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Book Review: Shigeko! A Girl from Hiroshima Crosses the Ocean

In her book Shigeko! Hiroshima kara umi wo watatte (Shigeko! A Girl from Hiroshima Crosses the Ocean), Seiko Suga chronicles the life of Shigeko Sasamori, a woman who was badly scarred in the atomic bombing, received reconstructive surgery in Tokyo and the U.S., and later permanently moved to the latter. The nonfiction book, published in 2010, is framed by Seiko meeting with Shigeko in Hiroshima to learn about her life; the chapters then switch to Seiko narrating Shigeko’s experiences in third person. Although Shigeko! is unavailable in English, the Japanese, targeted at children in late elementary school, is easy enough to understand without perfect knowledge of the language.

Shigeko’s story begins on August 6, 1945, when she was 13 years old. After being exposed to and horribly burned by the atomic bomb near Tsurumi Bridge, Shigeko managed to walk to what is now Danbara Elementary School, where she laid semi-conscious for four days without receiving medial attention, food, or water. She continuously mumbled her name and address, and finally someone told Shigeko’s family where she was. After bringing her home, Shigeko’s family nursed her back from the brink of death, but she still had severe keloid scars on her face, neck, and hands, the latter of which would give her a lifelong slight handicap.

Monument to Norman Cousins in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

After meeting Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto at Nagarekawa Methodist Church, Shigeko joined a group of young women all scarred by the bomb. Some of them traveled to Tokyo to receive reconstructive surgery; it was then that the term “Atomic Bomb Maidens” became widely publicized in Japan. Through Reverend Tanimoto’s introduction, Shigeko met journalist and writer Norman Cousins, who was visiting Hiroshima with his wife. Cousins raised money for 25 young women from Hiroshima, including Shigeko, to undergo more surgery New York City in 1955. Inspired by both her time in the U.S. and in hospitals, Shigeko decided to return to the States in 1958 to study nursing. She became Cousins’ adopted daughter.

The book then follows Shigeko as she works hard to master English, become a nurse’s aide, help difficult but ultimately gracious patients, and raise her son. Over the years, Shigeko began to do more and more public speaking. After retiring from nursing, she visited schools, universities, and other functions to share her experience of the atomic bombing and advocate for peace. Shigeko also visited Chernobyl to speak with people affected by the nuclear disaster there.

The author closes the story with two examples of Shigeko speaking to students in the U.S., one at an elementary school and the other at Winona State University, from which Shigeko received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2009. In her talks, Shigeko spoke about hating and fearing war itself rather than the country that dropped the atomic bomb, about young people’s potential to create a peaceful world, and about the necessity of living one’s life with courage, action, and love.

Shigeko and her son (Photo taken from the book)

Shigeko! rewrites “Atomic Bomb Maidens” as “Hiroshima Girls” in more than just name. While undergoing surgery in Tokyo and before their departure to the U.S., Japanese media referred to the group by the former moniker. However, Shigeko and the other young women didn’t much like that phrase — “As if there was nothing more to our lives than the atomic bomb.” Americans often called Shigeko and the others “Hiroshima Girls” instead, which made Shigeko feel more accepted as a person and free in her identity. The bombing of Hiroshima, the people she met, and her experiences in the U.S. all shaped Shigeko’s life, and all are given due weight in Shigeko!

Despite the scope of its story and open view of identity, Shigeko! sometimes lacks complexity. Perhaps simplicity is just a characteristic of children’s literature, but it occasionally feels like something is being left out of the book. Embracing more emotional and social complexity could, in turn, develop readers’ own nuanced understanding of the people and events the story describes.

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Interview with Anti-Nuclear Activist Mitsuhiro Hayashida

Back in February, members of ANT-Hiroshima participated in a workshop about the current global anti-nuclear movement and Japan’s role therein. The workshop was led by Mitsuhiro Hayashida, activist and campaign leader of the Hibakusha Appeal. I later had the chance to interview Hayashida-san about his activities and some of his thoughts on the anti-nuclear movement. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Hayashida-san!

Hayashida-san speaks at an event for Hibakusha Appeal.

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Please introduce yourself.

