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Book Review: The Radium Girls

People have suffered the harmful, debilitating, and sometimes lethal effects of radiation since its discovery, since before its true destructive power became widely known. In her book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, British author Kate Moore illuminates the lives — and gruesome deaths — of two groups of women who worked with radium in the 1910s-1930s.

Around the turn of the century, radium was thought to be a miracle cure for many ailments. It was used in hospitals to treat tumors, but “radium water” and other fad products were also popular. Radium, mixed with paint, was also used on watches, clock faces, and other dials because it glowed in the dark. This industry boomed during World War I, when demand for soldiers’ watches and dials used in military machinery sharply increased.

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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.

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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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