Interview with Peterson Hiromi , winner of the Kiyoshi Tanimoto Peace Prize for 2016

by Masahiro Horibe, Production Department, FM Chupea

Today I will talk with Hiromi Peterson, who was formerly a Japanese language teacher at Punahou School in Hawaii, known as the alma mater of U.S. President Barack Obama. Ms. Peterson is originally from Minami Ward, Hiroshima. She moved to Hawaii in 1972 when she married her husband, Wes Peterson. She then taught at Punahou School from 1984 to 2014. During that time, she published Adventures in Japanese, a series of Japanese language textbooks for junior high and high school students, which also features the damage caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. This achievement was broadly recognized, and she was honored with the Kiyoshi Tanimoto Peace Prize in November 2016.
It took about 30 years for me to complete all the textbooks, book one to book five. Book one focuses on daily life. Book two covers conversations at places where Japanese is needed in the community, and related culture. Book three includes conversations for homestays and cultural information. Book four is for students who want to know more about Japan and connections between Japan and the United States. We chose these topics because we wanted our students to be able to use Japanese to the degree that they could talk about their own background in Japanese. Because our students came from many different countries, when they talked about their backgrounds, they couldn’t help but touch on war in some way. That’s why Naomi Hirano-Omizo, a third-generation Japanese-American and co-author of the series, and I included the stories of our families as examples. Ms. Hirano-Omizo’s grandfather immigrated to Hawaii from Shizuoka Prefecture. On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, he was arrested immediately and sent to an internment camp. For the next four years he was then forced to move to several camps, one after another, in the U.S. mainland. My family experienced the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. If we had sought to use other people’s stories, it would have been more difficult because of copyright issues. So we decided to write only about the history of our own families.

You’ve donated a large sum of royalties, earned by selling many thousands of books, to the school and you founded the Hiroshima Peace Scholarship. This scholarship is used to help fund trips by students and teachers to Hiroshima. As your family experienced the atomic bombing, I assume you must feel a strong wish for peace. Could you explain your main motivations?
As we were writing the series, I didn’t imagine that including my family’s story in the textbook would lead to these results. First, I was interviewed by the Chugoku Shimbun, but I wasn’t aware that others saw me as a second-generation A-bomb survivor until I saw the article, which described me that way. In the past, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum produced videos of survivors sharing their A-bomb accounts, and my parents took part. After I received that video from my parents, to use as reference material for our textbook, I was able to know, for the first time, what had happened to my family.

If the students just speak the Japanese they have learned, and do nothing more, that won’t have much meaning. So we also tried teaching other things through these textbooks so they could think more about history and what they can do to help build a better world. Without thinking so much about the sort of stories that would be told, we asked the students to listen to their grandfathers and grandmothers about the war and present these stories in class. When our students presented the results of their interviews in Japanese each year, we heard some very surprising stories.

The students in Honolulu have a variety of origins. We heard a range of stories from them, including stories about a student’s grandfather who was involved in making the atomic bomb, and another student’s grandfather whose family members were killed by the Japanese army in Guangdong Province, China. We were also told about the Japanese army setting fire to a village in the Philippines where a student’s grandmother once lived, but she was able to survive by fleeing into a field of sugar cane.

Before listening to these stories, I had only thought about the people of Japan as victims of the war. But my students taught me about a different aspect of Japan back then, as an aggressor. My father was involved in the war in China. My uncle, who I know through his picture only, died in fighting in the Philippines. When students shared their stories about their grandparents, who suffered at the hands of the Japanese army, I told them that I felt very sorry, as a Japanese person, that Japan caused such suffering and I asked them to offer my apology to their grandfathers and grandmothers.

I was told that you came to Hiroshima in May, when U.S. President Obama visited Hiroshima, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so, and delivered a speech from the Peace Memorial Park. How did you feel about the visit and speech by the president, a graduate of Punahou School?
When I heard the news that he would visit Hiroshima, I was surprised and said, “You’re kidding!” We kicked off the Hiroshima Peace Scholarship in 2009, the year President Obama was inaugurated. For the eight years following that, I visited Hiroshima with students and teachers, and more of the school community has come to learn about Hiroshima.

So when I heard that President Obama planned to visit Hiroshima, I thought that what we had been doing was right, and it was now finally linked to something greater. Though I had been taking the students from President Obama’s alma mater to Hiroshima each year, in my mind I struggled with whether it was really appropriate. But the fact that President Obama gave a speech in Hiroshima was like a stamp of approval for our efforts.

I imagine it took a lot of courage for him to visit Hiroshima. But he decided to go because I think he feels close to Japan, as he was born and raised in Hawaii. After his speech in Prague, he wasn’t able to achieve large results, so I guess the biggest thing he could do was to realize this visit to Hiroshima.