In Nagasaki, I served on the 10,000 High School Students Signature Campaign executive committee from my third year of middle school until graduating high school. In 2009, I went to the European UN Headquarters in Geneva as a High School Student Peace Ambassador with the same organization, and I also participated in the 2010 NPT Review Conference as a member of [the Nagasaki-based NGO] Global Citizens for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. After entering university, I was interested in learning more about nuclear power and the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets and other security-related laws; at that time some friends and I founded the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), Students Against Secret Protection Law (SASPL), and Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs). In 2015, I participated in the NPT Review Conference for a second time as the NPO Peace Depo’s youth representative. I’m currently working with hibakusha to demand a nuclear ban treaty.

Please introduce the activities you’re currently involved in. Why were you interested in them, and how did you start participating?

I’m currently serving as campaign leader of the Hibakusha Appeal, which uses a signature campaign to spread the call for a nuclear ban treaty. To that end, I’m in contact with many partner organizations throughout the country to report on our activities in a bulletin magazine, I put on workshops about nuclear weapons to raise awareness about this issue, and I also make posters and graphics. Since I’m the contact point for individuals and organizations, I do phone, email, and in-person meetings, so I’m in communication with many people every day. It can feel like I’m shouldering all of the public relations for the Appeal.

About how I got started: First of all, my background as a third-generation hibakusha from Nagasaki is definitely part of my identity. But I only started to properly face my identity as such when I moved to Tokyo for university. Until then, I was surrounded by so many first, second, and third generation hibakusha that it didn’t seem like a special characteristic. I started to participate in social activism in my third year of middle school thanks to an invitation from a former elementary school teacher. I enjoyed speaking to people I wouldn’t normally be able to in school and became completely absorbed in those activities.

Have your opinions or feelings changed since the time you began participating in peace activism? Did any particular experiences make a strong impression?

When I was a high school student, I had many chances to meet with students coming to Nagasaki on school trips — that left an impression. Through our exchanges, I realized I had grown up in a unique environment, having connections to hibakusha in my daily life and learning about the atomic bombing every summer. At the time, the problem of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal was often raised, and it was frustrating that I didn’t have a good answer when people would say to me, “Japan needs to have nuclear weapons in order to protect itself from North Korea!” That when I started studying nuclear disarmament.

What do you think about the global nuclear ban movement? Within that movement, what is the role of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

It’s been about 10 years since I became involved in these activities, and back then I wouldn’t have thought that in 2017 UN negotiations would be taking place regarding a nuclear ban treaty. We’ve still got a long way to go down this road, but I feel that just being able to see a path is a big development in itself.

One of the main reasons the UN is holding nuclear ban treaty talks is that since 2010 “the inhumanity of nuclear weapons” was the focal idea of anti-nuclear activism. We gained concrete victories using the “inhumanity” argument, and it was important for hibakusha to share their experiences of the bombings with the world in order for our arguments to be based in reality. In particular, I feel it’s necessary to convey how hibakusha had to live in the postwar period, with regard to the long-term social, mental, and physical damage that comes with experiencing an atomic bomb.

Activism related to peace and a nuclear ban is difficult, and there are no easy solutions to the problems of war and nuclear weapons. Against this background, how do you keep up your motivation and a positive attitude toward your work?

Hayashida-san eating chirashi sushi made by a hibakusha … It’s clearly delicious.

The anti-nuclear movement has been one of the largest social movements in Japan since 1955. For this reason, we have associates and friends all over Japan, as well as through many generations of people. The U.S. and Europe-centered anti-nuclear movement that began after the Cold War also exists throughout the world. Allies of this movement throughout Japan and the rest of the world give me great encouragement.

What’s the role of young people in peace activism?

No matter where they come from, young people inherit history and shoulder the burden of the future. Because we young people are the ones who will create society going forward, I think we need to have a vision of what kind of society we want to live in. I think the same principle applies to a world without nuclear weapons. If we can’t envision a world without nuclear weapons, we won’t be able to realize it.

Global problems are of course not limited to nuclear weapons. We could make an endless list of problems like disparity, poverty, religious intolerance, etc. But I wonder if these various problems all have the same root.

