“Everyone of my friends think I’m strange,” says Masaaki Murakami, 22. “I laugh at that, but I don’t refute it. I know it’s strange. In Japan, no one is interested in the past. But people don’t understand: the past is connected to the future.”
Murakami spends every free day he can as a volunteer guide in Hiroshima’ Peace Memorial Park. He stands at the iconic atomic bomb dome, meters away from the hypocenter of the atomic bomb. He and a few English-speaking Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors in Japanese) share information to park visitors. Some of the details in their pamphlets, they claim, can’t be found in the Peace Memorial Museum.
The youngest member of a group comprised of both first- and second-generation Hibakusha, Murakami has no family connection with the atomic bomb; but he is passionate about spreading the messages of the survivors to what he views as a passive generation of Japanese youth.
“In Japan, we all learn about the old history like the Tokugawa shogunate, and even about the atomic bomb as an evil act inflicted on Japan, but we don’t get a lot of information about other perspectives outside of Japan, like for example the European side of World War II,” he says.
Countless students come to Hiroshima on school trips. Everyday people pose in front of the atomic bomb dome, tour the museum, even play around in the park and potentially miss the point of what happened here. Two years ago I myself was an intern at the Peace Memorial Museum, and I witnessed similar phenomena. Murakami explained to me, “I don’t know if they are too young, or if they just don’t care about what happened, but I hope that they can see a young person like myself and listen to what I have to say.”
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park receives 1.2 million visitors annually. While the museum employs its own volunteer corps of atomic bomb survivors, Murakami’s group stands on its own by the atomic bomb dome. Murakami started working here because he saw the number of foreigners who visit, and wanted to improve his English language skills. However, when someone asked him about the location of a specific memorial, he was embarrassed because he didn’t know the answer. He started studying more and more, and has since become an expert on the history of the atomic bombings. He not only studied the experience of Hibakusha, but also the American decision to drop the bomb, and how it was made.
Two of the survivors Murakami works with, Kosei Mito and Seiji Yamaguchi, were both in the wombs of their mothers when they were exposed to the atomic bomb. Mito-san started the group nine years ago after leaving his post as an official museum volunteer guide. He is a passionate man, with a lot of frustrations about the bomb. “The atomic bomb is the culmination of an evil war. While we have to accept responsibility for what Japanese Military has done in the war, the U.S. should accept responsibility for the atomic bomb, but that’s just my opinion,” he says.
There are four groups of Hibakusha. Someone who was in the bomb radius at the moment of detonation, someone who entered the city within two weeks of the explosion, someone who was exposed to radiation or fallout, or someone in the uterus of a woman in either of the three categories.
Mito’s mother entered Hiroshima City shortly after the bomb dropped. Like many women and children at the time, she had been evacuated to the country. She stayed with relatives 7 km [4.3 miles] from the city centre. But after the bomb dropped she returned to the city and found her home totally obliterated. Her husband was 600 meters [650 yards] from the center of the blast; he developed radiation symptoms including purple spots on his skin, but he survived.
Mito’s mother and father never spoke of their experience. Mito only learned about his mother’s story because she wrote it down for him 13 years ago. It was a painstaking process that took her over a year, and she never uttered a word verbally. His father refused to talk about it. “When we asked him about it, or if he saw a documentary on TV, he would simply walk away. He was too filled with grief to recall what he witnessed,” Mito explained.
Murakami recalled a woman he met that changed how he views not only the survivors, but himself. “I once met a woman who worked at the Industrial promotion hall, or what became the atomic bomb dome. She was late to work that day. We met many times and she told me she was happy. She says her life was granted. She appreciates every moment of it, and that makes me appreciate my life. People like her encourage me to keep doing the work. My dream is to guide school kids from all over Japan. There are enough Hibakusha guides now, but in ten years there won’t be. We have a duty as the young generation to keep up their work.”
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings. Follow him on Twitter @Aribeser, and Instagram @AriBeser and @HibakushaTNF.