A new year has begun, and my Fulbright Grant is already halfway complete. I cannot believe how quickly the time has passed. For the last five months, I have been living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki interviewing survivors of the atomic bombs, or Hibakusha as they are called in Japanese. It is the 70th year since the weapons were dropped over these cities, and while the survivors are aging, they are working fervently to make sure their messages stand the test of time.
In the next few weeks I will transition my work to focus on the Fukushima disaster, but I wanted to share some key moments and influential meetings from the past five months that have made the most impact on me.
Shoso Kawamoto was a student at the Fukuromachi elementary school before the atomic bomb was dropped. In April of 1945, four months before the bombing, Kawamoto-san and his classmates were evacuated to the countryside, without their parents. Fukuro-machi Elementary School is located 460 meters (about 500 yards) from ground zero, and it was destroyed in the atomic bomb.
While most students were already evacuated, more than 100 pupils and teachers were in the school at the time of the bombing. The west wing, which wasn’t destroyed because of the concrete foundation, became a place of refuge and a relief station. People left messages on the burned walls with a few pieces of chalk scattered on the floor.
Kawamoto-san is one of the few people who knew those whose names were written here. His teacher Kimura-sensei returned ten days after the bombing, and visited here. “Kimura-sensei came here.” it says, and Kawamoto-san told us another teacher, Kato-sensei, wrote his message, dated August 12, six days after the bomb was dropped
“You should be dead and my daughter should be alive,” said the mother of one of Yoshie Oka’s co-workers killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Shortly after the bombing. Oka-san was working in the bunker that managed the call station of the Japanese Military Hiroshima Branch, 800 meters (about half a mile) from the epicenter, of the blast.
Oka-san was due for a shift change around 8:15, but the teacher in charge of the girls was taking longer to complete his morning brief than usual. One of the girls wasn’t paying attention to him, and he was chastising her.
If he had taken less time, the girls would have been inside working and Oka-san would have been released to go outside. Instead she was still working, listening to the radio, at the call center. At 8:12 her station detected the Enola Gay. “How has this plane arrived undetected,” they wondered.
The station manager rushed to authorise her to trigger an air raid warning, but it was too late. She was behind these two thick walls of concrete at the time of the blast, and was still blown three meters inside her bunker. When she awoke she found one of the telephones was still working. She called out to the station Fukuyama and told them what just happened. It turns out her call was the initial report of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.
Masahiro Sasaki is Sadako Sasaki’s older brother. His sister became a symbol of the children killed by the atomic bombs. He is currently engaged in peace activities and his family’s NGO Sadako Legacy is donating her original paper cranes around the world. They have so far donated one crane each to the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Okinawa City, Koriyama city in Fukushima, The 9/11 Memorial Museum, The Harry S Truman Presidential Library, and the City of Sao Paolo.
He said, “[Sadako] folded each crane with a prayer; a prayer for my mother, a prayer for my father, a prayer for her friends, a prayer for peace, a prayer for the world. Each one had its own special prayer. I believe this was always her mission. She was sent from God to deliver this mission. If I died and she lived, there wouldn’t be this monument. There wouldn’t be this message.”
Hiroshima Intersections Art Show
Mari Ishiko, a fine art photographer living in Hiroshima, asked me to participate in an art show she was organizing for her new gallery. She called it Hiroshima Intersections, and she wanted to feature the work of four artists working on projects related to the atomic bomb. I had never premiered my work in a gallery before, and I was excited to do so.
What struck me the most about the project wasn’t being able to display my own pictures. I was more impressed by the artistic vision brought to gallery by the three other artists, Mari, Elin Slavick, a professor of visual art, theory and practice at UNC Chappel Hill, and Mayumi Matsuo, a lecturer at Hiroshima City University. Each of them brought their own unique vision to the atomic bombings and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima.
Mayumi uses debris from Fukushima in her works. Elin, seen in the above photograph, made photograms, including some made of people’s shadows inspired by the shadows of victims of the atomic bomb which were seared into the concrete they stood on top of at the moment of the blast. Mari took pictures of the atomic bomb dome from under the water of the river it rests beside.
According to Elin, who was working in Japan with a grant from the U.S.-Japan society, she wanted to create a visual connection between the two historical events. “Without nuclear weapons there wouldn’t be nuclear power,” she said at the art show, “so it is important that we visualize both of them together.”
I interviewed the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Sumiteru Taniguchi. He is the boy you’ve seen in text books in the chapter about the atomic bomb; that boy with the red-burnt back laying on his stomach. He was forced to lie on his stomach for a year and nine months. His bed sores were so bad that to this day you can see his rib cage rattle as he breathes.
You don’t know why he is still alive? He doesn’t either. But he perseveres. He thinks God let him live so he can be a physical warning of the evil of nuclear weapons. Nothing else matters when you talk to him. He says he won’t die until he sees the end of the nuclear age. You can’t help but believe him
Kosuzu Harada’s grandfather, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, was a survivor of both atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I met her and her mother two years ago, and was able to reconnect during one of my visits to Nagasaki this summer. She told to me: “My grandfather used to say that we live in a world where we listen to the loudest and the most radical people, and we think that they are right. World War II was the same way. We know what is right in our hearts. We know the truth. The truth can start out as a whisper, but we must keep telling it. The truth transcends borders. If we can imagine a world without war, and without nuclear weapons, we can work together to achieve it.”
Giving a TedxKyoto Talk
One of the most frequent requests made to me by the atomic bomb survivors I have met is to never forget their stories and tell them to everyone. This year, I was given the chance to share there messages at TedxKyoto’s annual event. It felt like the culmination of five years of hard work trying to make sure their message was heard.
The truth is, however, this is only the beginning. There is still much work to be done, and much more storytelling to be told. I am looking forward to the next year and my move to Fukushima, and to continue working to give voice to those personally affected by nuclear technology.
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. 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.