History of Hiroshima : 1945-1995

History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 21, Article 1)

Grassroots movement

by Yoshifumi Fukushima, Staff Writer

Note: This article was originally published in 1995.

If something like “the heat of the times” exists, the early 1980s was an era when a hot whirlwind blew across the globe. This whirlwind took the form of the grassroots anti-nuclear movement. First sparked in Europe by the deployment of nuclear weapons there, the grassroots movement swept over Japan as well. Citizens from all walks of life, not simply political hands and activists campaigning against atomic and hydrogen bombs, signed petitions and made appeals in succession. The early 1980s even became known as a peak period of the citizens’ movement, following another such time that arose in the wake of the Bikini Incident, in which Japanese fishing boats suffered exposure to radioactive fallout from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test. The anti-nuclear actions that took place surrounding the U.N. Special Session on Disarmament in 1982 were the pinnacle of this movement.

However, the energy of the movement soon flagged and the “myth” that the United Nations could bring about peace in the world on its own also collapsed. If a lesson can be gleaned from this time, when the weak foundation of the citizens’ movement was exposed, it would be the need to explore and expand the anti-nuclear movement based on people’s daily lives.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), pursuing their work with no official backing, have spoken out about Hiroshima and appealed to the world for peace through a range of activities. At the same time, they have had difficulty maintaining their operations due to the fact that they are private, underfunded organizations. Another obstacle has been raising awareness of peace issues within a complacent society. To break through this complacency, many flames continue to burn in the A-bombed city. The real “heat” of these times will not be stoked anywhere else but in a steady, enduring movement that focuses on the A-bombed city of Hiroshima.

Braving snow, Shirozaemon Abe pursues anti-nuclear campaign, attends second U.N. Special Session on Disarmament

The town of Kaneyama, in Yamagata Prefecture, is nestled between the Ou mountains to the east and the three peaks of the Dewa mountains to the west, which rise high above the Tohoku region. Kaneyama is located near the border of Miyagi and Akita prefectures. One day in January 1982, Shirozaemon Abe, now 74, a former teacher who lives in the mountain village of 7,800 residents, turned to his wife and said out of the blue: “I’m going to New York with the signatures.” In his hand were the pages of an anti-nuclear petition with a tattered cover.

“I knew how hard he was trying, going out to get signatures even in a snowstorm,” said his wife Tomo, 66. “But when he told me that...” Though she did not immediately agree with her husband’s decision to head to New York, she understood how firm his resolve was. With the travel expenses of 500,000 yen covered by his retirement allowance, Mr. Abe promised his wife he would drink no alcohol with dinner at home. He then left for New York, where the second U.N. Special Session on Disarmament (SSDII) would be convened. It was now June 1982.

Mr. Abe joined the delegation of NISSEIKYO, the Japan Local Youth Organizations Council, which maintained the office of the liaison council to promote a citizens’ movement that called for disarmament and a total ban on nuclear arms. In the run-up to the SSDII, the liaison council sought the anti-nuclear signatures of 30 million people. Mr. Abe soon found himself chanting “No More Hiroshimas” in a crowd of one million people who took part in an anti-nuclear march that filled the streets of New York, city of skyscrapers.

Back in his village, Mr. Abe spent a month in contemplation, and inward struggle, before embarking on an effort to solicit signatures in the conservative rural town. Concerned that his campaign would attract attention, his wife told him, “People will think you’ve gone crazy. They’ll laugh at you.”

However, the newspapers he pored over were reporting on the critical situation surrounding nuclear weapons in Europe and the enthusiasm for the anti-nuclear movement at home and abroad. In West Germany, where he traveled shortly after his mandatory retirement as a physical education teacher, he caught a glimpse of the tense atmosphere caused by the deployment of nuclear missiles.

In Mr. Abe’s mind, the horror of nuclear weapons was tied to his experience of the war. His anti-nuclear feelings, which he could not openly express during his teaching career, had ignited. “I’ll start a campaign that I can pursue myself,” he thought. His first step involved ordering petition sheets for the signatures of 300 people.

Mr. Abe’s small signature drive was launched in snow nearly two meters deep. Mustering up the courage to knock on a neighbor’s door, he said, “Hello. I’m here to ask for your signature against atomic bombs.” He still recalls the exhilaration he felt when that first name was written on the blank white paper.

