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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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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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Green Legacy Hiroshima