History of Hiroshima : 1945-1995

History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 13, Article 2)

The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

by Yoshifumi Fukushima, Staff Writer

Note: This article was originally published in 1995.

The Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, located in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, not far from the hypocenter, contains a register which holds the names of about 187,000 victims of the atomic bomb. Nearby the Cenotaph is the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, a monument to the victims who remain unidentified. The remains of another 70,000 people rest here. All are A-bomb victims whose lives were stolen away by the catastrophe. Consequently, this part of the city is thought of as a holy site, a repository of souls.

The inscription on the cenotaph, which has weathered two controversies over the appropriateness of its words, is a prayer for the dead and an appeal for nuclear abolition. Even now, 50 years after the end of the war, debate continues between Japan and the United States with regard to responsibility for the bombing. However, in an atomic age in which “nuclear-affected sufferers” are constantly created, an inscription constituting a “vow of mankind” holds a heavy significance. To the remains of those within the memorial mound, still seeking a proper resting place, the passage of 50 years since the dropping of the atomic bomb is no turning point.

The survivors pray for the victims to rest in peace and vow to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again. In this lies the consciousness which grasps the holy nature of the park.

Toshiko Saeki, “guardian” of the mound, conveys the cries of A-bomb victims

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park has begun to swell with spring visitors. The crowds spill into the vicinity of the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, in the northwest corner of the park. With her back turned to the bustle, a small, elderly woman remains focused on sweeping up fallen leaves with a rake. She murmurs softly: “The remains of the victims who haven’t been returned to their families will never be at rest.”

The mound measures 10 meters across and 3.5 meters high. Within the mound are the remains of about 70,000 victims who remain unidentified. The woman recalls that one year a middle-aged couple were picnicking on the gravel by the mound. She told them that the remains of the dead were located underneath that spot. The couple responded by saying, “Bones? That’s sickening. Quick, let’s move away from here.” Then they packed up their things and hurried away. The woman was saddened by their reaction, but could not feel anger toward them. “They just don’t know,” she said. “That’s why we have to convey the truth to people.”

These victims died without the chance to leave a word to their families. Half a century has passed since then, and no one has appeared to claim their remains. “If the dead could speak, what would they say?” the woman wonders. “That’s what I want to know...” Moved by this thought, she has long weeded the mound and gathered the leaves that fall around it. Now 75, she has assumed the role of “guardian” of the mound, tidying the area for nearly 40 years. Her name is Toshiko Saeki and she lives in Higashi Ward, Hiroshima.

Ms. Saeki’s heart remains heavy with grief and remorse over the deaths of family members and her own actions in the aftermath of the bombing.

When the atomic bomb exploded in the sky above Hiroshima, a hot wind buffeted her body. As far as she could see, the city of Hiroshima was in flames. On a visit to her sister’s home in Asaminami Ward, where her 5-year-old son had been evacuated, she was able to survive the blast. However, her eldest brother and his family, as well as her mother and in-laws, all perished in the fire.

Later that day she entered the devastated heart of the city. When she finally located her brother at the shelter where his family had sought refuge, his skull was visible through the wounds to his head. Her 6-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew were already approaching death. In an attempt to let the young children feel the warmth of their parent, Ms. Saeki laid them next to their father. Her brother, unable to move, moaned, “A father should help his children when they’re suffering, but I can’t even reach out to comfort them.”

Her younger sister was severely wounded, too, and died crying out, “The flesh is peeling from my bones! Oh, it’s so painful!” Then, at the beginning of September, her brother-in-law returned from the ruins with her mother’s skull. He was able to identify her from the thick lenses in her glasses. But Ms. Saeki, petrified at the sight, could not bring herself to touch the remains of her kind mother.

Within two months from the day the atomic bomb was dropped, 13 of her loved ones were gone.

Ms. Saeki’s voice trails off as she says, “While I was searching for my relatives in the ruins, I did things that I can’t bear to tell other people.” After the bombing, she helped up one young girl, thinking it was her sister. As fire approached, the girl cried for help and grabbed hold of Ms. Saeki’s legs. Both were in tears as Ms. Saeki shouted “Let go of me!” and fled. To escape the ground’s smoldering heat, she then trod on top of the dead. After the war ended, each night the girl would appear in her dreams and she awoke drenched in sweat. “Forgive me,” Ms. Saeki told her. “If I didn’t do what I did, I would have died.”

“I can’t forget what happened that day,” she explained. “The dead still cling to me. So I decided to live with the victims.”

She still holds a vivid memory of the day she first stepped into the room beneath the memorial mound. It was autumn, 27 years since the war ended. She had already been tidying up the mound area for more than ten years, an act that began of her own volition.

The small room contained stacks of boxes of all sizes which held the remains of A-bomb victims. Though she had heard that all the victims at the mound had not been identified, she found some marked with names and addresses. Perhaps, she thought, their entire family perished in the blast and no one is left to claim their remains. She was shocked at the number of victims who had no home to return to. On the first page of a diary that she keeps as a record of her experience at the mound, she wrote the following words: “I have decided to talk to those who no longer have a voice.”

During the seven months she was permitted to visit the room inside the mound, she compiled a register of the remains. Using names, addresses, and a map, she walked to the homes of bereaved families. People, though, were suspicious of her sudden appearance, and some even shouted at her: “Why are you coming here now?” Each time this occurred, she would explain: “I’m also someone who spent years grieving as I searched for the remains of my own loved ones.”

The remains of Ms. Saeki’s mother-in-law and father-in-law had been returned two-and-a-half decades after the war ended.