Some people, though, reacted negatively to his campaign. Others expressed support for “nuclear deterrence.” One man flashed anger, saying, “Are you a member of a reformist party?” On such occasions, Mr. Abe replied: “I’m not a member of a reformist party or a conservative party. I’m a member of the ‘One-Man Party.’”

A salesman of medications from Toyama Prefecture saw a poster made by Mr. Abe, calling for signatures, and collected the signatures of 150 people as he made house-to-house sales calls. Four of Mr. Abe’s former students lent support to his efforts, too, helping the total number of signatures rise to 3,150. For the four months of his campaign, Mr. Abe was so intent on his task that he never even noticed the spring flowers that had begun to color the mountain village.

During this time, he encountered a woman who murmured as she scrawled her name for him: “I was pregnant when my husband went off to war, and he didn’t come back. Since then, I’ve suffered hardships raising our child and getting on with my life. I’m fed up with war.”

Mr. Abe himself was drafted into the military, after graduating from Tokyo Higher Normal School earlier than scheduled. Following his discharge from the military, he caught sight of the burnt ruins of the city of Hiroshima from the train on his way home. It was a chilling moment. He had belonged to the Akatsuki Unit, based in the Ujina district of Hiroshima, until four months before the atomic bombing. As a result of the bombing, his wife’s older brother died in an army hospital in the Motomachi district. The man’s postcard indicating that he would soon leave the hospital ultimately became his last words. During the postwar period, Mr. Abe bottled up his anger over war and the atomic bombing in the pit of his stomach.

Explaining his motivation for traveling to New York, Mr. Abe said, “I was really moved by the hopes people placed on their signatures. I wanted to speak about their anti-nuclear and anti-war feelings on their behalf.”

Mr. Abe’s activities during his 11-day visit to New York were described in detail in an A4-sized notebook. In this “New York Diary,” he recorded his hopes, concerns, and disappointments surrounding the United Nations.

When Mr. Abe visited the U.N. mission of Trinidad and Tobago, a small nation in Central America, to appeal for their support in advancing nuclear disarmament, he received a wry, cutting comment. The U.N. representative from Trinidad and Tobago told Mr. Abe that, though he fully agreed with the need for disarmament and a ban on nuclear weapons, he also hoped Mr. Abe would remember to exert himself in making the same request of his own government. Mr. Abe held the responsibility of the A-bombed nation in mind as he pursued his activities at the United Nations, but this meeting warned him of deficiencies in his efforts.

At the ceremony where anti-nuclear signatures were presented to the United Nations, bound pages containing the signatures of 104 million people, from nine nations, were piled high in the square in front of the U.N. headquarters. The moment the summary of signatures was handed to U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, the song “No A Bomb” rose over the crowd from somewhere within the Japanese delegation.

The ceremony, however, lasted little more than ten minutes. Were the anti-nuclear wishes from the 3,000-odd people in Yamagata Prefecture, mixed in among the stacks of cardboard boxes, heard in New York? Mr. Abe couldn’t be sure, yet he felt a sense of relief after delivering their signatures and fulfilling his role.

On June 12, Manhattan was teeming with participants for the unprecedented anti-nuclear march of one million people. Citizens from Europe, Japan, and across the United States, among other locations, overflowed the roughly five-kilometer stretch from U.N. headquarters to Central Park. Along with slogans expressing opposition to the deployment of theater nuclear weapons and support for a nuclear weapons freeze, which were earnest desires of Europeans and Americans, signs waved in the crowd bore the phrase “No More Hiroshimas and Nagasakis,” the starting point of the anti-nuclear movement.

People of all nations casually stepped in line with the marchers, pushing baby carriages or holding shopping bags. “There was an outpouring of voluntary action, not action urged through mobilization,” Mr. Abe said, recalling the sight of a true citizens’ movement unfolding before him.

Surrounded by the surge of global anti-nuclear sentiment, the second U.N. Special Session on Disarmament agreed to pursue a World Disarmament Campaign. But the gathering came to a close without fulfilling its primary aim, that of adopting a comprehensive disarmament program. This result reflected the serious state of international politics at the time, with the struggles between East and West, and North and South, entwined together.

