Chugoku Shimbun and Nishinippon Shimbun partner on project detailing hopes imbued in A-bomb survivor testimonies

by Miho Kuwajima from Chugoku Shimbun and Eiko Tokumashi from Nagasaki Branch of Nishinippon Shimbun, Staff Writers

In this year marking the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings, A-bomb survivors face a major test in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited their activities related to sharing their A-bomb experiences with the public. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will finally take effect in January next year. The stories of A-bomb survivors, who have spoken passionately about their hardships since the atomic bombings, have moved Japan and the world to act. What should the rest of us take away from this? We asked this question of two Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bomb survivors.

Nagasaki: Toyoko Urabe, 90

Atomic bombing is seared into her mind; Nuclear weapons must never be used again

When we request A-bomb survivors for an interview, some refuse, assuming no one would ever understand their feelings. What prevents them from speaking about their experiences even 75 years after the disastrous events? We visited Toyoko Urabe, 90, a resident of Nagasaki City, to listen to her story.

I was 15 years old, in my third year at Nagasaki Prefectural Nagasaki Girls’ High School, when I was exposed to the atomic bombing at the Ohashi Plant of the Nagasaki Mitsubishi Arms Factory, 1.1 kilometers from the hypocenter. I was working as a mobilized student there. When I escaped from the plant after the bombing, a hellish sight spread out before me: people with hugely swollen bodies, horses, and a little boy whose face was split perfectly in two. The wounded flocked to the river for water to drink. As time passed, those people increased in number.

My 93-year-old husband experienced the bombing when he was working in the design office at the same plant. He lost his mother and four siblings in the bombing. The remains of his two younger brothers were never found. He and his father cremated the bodies of his mother and two younger sisters but could take home only a portion of ashes from their necks because they did not have anything to hold all the remains. He says he can’t even cry when he thinks of it. He prefers not to talk much about his experience.

I only found out we were at the same plant a little after we were married. When someone called on me to speak about my A-bombing experience, the person asked my husband to share his story too if he, too, happened to be an A-bomb survivor. He declined. When the same person came and asked him again, he made up his mind and hesitantly spoke up. Although I knew about his situation from his father, it was the first time I had heard about his experiences directly from him. I felt sorry for him. I truly understand his feelings about not wanting to speak, though.

Speaking with A-bomb survivors has made us realize they continue to be affected by A-bomb radiation even today. Some have scars from fragments of broken glass, and others suffer from A-bomb diseases.

Nuclear weapons are not simple bombs. For some time after the bombing, my gums were swollen, and my hair fell out in handfuls. That experience is imprinted in my memory. I go to a beauty salon once a week because I still can’t wash my hair on my own.

In the bombing, a glass chip became embedded in my ear. After the war, my mother took me to a doctor because she worried that the glass might come out of the ear. We learned that my eardrum had been pushed inward and damaged. The doctor said my ear would be all right but might pose a problem as I aged. He was right. I now have trouble hearing. Radiation from atomic weapons destroys the body’s various tissues. Survivors face the persistent fear of coming down with some sort of illness. Atomic bombs must never be used again.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Ceremony was held in Nagasaki City on a reduced scale. Looking at one woman wiping her tears with a black handkerchief held tightly in her hands, I sensed that the feelings of A-bomb survivors have not changed even 75 years after the bombings. For her part, Ms. Urabe proceeded to a table to offer flowers as a representative of the families of A-bomb victims.

Many of my friends died in the atomic bombing. During the ceremony, I thought deeply of those things, such as what is the meaning of taking the lives of living things.

I remember what my father told me: “Trees and plants won’t grow for 100 years after the bombing. But you are alive. You have to take care of yourself.”

Despite his words, trees and plants have grown. We have survived until the present time. However difficult things may have been, I am alive.

Hiroshima: Yoshiko Kajimoto, 89

Thinking that now is her last chance, she shares A-bombing experience with the hope that young people will realize her dreams

Yoshiko Kajimoto, 89, was exposed to the atomic bombing at a munitions factory in Misasahonmachi, Hiroshima (now part of Nishi Ward), 2.3 kilometers from the hypocenter. Her father, who searched for his 14-year-old daughter Yoshiko for three days, died one-and-a-half years after the bombing. Her mother was hospitalized repeatedly.

When I crawled out from under the collapsed factory that day, the flesh of my leg was so deeply gouged the bone was visible. There was a junior high school boy whose body was burned all over, carrying an arm that had been torn from his own body. He died right before my eyes. I share my account of that time with elementary and junior high school students in the hope that they could learn about the cruelty of the atomic bombings and the importance of life from those of us who lived during and after the war.

Many A-bomb survivors still do not share their experiences even with family. My grandmother was exposed to the bombing also in Misasahonmachi and lost her 16-year-old sister, but she never spoke to us about it. I first learned about the reality after she died at the age of 81, from a memoir she had left behind. What made Ms. Kajimoto take that first step?

I held a grudge against the United States and the atomic bombing itself for taking my father’s life. I long avoided the issue with the desire to forget. Twenty years ago, my grandchild, who was in junior high at the time, pushed me by saying, “Grandma, why don’t you try?” That’s how I started sharing my experience through my testimonies.

At first, I was so nervous my legs trembled, and I could barely speak. However, having witnessed a girl taking notes with tears in her eyes and a boy totally absorbed in my talk, I decided to continue. When an American high school boy said to me “I’m sorry,” I thought that young people with no responsibility for the bombings shouldn’t feel obligated to apologize. My hatred toward the United States disappeared.

She repeatedly testified in Europe and the United States and has had many opportunities to share her experience with political leaders and other leading figures visiting Japan. Last year in November, she spoke before Pope Francis on his visit to Hiroshima, which was reported by media around the world.

I was given only two minutes for the speech. I revised my draft again and again. “Souls of those who lost their lives”—those words came to me just two days before the day of the speech. So many people died a painful death without knowing what had happened to them. It was hard to continue standing in the cold weather, but I was concentrating on conveying the regrets of the dead. The pope was looking at me and the translation in his hand in turns, so I’m pretty sure my message got across.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is set to take effect on January 22 next year. While the A-bombed cities are filled with hope, the crucial moment is yet to come.

I was very happy to hear that even poor and small countries ratified the treaty, but we must also involve the nine nuclear-weapon states, not to mention Japan, in this effort. Those leaders say that nuclear weapons are necessary as a “deterrent,” but the weapons could be exploded in an accident of some kind. I’d like to ask them if they would still be able to say it couldn’t be helped if their parents or children were to die in a nuclear explosion.

Currently, 38 survivors, whose average age is 85.68 years, are commissioned to share their accounts of the bombing by the Hiroshima City government. This year, three of those who provided their testimonies have died. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, numerous schools have canceled school trips to listen to the accounts. The activities of those who provide their testimonies are still restricted.

Early this month, I spoke at three elementary schools in Shiga Prefecture that typically would visit Hiroshima on school trips. I’m fearful of the coronavirus, of course, but I don’t know if I’ll be alive next year. With the idea that now is my last chance, I want to use my precious time to share my experience. I took a Shinkansen train and a local train to Shiga while lugging around a heavy load of things.

I still worry whether nuclear weapons can really be eliminated just by my continuing to speak, but doing nothing would be a worse idea, right? People don’t understand how horrible nuclear weapons are. History will be repeated if no one remembers. I would like high school and college students in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to join hands to realize our hopes.

(Originally published on December 21, 2020)