Message to Hiroshima Summit: Susumu Nakanishi, scholar of Japanese literature, asks that human dignity be reaffirmed by G7 leaders in A-bombed city

by Michiko Tanaka, Senior Staff Writer

Susumu Nakanishi, 93, a resident of Kyoto City and a leading scholar of the classical Japanese work of literature Manyoshu (in English, ‘A Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’), happens to be the leading contender for the person thought to have coined the name of the current historical era in Japan “Reiwa.” Mr. Nakanishi attended the junior high school affiliated with Hiroshima Higher Normal School (now Hiroshima University Junior and Senior High School) from 1942 to 1943, during World War II. Some of his school teachers were killed in the atomic bombing. Ahead of the summit of the G7 (Group of Seven industrialized nations) to be held in Hiroshima in May, Mr. Nakanishi called for leaders attending the summit to “reaffirm human dignity in the place that experienced the absurd tragedy of the atomic bombing.”


Due to the transfer of my father, who worked for the Japan Ministry of Railways (present-day Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism), I spent about four years in Hiroshima, starting from the fifth grade of elementary school. I have many memories of the city. The Ota River in those days was clean and beautiful, so I frequently swam there and caught small fish, called goby, which we would deep-fry. They were delicious.

My experience studying at a junior high school affiliated with Hiroshima Higher Normal School was indispensable for the development of my career. Teaching Japanese at the school were top-notch instructors, such as the late Yoichi Fujiwara, a great scholar of dialectology who later taught at Hiroshima University. Atsushi Semure, who died at age of 31, was another of those teachers. The classes taught by Mr. Semure, with eyes sparkling behind his glasses, were fascinating, but he died in the atomic bombing. War is senseless. War is unacceptable.

While not revealing his connection to the creation of the current era name, he explained that the word “Reiwa” represents a wish for beautiful peace.

Era names reflect the goals of a new time-period. The new era name consists of the character “令” (with the phonetic pronunciation ‘rei’), meaning exquisite beauty, as seen in the expressions “令息” (honorific for ‘son’) or “令嬢” (honorific for ‘daughter’), and “和” (pronounced ‘wa’), signifying harmony and peace. With that in mind, the era name proposes that we discard our foolishness and seek exquisite peace.

When all is said and done, however, humans are forgetful. One Japanese haiku poem, based on the theme of the dates of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as of the war’s conclusion, reads “Now it is August, the time I think of the 6th, 9th, and 15th of the month.” But some people might not understand what those dates even signify. Precisely because humans are forgetful, we must hold on to reason and intellect.

I believe national borders should be eliminated. If nations are considered to be a unit, humans from different countries tend to turn on and kill each other. There are other enemies out there that we need to cooperate on and tackle together, such as climate change and viral pandemics. We have to consider things based on the unit of humanity. Everyone should have awareness that the earth is for all of us and share our wealth with each other, transcending national borders and race. If people around the world are awakened to that idea, earth will become a peaceful planet, although it might take ten thousand years to achieve.

With concern about the future outlook of Ukraine, Mr. Nakanishi expects the Hiroshima Summit to serve as a first step toward peace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has slyly hinted at the use of nuclear weapons. The attitude on our side is that, well, in that case, we must also exhibit strength. The debate on nuclear deterrence serves as nothing but a temporary fix. We have to reexamine the current understanding that places value on the strength of power. Real strength, however, is not at all derived from force.

Hiroshima reveals the foolishness of human beings. The atomic bombing forced victims to die without dignity. I hope the leaders that gather together for the summit reaffirm that, from their perspective as representatives of human beings rather than nations, human dignity is more important than anything. The United Nations falling into insignificance might also be one cause of the current confusion. With that in mind, I hope the summit can grow into a forum with real power to reduce the number of foolish dictators in the world.

Susumu Nakanishi
Born in Tokyo in 1929, Susumu Nakanishi graduated with a doctoral degree from the University of Tokyo’s graduate school. Mr. Nakanishi has served in many posts, including director of the Koshinokuni Museum of Literature in Toyama Prefecture, chairperson of the Japan Studies Foundation, and professor emeritus at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. Known for his research into comparative literature and Japanese culture, he is the author of numerous publications. He received Japan’s Order of Cultural Merit in 2013.

(Originally published on January 24, 2023)