At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we have recently been host to two hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings. Both of these hibakusha are women, and both are survivors of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Junko Kayashige, the younger of the two women, was 6 years old when the bomb fell on her city. Miyako Yano was 14 years old when the bomb fell.
The two hibakusha who visited us, and all atomic bomb survivors, are ambassadors of the Nuclear Age. Their goals are to rid the world of nuclear weapons and help humanity to move past its age-old penchant for solving conflicts by resorting to war, understanding from personal experience that war in the Nuclear Age is a catalyst for nuclear annihilation.
The women traveled from Hiroshima to the United States to tell their stories. They did so in the hope that their past will not become our future. They wish that no one else will suffer the fate of the victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Junko Kayashige stated, “There is not much time left for us hibakusha. We must find ways to not create even one more hibakusha.” Thus, they speak out and share their sad and painful recollections.
The two women spoke to students at a local college and to assemblies at two high schools. The students paid rapt attention to the personal stories of these witnesses to history. Throughout their lives both women carried the fear that they would be stricken with cancer, leukemia or other radiation related diseases, the fate of so many victims of the atomic bombings. They also worried that radiation disease would effect their children or grandchildren.
Miyako Yano, the older of the two women, was a second year student in a girl’s high school when the bomb was dropped. Her class had been assigned the task of helping to clean up the rubble in the city, near to what would become the epicenter of the bombing. On the day of the bombing she was ill and stayed home. By this chance occurrence, her life was saved. If the bombing had occurred the day before, she would have met certain death while working just 500 meters from the epicenter, as was the fate of her classmates the next day. Living four kilometers from the epicenter of the detonation, her family helped take care of the injured, many of whom died of radiation poisoning. As a 14-year-old girl, Miyako was given the task of incinerating the dead.
Junko Kayashige shared a photograph of her family taken just before the bombing. It was a somber picture of a family gathered in wartime. Her older brother was about to go off to war, and the family thought it was the last photograph that would be taken of them all together. It was, in fact, the last photograph of them all together, but for a different reason. Hiroshima suffered the atomic bombings and two of her sisters were victims. Her father was able to find one of his daughters whose back was badly burned, with maggots crawling in the raw wounds. The family tried to help her, but she died ten days later, most likely from radiation poisoning. The other sister, who had gone out on an errand, was not found. The family never knew how she perished.
Most Americans have an uncomplicated but at best incomplete understanding of the atomic bombings, based on a perspective of the bombings from above; that is, from the perspective of the bombers, rather than from the perspective of the victims. The absence of the victims in the perspective of the victors leaves a large hole that can be filled by the accounts of the survivors of bombed cities. This is important not only for a fuller understanding of the past, but for creating a more secure future.
If the world continues upon the path it is on, with a small number of countries relying upon nuclear weapons for their “security,” eventually these weapons will be used again, by accident or design. Yesterday’s victors may become tomorrow’s victims. The United States, the country with the greatest military power the world has ever witnessed, could be brought to its knees by a terrorist group in possession of nuclear weapons.
There is only one way to end this threat, and that is to abolish these weapons. The hibakusha are clear that nuclear weapons and human beings cannot coexist. The world is not large enough for both. Either nuclear weapons must be eliminated or human beings face the threat of extinction by weapons of their own creation.
The hibakusha continue to warn us of the perils nuclear weapons pose to the human future. They have long ago forgiven their attackers and speak only from hearts of kindness. Miyako Yano stated, “I believe the A-bombs were dropped not on Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone, but on the entire humanity. We have no choice but to abolish nuclear weapons.”
The aging hibakusha challenge each of us to act upon their warnings. Their voices are soft but clear. They summon us to achieve the political will to rid the world of this overriding threat.