“It was the Cold War then, and all the more because of that, we might have seen the United Nations in a god-like way, and held high hopes for it,” Mr. Abe said. “But we finally saw the limits of this belief.” For Mr. Abe, delivering the signatures to the United Nations, which seemed to be a sort of “world peace center,” had practically become an end in itself. After achieving this goal, he chewed on the reality of international affairs.

In the autumn of that year, Mr. Abe reported on his trip at a meeting arranged by a local youth group and a labor organization in the Kaneyama district, among other sponsors. The meeting was entitled “Solo Anti-Nuclear Grassroots Journey,” and it prompted the establishment of a group of Kaneyama residents wishing for peace. The new group pursued a fundraising campaign to construct a “peace tower,” an effort to commemorate the town’s declaration as a “nuclear-free city.” However, six years after the meeting with Mr. Abe was held, the group suspended its activities.

After the second U.N. Special Session on Disarmament, the anti-nuclear citizens’ movement in Japan gradually lost momentum. “In our town, too, it was like the excitement died down,” Mr. Abe said. “We could not help feeling that the peace movement did not belong to the mainstream of society.” The local youth organization, along with other groups, drifted away from the movement. “But we now face a critical moment,” he added, gazing at a can for donations that was hanging in the air.

In the summer of the year following the U.N. session, Mr. Abe attended the World Conference Against A- and H-Bombs and stood in a corner, calling for donations of one-yen coins. “Hiroshima Peace Funds,” born in Hiroshima, was a citizens’ effort to support the peace movement through donations. After returning from New York, Mr. Abe felt restless, wondering what sort of activity he could pursue next. The one-yen fundraising campaign was a new effort that he himself could undertake.

Mr. Abe is now the co-chairperson of the Yamagata Congress Against A- and H-Bombs. The organization called on his cooperation and Mr. Abe decided to join hands with the group. Each year he takes part in a peace march and the World Conference Against A- & H-Bombs. Still, he remains unbound by the organization and, in principle, continues to adhere to his one-man effort.

Through his campaign collecting anti-nuclear signatures, Mr. Abe made many acquaintances among those in the anti-nuclear movement. One of them is Shizuo Mori, 87, a resident of Wajiki, Tokushima Prefecture. When they first met, Mr. Mori was gathering signatures of support for nuclear abolition in his area, seeking to turn these signatures into the “will against nuclear weapons” for younger generations who have no experience of war. Two years ago, Mr. Mori sent Mr. Abe a letter.

“For more than a decade,” Mr. Mori wrote, “I have been engaged in this effort in the hope that young people can live in a world where another cruel, stupid war will not occur, but I have grown too old and I have too little power. Financially, too, my ammunition has run out. Still, as long as I’m alive, I’ll try to push ahead and continue to argue that human beings don’t need war or nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Abe wrote back: “As I grow older, I feel the same sadness. But I have to go on, even if this old soldier has nothing left but himself.”

Mr. Mori is now devoting the remainder of his life to a signature drive to turn Japan’s three non-nuclear principles into law. For his part, Mr. Abe conveys a message to a peace gathering of high school students in Yamagata Prefecture every year, telling them: “Nothing is more miserable and fruitless than war.”

Thirteen years have passed since the “anti-nuclear fire” burned brightly, not so long ago as to refer to that time as “that era.”

While at the United Nations, Mr. Abe mulled the word “grassroots.” He came to the conclusion that the flowers and fruits of plants, attached to their stalks, are supported by roots, and the important thing is these roots, no matter what the plants look like. A true grassroots movement, Mr. Abe now believes, should work to create a mature society in which people feel free to pursue their own efforts, in line with their own way of thinking, without worrying so much about what others think.

At every peace meeting and on every peace march, Mr. Abe dons a worn piece of cloth on his chest, sewn by his wife Tomo. On this cloth, a kind of large sash, are the words: “This step and another step—these are the steps toward peace.” Until the grass has pushed its roots deep into the land, he will continue taking such steps. “With this sash, I’ll take further steps tomorrow,” Mr. Abe said.

(Originally published on June 11, 1995)