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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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Oberlin College Holds Event Introducing Hibakujumoku Saplings

Oberlin College recently held an event, titled Spring Thaw, to introduce students to the college’s second-generation hibakujumoku saplings. Oberlin received the wisteria, Chinese parasol (aogiri), and ginkgo saplings from Green Legacy Hiroshima in September 2015. The saplings are currently growing in the sheltered science building courtyard until they become big enough to weather the harsh Ohio winter and be replanted in a permanent home.

Professor Garvin speaks about the saplings.

Professor of Biology Mary Garvin gave a tour of the saplings, adding a scientific side to the hibakujumoku narrative. Attendees, who included college students, faculty, and staff, listened to Professor Garvin speak about how trees transition through seasons and about ginkgo’s robust and resilient qualities. Students were curious as to whether genetic research is being done on hibakujumoku. The group also discussed the symbolic importance of Hiroshima’s parasol tree, the parent of Oberlin’s saplings. The parasol tree is one of only two hibakujumoku in the Peace Park, and its saplings have been sent around the world as messengers of peace even before Green Legacy began its activities. Although ginkgo can handle Ohio’s climate, the more delicate parasol tree saplings need to be handled with greater care.

Attendees also watched a video introducing some of the hibakujumoku back in Hiroshima, shot in early spring by yours truly and which can be viewed below. The video included shots of the parasol and ginkgo parent trees, so that Spring Thaw attendees could see where they came from. The ginkgo, which leans in the direction of the hypocenter, was of particular interest.

Events like Spring Thaw aren’t the only way Oberlin students come into contact with hibakujumoku. Environmental Studies Professor Chie Sakakibara’s class Nature Culture Interpretation watched and discussed the Green Legacy Hiroshima introduction video, and then Professor Garvin introduced the students to the ginkgo saplings and explained how ginkgo’s biological properties helped them survive the bombing.

Spring Thaw attendees

Hopefully interest in hibakujumoku and Hiroshima will continue to grow at Oberlin.

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Students in Chicago Put On Atomic Bomb Themed Art Exhibit

Eighth-grade students from Chicago’s Polaris Charter Academy, led by teacher Carrie Moy, recently exhibited their atomic bomb themed artwork at 345 Art Gallery. Ms. Moy’s class spends the entire year studying the atomic bomb, and the class collaborated with the Japanese Culture Center in Chicago to express through art what they learned.

Students with their artwork

The art exhibit came about after the class visited the Center’s “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition,” which was held in October 2016 and used materials on loan from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. After a discussion with Japanese Culture Center Director Saira Chambers about Hiroshima-Nagasaki, the class decided to put on their own exhibition. Ms. Chambers visited their classroom and helped the students work through and express their ideas.

Gallery 345 is run by a Chicago police officer, who donated the space to the community to hold events. According to its website, the gallery is meant to be “a space to showcase art as a form of social engagement.”

Students happily receive copies of “Paper Crane Journey”

The students received copies of “Paper Crane Journey” from ANT-Hiroshima during the gallery event. Ms. Chambers said the students were grateful for the books and happy to “know there were people listening to them far away.”

The Japanese Culture Center plans to collaborate with the class again for August 6 commemoration events, as well as continue working with Ms. Moy’s classes in future years.

A student discusses his artwork with Professor Miyamoto

DePaul University Professor Yuki Miyamoto also attended the exhibition. Professor Miyamoto teaches classes on the atomic bomb and takes a group of students on a study trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki every other year. The humble writer of this blog met her when she brought her students to the UNITAR Hiroshima Office last December.

From left to right: Yuki Miyamoto, Carrie Moy, Saira Chambers

Ms. Chambers is passionate about sharing what she’s learned about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the atomic bomb. She said, “Chicago also has a deep history with the atomic bomb, and there is a community of dedicated advocates for knowledge and understanding of the topic here.” As the Center’s director, she supports “anyone who wishes to learn about this part of our collective past and how to make this a positive lesson for the future.”

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Steven Okazaki Releases Mifune: The Last Samurai

Director Steven Okazaki, a longtime friend and partner of ANT-Hiroshima, has recently released a new documentary on the life and work of iconic actor Toshiro Mifune, titled Mifune: The Last Samurai. The film introduces viewers to prewar samurai cinema before delving into how Mifune, often in collaboration with filmmaking giant Akira Kurosawa, revised and modernized the genre in the postwar decades.

mifune

In an interview with indiewire.com, Okazaki said of Mifune’s achievements and unique screen presence, “He was shy and brash, funny and cool, silly and deadly serious. That’s what made him so dynamic. But it’s his integrity as an artist and a person that made people love and respect him.”

Mifune is distributed by Strand Releasing and will have staggered releases in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Berkeley, Honolulu, and San Francisco over the next month, with more U.S. city releases to be announced in 2017.