When he came to Hiroshima, President Obama brought some paper cranes that he had folded himself, which drew a lot of attention. In Hawaii, a paper crane made by Sadako Sasaki has been on display at Pearl Harbor for three years. On a TV program that reported live on President Obama’s speech in Hiroshima, Yasuhiro Inoue, a professor at Hiroshima City University, said, “Displaying the paper crane in Pearl Harbor was realized based on the spirit of Aloha, on the culture of forgiveness in Hawaii. Pearl Harbor made a significant transformation from a place of hatred to a place of friendship in order to convey a message of peace.” What do you think of this?
In Hawaii, there’s a tradition among Japanese-Americans that involves creating a mosaic picture of the family crest using gold paper cranes and putting that picture on display at a wedding. When Mr. Obama studied at our school, Eric Kusunoki, a third-generation Japanese-American, was his homeroom teacher. I believe he studied with Japanese-American classmates at school, and he must have seen paper cranes while he was growing up. I heard that he immediately agreed to the suggestion made by his staff about bringing paper cranes to Hiroshima. Because he grew up in Hawaii, I think this made him embrace the idea.

I don’t know if President Obama met with any A-bomb survivors when he lived in Hawaii. But I can understand what the conditions were like in the 1970s when he studied at Punahou School. During the time when George Ariyoshi served as governor of Hawaii (1974-1986), some second-generation Japanese-Americans, such as the late Daniel Inouye, the former U.S. senator, held key positions in the Hawaiian community. Also, Japanese-Americans made up the majority of the overall population in Hawaii.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that he will visit Pearl Harbor on December 26 and 27. What are your impressions of this visit?
I think this is very good news. I was thinking he should do so in return for President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. Before the announcement, I had heard on the radio that President Obama wouldn’t be coming to the memorial ceremony in Pearl Harbor this year, and I wondered why, because this year marked the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. I didn’t think a president who’s a native of Hawaii would ever skip the 75th anniversary ceremony in Pearl Harbor. But when I learned about Mr. Abe’s visit, I could understand why the president’s plans changed.

Every time I go to Hiroshima, I feel such strong passion from the people there. They make such great efforts to communicate as A-bomb survivors and victims of the atomic bombing. Pearl Harbor once had an exhibition that stirred hatred against Japan by showing, for example, a video that featured stories from the viewpoint of victims of that attack. I went there and didn’t want to go again.

The fact that Sadako’s paper crane could be displayed in such a place means that the feelings of people in Pearl Harbor have changed, haven’t they? When the overall exhibition was being modified, the idea of exhibiting Sadako’s paper crane was suggested. I thought it was amazing that the exhibition could finally focus on the war in a comprehensive way, telling how it began and how it ended.

This year when I came to Hiroshima, I felt some strong emotions from people there because some A-bomb survivors made comments about the president’s visit like “I want President Obama to come here and apologize.” The people in Pearl Harbor probably can’t help seeing the Japanese prime minister’s visit in the same way. But I felt it was important that Mr. Abe pay a visit to Pearl Harbor before President Obama leaves the White House. Maybe such a visit wouldn’t be realized once the new president takes office. I think it’s natural for Mr. Abe, as a Japanese native, to feel that he should go to Pearl Harbor because Mr. Obama came to Hiroshima.

I read the book titled Kiseki wa tsubasa ni notte (A Miracle on Wings), written by Kazuko Minamoto, a resident of New York who helped realize the display of Sadako Sasaki’s paper crane at Pearl Harbor. The book was published by Kodansha in 2013. According to the book, it all started with the participation by Sadako’s brother at the gathering for the family members of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and it ended with the donation of Sadako’s paper crane to Pearl Harbor.
I originally had some connection to Kazuko Minamoto, because she used to be a Japanese language teacher in New York and knew about our textbooks. Ms. Minamoto then asked me how to contact the Hawaiian community to raise funds for the paper crane exhibit, and I gave her several suggestions. When she came to Hawaii, the students and teachers from Punahou School, who had been to Hiroshima, gathered for her and pledged to help.

When I met Sadako’s elder brother and nephew, they said, “Let’s build peace in small steps through omoiyari (thoughtfulness).” So I wrote the word “omoiyari” on a card and asked the school to print 1000 copies. Then we gave the advanced level students 10 cards per person and had them give the cards to relatives or acquaintances and we called for donations for about a year. Because the Sadako story was part of our textbook, our school allowed us to pursue this as an activity tied to the curriculum.

Some students who hadn’t learned about the atomic bombing wondered why they had to be involved, but they were persuaded after we explained everything.