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Silent Histories Exhibit Exhumes Scars of War

In a nation called miraculous for its transformation from burned-out desolation to economic powerhouse, the scars of war were quickly hidden by dazzling recovery. Children who suffered physical and mental trauma in the American bombing of Japan during World War II hid their pain and lived quietly, trying not to trouble others. Now, through photojournalist Kazuma Obara’s work, some are finally sharing their “silent histories.”

Originally a self-published — in fact, handmade, with only 45 copies produced — photobook, the photography exhibition Silent Histories was held in Hiroshima at the gallery Intersection611 from 21 April to 3 May.

This man spent most of his life folding his hands as seen on the left, to hide his scars.

The exhibition focuses on the personal stories of a few individuals who were children during WWII and experienced the bombing of Osaka. They suffered permanent injuries or saw family members killed in an instant. Along with portraits of the victims, the exhibit also utilizes aerial photographs of the bombing taken by the U.S. Army and shots of present-day Osaka, taken 70 years to the day after the bombing. Although some 400 Japanese cities were bombed during WWII, killing 330,000 people and injuring another 100,000, focusing on the histories of individuals personalizes the mass bombings that happened during the war. As years passed, reminders of war in Japan faded, although victims’ pain often did not. Now in their 70s and 80s, some victims are only just beginning to share their stories. Obara wants convey the experiences of war young people, to catalyze them to imagine the feelings of and sympathize with the victims.

At an artist talk event at the exhibit, Obara said he was inspired to create Silent Histories after seeing how victims altered photos of themselves. In particular, one woman, who lost a leg when Osaka was bombed, blacked out the lower half of her body with a pen in a class photograph. Obara said that more than seeing people’s actual scars, he was struck by how they hid them. His reaction made him wonder about the extent to which current generations can feel the pain of those victimized in WWII, and he also wanted to explore why victims felt pressured to hide their scars. Often, the answer to the latter was that the victims faced discrimination for their disabilities.

The Silent Histories exhibit at Intersection611. Photo of Osaka on a rainy day — exactly 70 years after it was bombed in WWII.

Below many of the photographs, Obara included quotes from their subjects. They explained what happened to them during the war and how their experiences impact their daily life even now. For example, one of the woman who had lost a leg was quoted saying that the first thing she does every morning is attach her prosthetic leg and that she can’t even reach the bathroom without it. She said that pain is part of her daily life and that she wouldn’t wish this suffering on anyone.

Although Silent Histories focuses on Osaka, the exhibit has particular relevance in Hiroshima, where large numbers of mobilized children working in the city were killed, lost family, or were left with mental and physical scars by the atomic bombing.

Obara also spoke about his work prior Silent Histories. He was the first photojournalist to photograph inside the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Although publishing his work, which also included portraits of and interviews with power plant cleanup workers and photos of the surrounding affected area, proved difficult in Japan, the material was published as Reset Beyond Fukushima with the Swiss Lars Müller Publishers. Obara mentioned that he was interested in the theme of whether a child feels free to say they’re related to a power plant worker, but he stopped the project after realizing the family portraits he wanted to shoot would out workers’ children.

For the past few years, Obara has been working on a project about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and those affected by the disaster there; he is also interested in how Chernobyl is portrayed in popular media. His series Exposure, which focuses on the story of Mariya, a young woman who was exposed to radiation from Chernobyl while in the womb and who suffered health problems ever since, won first prize in the 2016 World Press Photo contest.

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Hibakujumoku Translation: “Something I Wish to Protect”

The fifth and final installment of my translations from Yūko Ishida’s Meeting Hiroshima’s Trees is her conclusion, not about any specific tree but about her experience of getting to know the hibakujumoku in general.

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Something I Wish to Protect

I would like to reflect on the hibakujumoku I’ve seen and what I thought after hearing the stories of the people connected with them. Not that I’ve come to some clear understanding and learned to hear the trees’ voices — I simply want to record what I’ve learned, in preparation for making a documentary.  

What is Peace?

I consider peace to be consideration for not only your own happiness but that of others, as well as the sharing of things we all need. It’s important to take notice of those weaker or in more difficult circumstances than oneself and to strive to listen to their voices. Prioritizing and scrambling for only what is convenient for oneself is what leads to war.

The hibakujumoku cherry at Hijiyama needs plenty of care.