Watch the trailer for Mifune below:

ANT-Hiroshima’s previous collaboration with Okazaki include his films The Mushroom Club (2005) and White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007). ANT-Hiroshima, under Executive Director Tomoko Watanabe, helped Okazaki coordinate interviews with hibakusha for his documentaries and now holds a screening of White Light/Black Rain in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome every year on August 6. Tomoko-san was a producer for The Mushroom Club and a consulting producer for White Light/Black Rain.

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Peace Lectures and Atomic-bombed Tree Planting Held at Pomona College

Tomoko-san and Keiko Ogura-san, a hibakusha and the official atomic-bomb storyteller for the city of Hiroshima, visited Pomona College, Claremont, U.S.A., from October 12 to 14 to give lectures on Hiroshima’s history and deliver atomic-bombed tree saplings, a Fuji wisteria and a ginkgo biloba, on behalf of Green Legacy Hiroshima. Pomona College Assistant Professor of Politics Tom Le was the main organizer for the series of events, although other professors and community members were also involved and without whose help the scope and success of the series would not have been possible.

Pomona College put on a number of events leading up to Tomoko-san and Keiko-san’s visit, including poster exhibitions on “Sadako and the Paper Cranes” and “Hiroshima Nagasaki Atomic Bombings,” a lecture on Japanese peace culture by Professor Le, and screenings of the short films The Mushroom Club and On a Paper Crane.

with tom

From left to right: Professor Le, Keiko-san, and Tomoko-san.

The sapling planting ceremony took place on October 14 at the Sontag Greek Theatre on Pomona’s campus. There were many attendees, and the saplings were planted using a shovel that President Roosevelt himself had used. Tomoko-san felt the college and its gardeners had taken great care of the saplings and that the trees were planted in an excellent location.

“I’m glad my speech appeared to touch the hearts of everyone participating in the planting ceremony,” she said.”I’m sure many people will watch over and help raise the saplings, and I have great hope that this planting is the start of many more chances to reflect on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and peace.”

pamona planting ceremony 2

pamona planting ceremony

Judy Chu, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, also participated in the planting ceremony. She awarded Tomoko-san and Keiko-san Certificates of Congressional Recognition on behalf of her office. The City of Claremont also awarded the two women Certificates of Recognition for their invaluable contribution these events.

pamona

Tomoko-san and Keiko-san with Representative Chu.

A masterclass, titled “Peace Culture and Identity: From Theory to Practice” and co-led by Tomoko-san and Professor Le, focused on peace culture, what Hiroshima represents, and ANT and Green Legacy Hiroshima’s activities. Professor Le began the class by questioning basic assumptions about international relations — for example, that relations are anarchic and driven by conflict — and asserting that international relations are often a cooperative endeavor, with morals regulating state behavior as much as national interest. He also spoke briefly about how Japan created its post-war pacifist identity.

Professor Le then gave the floor to Tomoko-san, who introduced listeners to the story of the bombing of Hiroshima and the lasting effects it had on Hiroshima’s citizens, as well as explained the global importance of peace culture. She continued by explaining Hiroshima’s recovery, which, along with physically reconstructing the city, involved restoring human dignity through meeting basic needs and rebuilding hope. She finished by introducing Green Legacy and ANT Hiroshima’s activities and explaining how the two NGOs work for peace and reconstruction around the world.

pamona lecture

The lecture was followed by a lively question and answer session. Topics included the importance of using art to convey the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the strength of young people’s commitment to promoting peace, and the importance of specifically women’s efforts. Many students also commented after the masterclass that they had been inspired by Tomoko-san and Professor Le’s lecture. Tomoko-san is glad the masterclass was well-attended by both students and professors and that everyone benefited from the event.

Keiko-san led two events: “Hibakusha: A-Bomb Survivors in Japanese Society” and “Keiko Ogura: An A-Bomb Survivor’s Testimony.” Her talks focused on efforts to fight the discrimination and stigma hibakusha face; she also spoke about the anti-nuclear peace movement.

ogura-san

In addition to the official events, Tomoko-san and Keiko-san had many opportunities to talk more casually with students, professors, and the residents of Claremont. Following Keiko-san’s testimony and Tomoko-san’s talks, many members of the community commented that they hadn’t known anything about what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that they wanted to do something to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Others commented that people must learn humility from history.

Tomoko-san said, “I was very impressed, and I could feel the U.S. changing when I was at Pomona and in the city of Claremont. I want to work together with Americans like these people, and I feel there are more and more people in the U.S., aside from hibakusha living there, who are dedicated to working for peace and changing people’s mindsets and awareness.”

“I hope this visit leads to more study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at Pomona College and that there are opportunities for periodic exchanges between students at Hiroshima City University and Pomona,” she continued. “Keiko-san and I are thankful that we were able to complete a trip on this scale, and we will make the best use of our experiences at Pomona in our work from now on. We are thankful for the invitation to come to Pomona College and are happy to have made several good friends there.”

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Green Legacy Hiroshima