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Book Reviews: Rhodes and Dower

Nonfiction isn’t always gripping — but it can be. Seven months ago, I decided to learn more about nuclear weapons in general, rather than simply focus on a single instance of their use. Your average Google searches led me to the following books; all three are worth a read.

The Twilight of the Bombs

Average citizen turned leading nuclear scholar Richard Rhodes chronicles late- and post-Cold War (dis)armament efforts in The Twilight of the Bombs (2010). The book looks at a number of case studies in which nations tried to secretly develop nuclear weapons and were (usually) stymied. He also describes instances when states voluntarily decided to disarm. Rhodes, who has experience as a novelist, has a clear, engaging writing style — it at times feels more like reading an adventure rather than a history, such as when Rhodes describes literal car chases and bus-sieges in Iraq.

In addition to recounting the post-Gulf War inspection of Iraq’s nuclear facilities, The Twilight of the Bombs delves into how nuclear weapons positioned in former Soviet states were collected after the fall of the Soviet Union, South Africa’s development then abandonment of nuclear weapons, diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over nuclear technology, and the creation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, among other subjects. The book is a great starting point for anyone looking to understand the current global context surrounding nuclear weapons.

The Twilight of the Bombs ends on a hopeful note, with Rhodes asserting, “In time, possession of a nuclear weapon will be judged a crime against humanity. Such a judgement would only codify what is already an evident fact.”

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is the first volume of Rhodes’ landmark trilogy on nuclear weapons. It was published in 1986 and earned Rhodes the Pulitzer Prize. As one Amazon reviewer put it, the 900-page door-stopper is really two books in one. The first half chronicles prominent physicists and their research, starting around the turn of the century. Rhodes painstakingly weaves together every scientific breakthrough that led to humans splitting and harnessing the atom. The second half of the book follows the development and use of the first nuclear weapons, as many of the scientists readers get to know in part one join the Manhattan Project.

Through the eyes of the scientists — both those involved in the Manhattan Project and those who were shut out — Rhodes presents a multi-faceted look at the basic questions and contradictions surrounding nuclear weapons.

Despite the scientific focus of the book, Rhodes makes sure not to present the development of nuclear weapons in a vacuum. Along with discussing the political and military aspects of the Manhattan Project, Rhodes carefully lays out how warfare itself evolved over the first half of the 20th century, including how the mass bombing of civilians became acceptable and even desirable to military leaders.

As I mentioned earlier, Rhodes has formidable chops as a writer, and in The Making of the Atomic Bomb his symbolic turns of phrase aren’t common but never fail pack a punch. For example, the book begins with Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard describing how he realized nuclear fission was possible as he crossed a London street. Szilard only mentions the green cross light, but Rhodes closes the chapter by saying “the light changed to red.”

Cultures of War

At last, a book written by someone other than Rhodes. John Dower’s Cultures of War (2010), subtitled Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq, is the author’s response to the Bush administration’s repeated and surface-level use of references to WWII-era Japan after 9-11 and during the Iraq War. Dower reminds readers of the real circumstances surrounding these coded words and phrases (“Pearl Harbor,” “ground zero,” “democratization,” etc.) and posits real lessons to be gleaned from them. He examines the common themes of strategic imbecility, underestimating one’s enemy (often due to racism), and the U.S.’s alternating condemnation and use of air bombing and terror. Dower presents the U.S.’s eponymous culture of war as its belief in the infallible nature of overwhelming military force — a culture that came to maturity during World War II.

Although I had high hopes for this book — Dower’s Embracing Defeat was the first time I had thoroughly enjoyed nonfiction — the analysis ultimately felt shallow. It’s a common problem: attempting to compare two similar things and getting to the heart of neither. Cultures of War also had a fair bit of overlap with The Making of the Atomic Bomb, particularly in chapters describing the air war against Japan, so it sometimes felt like new information was in short supply.

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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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Green Legacy Hiroshima