One day she abruptly heard her mother-in-law’s name over the radio. A list of remains within the memorial mound was being announced in hopes of locating surviving relatives. Ms. Saeki couldn’t believe her ears. Until that moment, she had believed that her mother-in-law’s body had been cremated at a temple in Hakushima, though the family had received no ashes and the residue of the cremation fire, placed in a small bowl, was their only memento. On the envelope she received with the box of remains was written her mother-in-law’s name and age. This was the summer of 1969, a year after the city made public the register of remains.

The following year, Ms. Saeki carefully searched the register. She found a name that differed from her father-in-law’s name by only one character, an error between two characters that could easily be made. However, her husband balked at claiming the remains for this person, telling her, “What if it’s really someone else?” But this did not deter her. “These are the remains I’ve been searching for and I want to bring them home,” she said. Later, she learned that the name on the register had indeed included an error. Her father-in-law had sat in one corner of the temple grounds and died with his eyes still open.

In the summer 28 years after the atomic bombing, Asayo Furuike, 94, a resident of Fuchu-cho, Hiroshima Prefecture, stood in front of the mound with a box held tightly in her arms. The box contained the remains of her husband, an A-bomb victim, and it was Ms. Saeki’s efforts that produced this bittersweet reunion. Looking at the white box, Ms. Furuike murmured, “I’m finally a widow...”

She was 44 years old when her husband disappeared. They had five children, two of them still in elementary school and junior high school, so she had no time to grieve. However, in one corner of her heart she was always hoping that her husband had somehow survived and waiting for him to return. In a thank-you letter that she wrote to Ms. Saeki, she said: “The moment that I held his remains, my heart was moved in a way that I’m unable to express...”

Before the memorial mound was the Memorial Monument for the War Victims, which was fashioned soon after the war. Bereaved family members would gather there at a gravestone and one father was heard to tell his small child, who was carried on his back: “If you want to visit your mother, this is where she is.” Today, when family members come to the mound, Ms. Saeki asks them “Have you received the remains of your loved one?” and she shows them the city’s register of remains. The mound is a place where the souls of the survivors and the dead intersect.

Fifty years have passed since the bombing, yet there are still family members searching for the remains of their loved ones. Ms. Saeki feels she has a duty to bear witness to the grief and pain she has observed in others while watching over the mound, rather than hiding them away in her heart. Starting 15 years ago, she began recounting her experiences and the meaning of the memorial mound to junior high and high school students visiting the mound on school trips. She tells them: “This is where you can feel the cries from that day and reflect on the victims.”

The mound sits off the straight axis that links Peace Memorial Museum, the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, and the Atomic Bomb Dome. But Ms. Saeki continues to share her message that this site is “the hidden Hiroshima.”

After the war, Ms. Saeki and her husband, who returned from his military service in China, raised three children--though doctors had advised her to abort the last child, saying that the pregnancy could be life-threatening. She then had her ovaries removed, and underwent an operation for uterine cancer. Her husband, who continued to bring home nutritional supplements for her while telling her not to overexert herself, passed away seven years ago. Her children exclaim, “It’s a wonder you’ve lived this long.”

“I don’t know how much longer I have,” Ms. Saeki said. Therefore, on August 5 of this year she will light candles next to the memorial mound and hold a solitary vigil for the victims’ remains. She intends to share the regret of the bereaved families, as well as her own emotions, with the silent dead.

Visitors come and go to this holy site, and the remains of further victims likely lie in the earth beneath their footsteps. Last year marked the defining moment of 50 years since the bombing, according to Buddhist tradition. “But Hiroshima has no age,” Ms. Saeki said. “That day is always in my heart. Even as the city becomes a beautiful place again, full of greenery, until the tools that kill human beings are gone, Hiroshima can’t grow older.”

Ms. Saeki wears black or navy blue year round, reflecting a perpetual state of mourning. The remains of Hiroshima’s victims constantly weigh on her mind.

70,000 victims still unidentified

In January 1946, the Hiroshima Society for Praying for the War Dead was established to organize memorial services for A-bomb victims scattered across the city. In May of that year, a memorial monument for the war victims, a mound-shaped structure called a stupa, was built at Jisenji-no-Hana. Initially, it was known as the Memorial Monument for the War Victims. In July, with the aid of donations from the public, a crypt and chapel were also created. As the city moved forward with reconstruction efforts, victims’ remains were found along roads, in houses, and at sites of eviction. The remains were buried without being identified.

In May 1950, the separation of government and religion, as stipulated by the Potsdam Orders, was implemented and the City of Hiroshima stepped away from the Hiroshima Society for Praying for the War Dead and the society was reorganized as a non-governmental organization, known as the Hiroshima Society for Praying for the War Victims. In July 1955, today’s memorial mound was built north of the original memorial, maintaining the mound-like shape. When the new memorial was completed, remains found throughout the Hiroshima area, including on Ninoshima Island, were collected and brought to the memorial mound. In all, the mound now holds the remains of about 70,000 victims whose identities are unknown and another 2,432 people whose identities are known yet have not been claimed.

The City of Hiroshima has made public the list of unclaimed remains held in the memorial mound by placing the list in such locations as Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In its efforts to return these remains to family members, the city has also made this list available throughout Japan from the summer of 1985. Since 1955, when the mound was completed, family members of 1,547 victims have been located. Of these, the remains of 974 victims have been claimed and the remains of 573 others have been laid permanently to rest within the mound. Even today, despite the confirmation of their identities, the remains of 885 people are still unclaimed and continue to rest inside the mound alongside the remains of the many victims whose identifies are yet unknown.

(Originally published on April 16, 1995)