Although it could be said that hibakujumoku are incredibly strong trees for surviving the atomic bombing, it is also true that as time has passed some trees have become weak and will die unless people protect them. Because trees cannot speak, we must listen carefully to their voices. To do so is to use one’s imagination to understand someone different from oneself. We aren’t alone in this world; we abide with many other people and living things. I will care for trees and forests with consideration and gratitude for the benefits I receive from them. These matters are deeply tied to peace.

People are hurt and nature is destroyed in war. In the continuing conflict with Israel, Palestinian olive trees, hundreds of years old and tended for generations, have been repeatedly cut down and burned by the Israeli army. With the destruction of their olive trees, which had been directly tied to people’s lives for so long, the Palestinians’ livelihood was taken away and their connection to their ancestors uprooted.

From 1960 to 1975, during the Vietnam War, the American army scattered defoliant chemicals as they fought guerrilla troops hiding in the forest. Dioxin contained in the defoliant didn’t only kill the thick forest, it also contaminated the ground and water. People who were showered with the defoliant or who lived on that land are developing disorders even after three generations.

I learned about these issues through my work in documentary filmmaking. I have friends in both Israel and Palestine, and when, captivated by the people and culture, I went to film in Vietnam, I was touched by the kindness and simple lifestyle of the people I met. That’s why I can feel connected to what is happening in far-away Palestine and Vietnam.

Do we look away from war, as if it is happening in some distant world, or do we try to imagine how the destroyed trees and suffering people feel? It’s painful to think about, but without doing so it’s hard to understand why war is wrong.

Mothers and children, as well as our beautiful woods and seas, are the ones hurt in war. I want to travel the world, make friends with people in the places I visit, and experience their culture and the nature around them. If war or a disaster occurs in those places, I will feel the pain of those who are hurt as the pain of friends.

To me, gathering information on hibakujumoku meant going to see the trees, meeting the people and experiencing the city of Hiroshima, and falling in love with them all. It also meant feeling the pain of war and the atomic bombing and reflecting on peace.

Living Together with Trees

Even though the hibakujumoku were severely injured by the atomic bomb, they continued to live. Even though their leaves and branches were burned up, even though their trunks were seared, even though whole trees were blown away in the blast, leaving only their roots, they put out new shoots. Trees have the strength to never give up on life. Even though people around them say to each other, “A tree this damaged is probably done for,” the trees pay no mind to such words and keep living anyway, using all their strength to transform themselves; they produce seeds and try to leave behind their offspring. Trees will revive any number of times. I too would like to follow their example.

If a seed falls into a crevice in a large stone but steadily puts out roots, searching for earth, it can push hard enough to move stone walls; it will grow with all its might. While weathering any number of changes in their environment, sometimes stubbornly, sometimes boldly, trees continue to live. Although I thought trees are stuck in the same place and have to endure everything without moving, I’ve come to feel they can actually change themselves freely and are flexible, unique creatures. I love that trees can live like that.

After I grew fond of trees and became conscious that I’m living together with them, the way I feel and can see the world around me was transformed completely. Spring, summer, fall, winter — with each season I look forward to seeing how the trees’ visages will change. I think trees are beautiful in every season, and each season reveals the nature of a tree’s life. Once I learned to see the differences in how each tree’s branches grow, the look of their leaves, and the girth and height of their trunks, I came to notice the many changes in the scenery of the streets and parks I walk through every day, and my pleasure in everyday life increased.

Once I realized that trees are living things, just like people and animals, I started carefully trying to get as much use as I could out of things made from wood. Desks and chairs, chopsticks and bowls — many things we use every day are made from trees. I try to not waste paper in notebooks and photocopies. How long can we rely on the benefits we receive from trees? I can’t go into more detail here, but I think we must learn about and protect forests and trees.

Something to Take On

People who have experienced war and the atomic bombing are speaking specifically to younger generations. They’re telling us of their painful experiences and the stories of their families, and it certainly isn’t pleasant for them to remember. However, they continue to speak so children can also understand that a war like that should never be repeated.

Hibakujumoku wisteria growing at Senda Elementary School.

For me, rather than the facts of what happened during war, I try to imagine what people who experienced it thought at the time and how they were able to overcome what happened to them and keep living. But more than just overcoming something, it would be better to say that even now the survivors are wrestling with the scars left on their minds and bodies. I was touched by the strength, cheerfulness, and kindness of everyone who spoke to me about their experiences, although they also taught me how difficult it is for those who experienced the bombing and lost family and friends to explain their profoundly complex emotions.

