Survivors' Stories

Survivor’s Stories: Meiko Kurihara, 91, Asakita Ward, Hiroshima

Fondly recalling the support of international students from Southeast Asia

Meiko Kurihara (née Takahashi), 91, lives in a nursing home in Asakita Ward, Hiroshima. She was 19 years old and a second-year student at Hiroshima Jogakuin Semmon Gakko (now Hiroshima Jogakuin University) when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

On August 6, 1945, she was working at Toyo Kogyo (now Mazda Motor Corporation) as a mobilized student. Although she was badly hurt by flying pieces of shattered glass as a result of the bomb’s massive blast, she provided aid to the wounded who managed to escape from the city center. She said, however, that in reality she could do little more than merely watch them die.

As the inferno created by the bomb prevented her from entering the city center, it was not until August 7, the day after the bombing, that she was able to return to her burned-down house in Ote-machi (now part of Naka Ward). Her mother Kaneko and her sister Shoko had been evacuated to the village of Kuji (now part of Asakita Ward) to avoid possible air raids on the city. But she was terribly worried about her father, Ken, who was an eye doctor at Hiroshima Prefectural Hospital. She came across scores of dead and injured on the road, but she went on in desperation, trying not to get upset over such miserable sights.

Unfortunately, Ms. Kurihara wasn’t able to find her father anywhere, so she used a burnt cinder to scrawl the words “Meiko is fine” on a fire cistern before continuing on her way to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital to look for her father there. On the way to the hospital, she came across a black-colored object on the road in front of her. At that point she stopped suddenly and froze in her steps. When she picked the object up, she found that it was warm and, from the shape of the head and hands, she realized it was a baby. She was then hit by feelings of grief for the first time.

As her shoulders slumped in despair at being unable to locate her father, a friend of hers suddenly appeared from the Hiroshima University of Literature and Science (now Hiroshima University), which was across the street. Shedding tears, they embraced and then entered the school building, where her friend introduced to Ms. Kurihara to six Southeast Asian students who had come to Hiroshima to study at the university.

Foreign nationals who experienced the Hiroshima A-bombing included students from present-day Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Ms. Kurihara spent a week after the atomic bombing at the university with these international students.

At the time of the bombing, the six students were at the university, in a dormitory known as “Konan-ryo,” where they lived together. They calmed Ms. Kurihara down by reassuring her that she didn’t have to be afraid anymore and so she gradually began to feel comfortable with them. She had seen them enjoying the cool evening breeze near their dormitory before, but this was the first time that she spoke to them. That evening they ate boiled potatoes together on the grounds of the school and slept there, in the open air.

On August 8, Ms. Kurihara found her mother at the wreckage of their home, where she had come with the Southeast Asian students to search for food. Meanwhile, her mother was there in search of Ms. Kurihara and her father. It was on this day that Ms. Kurihara began searching for her father by using the university as the base for her efforts. Whenever she returned to the campus without success, the students helped lift her spirits by telling her not to give up. The students grew to love Ms. Kurihara’s mother and called her “Okaasan,” which means “Mother” in Japanese. Ms. Kurihara imagined that they keenly missed their own mothers and she felt very sorry for them, but they shared some good times together and their presence was greatly encouraging to her.

Ms. Kurihara and the students remained together until August 14, just one day before Japan surrendered. During her time with the students, Ms. Kurihara heard that they had pulled a female student from the river bank onto a raft to try to save her, but unfortunately, the girl and the raft drifted away. The students also went to a food distribution station for Ms. Kurihara. Despite encountering this terrible event in a foreign country, they all did what they could to help others. In the evening, she was comforted by the sound of a violin that they retrieved from the dormitory.

After the war, Ms. Kurihara moved to the village of Kuji, where she came down with radiation sickness, a result of her exposure to the radiation released by the atomic bomb. The inside of her mouth became inflamed and her hair fell out. She was terrified that she would die. While she was sick in bed, her mother went on searching for her father and eventually learned that he had perished after becoming trapped beneath a collapsed building at the Hiroshima Prefectural Hospital.

In the winter of that year, Ms. Kurihara returned to school, but the family now lived in poverty and she had to work part-time in order to attend classes. After graduating from university, she began working for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), located on Hijiyama Hill, in 1948 and could gradually create a more prosperous life. However, reflecting on the 21 years she worked there, she said that she felt deeply conflicted about it because the ABCC was established by the United States, the country that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

What lingers most strongly in the memory of her A-bomb experience are the Southeast Asian students she stayed with. Unfortunately, though, two of them died as a result of their exposure to the atomic bomb, with one passing away in Kyoto after leaving the university and just before returning to his own country. When she speaks about her A-bomb experience, Ms. Kurihara includes the stories of these students so that their existence will not be forgotten. “I hope that those who listen to my account will remember the young Southeast Asian students who tried to help the people of Hiroshima despite being exposed to the atomic bomb themselves,” she said.

Teenagers’ Impressions

Their kindness gave comfort to Ms. Kurihara
After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Ms. Kurihara spent some time with Southeast Asian students who were attending a university here. She was so shocked by the dramatic and destructive changes that happened to the city. But her encounter with the students made the week after the atomic bombing a time she can recall with fondness. It’s hard for me to imagine such a situation, but those students were like elder siblings to her and gave her comfort during those days of grief. She said that the students never complained about anything and it sounds like they were very kind people. (Ayu Hayashida, 13)

I was surprised that Ms. Kurihara worked for a U.S. facility
I was most surprised by the fact that Ms. Kurihara worked for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. After the war, she began working at this facility which was established by the country that had stolen away the lives of so many Hiroshima citizens. However, since her work there made her own life better, she felt she had no choice but to persist. I’ve thought about what I would do if I were her. I don’t think I could have accepted that my loved ones and close friends were killed by the U.S. attack, or remain in a job at a U.S. facility. (Felix Walsh, 15)

(Originally published on March 5, 2018)