Once a month, students from Punahou School have been teaching people how to fold paper cranes at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.
Sadako’s paper crane is now on display at the Visitor Center, but many people don’t see it because it’s on display at the end of the exhibition. Though we had this chance to receive her paper crane, we were concerned that it could be forgotten if we didn’t do something. Seeing the tiny paper crane made by Sadako, we were inspired to take action and lend her our support.

This project is a community service activity that students are obliged to do as part of the school curriculum. Because the students have to go there at 8 a.m. on a day-off from school, some of them complain about it. Out of the four hours they spend there, half of that time they tell about Sadako’s story to the visitors and instruct them in how to fold a paper crane. The rest of the time is spent looking at the exhibition or going to the USS Arizona Memorial. These two activities have an impact on the students’ thinking. As the visitors come from many places in the world, they can also understand the significance of the students spending time there and the importance of this effort to expand peace. Some students have told us that they want to take part in the project again.

According to Ms. Minamoto’s book, all the elementary school children in Hawaii are encouraged to read the story of Sadako Sasaki’s paper cranes. Is that true?
I don’t know exactly when this sort of encouragement began, but I’ve found that Sadako’s story is also known more widely by people from the U.S. mainland, Australia, and Europe than I expected. They come to know about her through books. In fact, Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of Harry Truman, the former U.S. president (at the time of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), told that he happened to read Eleanor Coerr’s book about Sadako, which his son brought home from school, and was very impressed. It was the first time he had learned about the human dimension behind the atomic bombing. I think books like these hold tremendous power.

Ms. Peterson, what do you think it will take to realize a world without nuclear weapons?
If I knew the answer to this question, there would be no problem at all... I really feel that we shouldn’t just let politicians deal with this issue. Once politics is involved, problems always become political games. I think it’s important for ordinary people to know more and take more action. Too many people aren’t interested in this issue at all. Things won’t change until those people show more interest and take action. Our aim is to inspire them by using paper cranes as a tool.

I heard the expression “peace builder” from Christina, a girl who visited Hiroshima two years ago. Her father is from New York and her mother is from Central America. She told me that she had studied in Germany for a year when she was a high school student. She used the expression “peace builder” in her presentation, and I thought this was a wonderful term because if each one of us is able to think about peace and take action, even ordinary people can help change the world.

Today she is a junior at Colombia University. She told me that she’s studying international politics and in the future wants to play a role like Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan. Being able to meet such outstanding students is one of the benefits that the Hiroshima Peace Scholarship has brought to me.

Christina didn’t know much about Hiroshima before she went there as part of our Hiroshima Peace Scholarship program. But she listened to the testimonies of A-bomb survivors during her visit then proposed that the school carry out a signature drive to take action for nuclear abolition.

Honestly speaking, I got a little nervous because I wasn’t sure if it was acceptable to do something like this at Punahou School. But the students were determined and they steadily collected signatures, finally bringing them to the United Nations in New York. The following year, students from Hiroshima Jogakuin School came to Punahou School, and the students from both schools pursued a signature drive together.

As a teacher, you have watched many students grow. What do you think the future holds for them?
Students have great potential. How they are guided or the chances they’re given depend on their teachers. Rather than providing education for only passing university entrance examinations, I think education should offer the opportunity to help students think about what is needed to build a more peaceful world. If students become adults without that opportunity, they may take no interest in politics or think that whatever happens in the world is not their business. I don’t think education should end up with such an outcome.

Looking at students these days, I think the direction for their whole life could change if the seeds of peace are sowed in their soul, and especially when they’re small children. For instance, through the act of folding a paper crane and writing a message for peace on it, they can be linked to Pearl Harbor and the rest of the world. I hope small acts like this can influence their future.

I joined an event for children that was held on the anniversary of the end of World War II, an event organized by the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum in Kochi Prefecture. There, I talked about our project at Pearl Harbor. Afterward, a member of the audience, a boy in fifth grade in elementary school, was saddened to see the news on the terrorist attack in France and asked his mother if there was anything he could do to help. So they decided to send paper cranes to me and appeal for peace to the people of the world. His idea then spread to the whole school after the principal gave her approval. Finally, the boy sent me 1,400 paper cranes. When I brought these paper cranes to Pearl Harbor, a teacher from Sophia University, who happened to be there, suggested to the Visitor Center that paper cranes could be sent directly to them. And now people anywhere in the world can send paper cranes to the Visitor Center.

Pearl Harbor itself has become a place where people can reflect on a peaceful world. I really want children in Japan to take part in this effort, too, by writing a message for peace on a paper crane and sending it to Pearl Harbor. We can then distribute these paper cranes to people visiting from all over the world. Because it’s a paper crane, it can fly anywhere!

(Originally broadcast on FM Chupea’s radio program “Peace Road” on December 20 and 27, 2016)