As I visited Hiroshima and got to know these people through many meetings, I felt the stories they told taking root inside of me, and my thought process and perspective has become enriched because of them.

I imagine people who experienced the bombing tell their stories with the aim of planting “seeds of peace” in the children who listen. I hope these “seeds of peace” bud in the children’s minds and grow strong as they are raised with care. As the children grow into adults, their little seedlings will be given water and nutrients as they hear stories, read books, watch films, and talk with their friends. In each of their minds, the trees will steadily spread their roots and reach out with their leaves and branches, and before long they’ll produce seeds of their own.

It will become difficult for children born in future generations to directly hear survivors’ experiences. For this reason, I want to inherit the survivors’ testimonies and continue to pass on their stories. Hibakujumoku will take on an even bigger role in spreading Hiroshima’s peace message in the future. Trees live longer than people, sometimes passing on their life to two or three generations of seedlings, and they continue conveying to us the memory of war and the atomic bomb. I wish for the next generation, and the next and the next, to continue to protect the lives of these precious hibakujumoku.

I want to go to Hiroshima and quietly touch the hibakujumoku. I want to close my eyes and feel the earth the tree’s roots are snaking through. There are many people at rest in that ground. The lives lost and returned to the earth in the atomic bombing have been absorbed by all the trees of Hiroshima. Now the trees, growing so beautifully, are bearing fruit and creating new life.

Hibakujumoku mikan producing fruit.

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「大切に守りたいもの」、石田優子の『広島の木に会いにいく』、 216-223ページ

Meeting Hiroshima’s Trees is published by Kaisei-sha (偕成社). Excerpts are posted with the permission of the author. Translations are my own, as an individual.

Links to previous Hibakujumoku Translation posts:

“The Tree Doctor of Hiroshima”

“The Winding Eucalyptus”

“The Scarred Ginkgo: Hibakujumoku Tilt?”

“The Former Chief Priest of Anrakuji: Kōji Toyooka-san’s Story”

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Hibakujumoku Translation: “The Former Chief Priest of Anrakuji: Kōji Toyooka-san’s Story”

The fourth installment of my translations from Yūko Ishida’s Meeting Hiroshima’s Trees is about the ginkgo located in the Anrakuji temple grounds. This is a long excerpt, so please click “continue reading” to read on.

View through Anrakuji’s gate, with the ginkgo’s branches hanging down.

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The Former Chief Priest of Anrakuji: Kōji Toyooka-san’s Story

I wanted to hear more from people with knowledge of the bombing, so one day in June of 2014 I inquired at Anrakuji, which is home to the oldest ginkgo in the city. Anrakuji, situated 2.2 kilometers to the northeast of the hypocenter in the Ushita neighborhood, near where Kanda Bridge spans the Kyōbashi River, is an ancient temple with almost 500 years of history. The large ginkgo next to the temple gate is quite tall and can be spotted even from a distance. With its wide and elegant trunk, this tree is a symbol of Ushita.

The ginkgo’s branch passes through the temple gate.

The first time I saw the ginkgo’s thick branch passing through the roof of the temple gate, I admiringly exclaimed, “Woah, amazing!” Trees growing in cities have their branches cut if they get in the way of electrical lines or buildings. It’s thought that hurting the trees in order to prioritize people can’t be helped. However, this ginkgo is treated with great care. The carpenter designed a magnificent gate, and the tree is clearly growing unimpeded. The branches, growing long and round, were in full, verdant leaf.

That day, I joined third-year elementary school students from Hiroshima City to hear former Chief Priest Kōji Toyooka-san’s personal story of the bombing.

Toyooka-san, wearing the black robes of a Buddhist priest, met us. His expression and figure seemed kind, giving the impression that he was part of the calm atmosphere of Anrakuji itself.

After waiting a little while, we heard children’s energetic voices coming from the street. The ginkgo was probably also happily welcoming its small, lively guests. About 70 kids entered the main hall, sat politely, and quietly waited for Toyooka-san’s story.

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Green Legacy Hiroshima