On last year’s trip to Japan we stayed in Hiroshima for a few days. We had been previously on a day trip from Kyoto during our honeymoon, which was ambitious, and had gained a good feeling about the city. So last year we decided to stay there, so we could explore it in more depth and also make a visit to Miyajima.
I looked around online for somewhere reasonably priced to stay and came upon the website for the World Friendship Center. I liked the sound of what they were working for, and also the idea of staying a little out of town in a place where we were bound to meet interesting and like-minded people. The Volunteer directors when we stayed were Jo-Ann and Larry, who were such lovely people.
Larry reminded me of my dad, with his interest in engineering and history. We had some good chats about places we had been, and my job in an industrial museum. Jo-Ann was the organiser and enjoyed art and traditional crafts. Both were really helpful in providing information about places to eat and places we must visit. They even loaned us the guide book their volunteer guides usually use when showing people around the Peace Memorial Park.
One of the missions of the World Friendship Center is to preserve the stories of the A-Bomb survivors, known as Hibakusha in Japanese (被爆者/ ひばくしゃ). When I booked our room, Jo-Ann had emailed to let me know that there might be an opportunity for us to meet such a survivor if we wanted to. We were a little reluctant – it’s an emotional subject, and we didn’t fully get what the talks would be like. I suppose we were feeling too British about it! When we arrived, Jo-Ann let us know that another couple would be arriving the following day and that they had asked to meet a Hibakusha, so we would be welcome to join them. I think Jo-Ann understood our reluctance, and so didn’t put pressure on us, just gave us the option. Later, Larry explained that this particular Hibakusha was sharing her story for the very first time, and that they had worked with her to make her feel comfortable about talking about the events of 6 August 1945 and her life afterwards. This made me realise that talking about what had happened was a difficult thing for the survivors as well as the listeners, but that it was an important thing for them to do, so we decided that we would go to her talk.
I am very glad that we did. I would recommend it to anyone who chooses to stay at the World Friendship Center. The woman who spoke to us is called Komeyoshi Kiyoko (米吉喜代子/ こめよし きよこ) and she was 81 when we met her. She told her story gently, sitting behind us, while her translator Shaw Fuji operated the power point slides. She was 13 when the bomb exploded and was working with her classmates to build fire breaks from demolished buildings. They were only 1.7km from the hypocentre of the blast. Kiyoko-san explained that, while many of her classmates died instantly because they looked directly at the explosion, her instinct was to lie face down on the ground where she was working. Consequently, the force of the blast passed over her back and she wasn’t killed. She was just (just!) badly burned on her back and arms. The teacher who was responsible for the students took the girls who survived to his house, leaving them there while he went off to check the city. When he returned, he told the students that they could return to their homes but were not to go into the city itself. Kiyoko-san went to her aunt’s house and found some of her family there. All of her family survived the bomb blast, her father living to the age of 77 and her mother, amazingly, to the age of 103. Kiyoko-san explained how lucky they all were, not only to survive and live a long life, but to suffer no long term illness from the radiation.
I found Kiyoko-san to be a remarkable woman. She spoke of the sadness of losing her friends and then being shunned by the people who returned to Hiroshima after the war. People who had evacuated and weren’t exposed to the effects of the bomb were afraid of those who had survived, thinking that they were contaminated and a danger to others. Hibakusha suffered persecution and were stigmatised for many years, but Kiyoko-san wasn’t at all bitter. She also explained that she had decided to share her story because there were fewer and fewer survivors still alive to tell their stories, and she wanted to make sure that people understood the effects of nuclear weapons not just as devastating instruments of war but as things that affect people’s lives and futures.
It was particularly sad to think that, only a couple of days before, the terrible bombing at the Boston Marathon had happened. Even 67 years after such catastrophic events as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the killing of innocent people in the name of justice continues. If people heard the stories of the A-Bomb survivors, perhaps it would give them pause for thought. Or perhaps I have too much faith in human nature.
I will write about the rest of our stay in Hiroshima in other posts. I wanted to talk about meeting an A-Bomb survivor first, though.