusha Stories has succeeded in finding the sympathy of the students it’s touched over the past few years, the organization will have helped shape their thinking along exactly those lines.    


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