Young people finding ways to keep hibakusha memories alive (Japan)

(Reposted from: The Asahi Shimbun.  August 9, 2018)

The average age of hibakusha, or survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is now over 82.

The memories of the atomic bombings are inevitably fading.

During a Japanese professional baseball game between the Hiroshima Carp and another Central League team this spring, a fan of the other team heckled the Hiroshima-based Carp, saying, “Drop another atomic bomb.”

In Nagasaki, a junior high school student who was visiting the city on a school excursion hurled verbal abuse at a hibakusha who was telling about the appalling nuclear devastation that occurred in the city on Aug. 9, 1945, calling the survivor “shinizokonai” (one who should have died).

As calls for political neutrality in education have grown louder, teachers have become increasingly more inclined to avoid so-called “peace education,” which is focused on war experiences to stress the importance of peace.

It has long been pointed out that efforts for such peace education at school have lost steam even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As the only country that has ever suffered nuclear attacks in war, Japan has a responsibility to ensure that memories of what Hiroshima and Nagasaki went through will be passed on to future generations as part of its efforts to promote the movement toward a world without nuclear weapons.

The challenge facing Japan is how to accomplish this mission in the face of a growing indifference and a lack of understanding among the public as well as the withering effects of pressure against their efforts.

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, 63, who was born in Nagasaki and heard in detail from his mother about her hibakusha experience, stresses the importance of meeting people who survived the devastation and connect face to face with them. He also argues that when their experiences begin to become history, their stories must be told in a different method.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which contributed to the United Nations’ adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, is a network of more than 460 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) across the world.

Many of the members of these organizations are young people in their 30s. They have met hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were complete strangers to them, connected the survivors’ stories to the problems they have been tackling, such as human rights, environmental protection and development aid, and focused on the “inhuman nature” of nuclear arms that threatens the lives of people all over the world.


In Japan, efforts are under way that echo ICAN’s messages.

Mitsuhiro Hayashida, 26, the leader of an international signature-collecting campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons, is a grandchild of a Nagasaki hibakusha. He became interested in the issue during his junior high school years and served as a “high school student peace ambassador,” a Nagasaki-born program that involves visiting the United Nations to make appeals for peace.

After entering a university in Tokyo, Hayashida was surprised and dispirited by indifference to the issue among students around him.

Traveling around the nation for lectures and other events, Hayashida emphasizes the need to “have a new perspective.”

He suggests thinking about the terrifying nature of nuclear arms from the viewpoint of human dignity being destroyed. He has also taken part in events of Earth Day Network, an international environmental movement, to discuss problems of nuclear arms from an environmental perspective.

Hayashida has teamed with comedians and models in organizing events to draw the attention of people indifferent to the atomic bombings, particularly youngsters.

In February, he set up a “cafe to meet hibakusha” in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. At the cafe, each hibakusha was surrounded by three participants to avoid one-way conversations.


A cafe named Hachidori-sha, located near the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, is a place for loose gatherings of people interested in issues concerning politics, the environment, human rights and disaster volunteers to have casual discussions on these topics.

Erika Abiko, 39, who runs the cafe, is a native of Ibaraki Prefecture who first became conscious of unsolved problems including the atomic bombings when she became involved in an international NGO.

She opened the place, which she calls a “social book cafe,” a year ago with money raised through crowdfunding. She organizes various events at the cafe, which has a collection of books on related topics.

On dates that include a 6 every month, a meeting is held at the cafe to hear A-bomb survivors talk about their experiences. On Aug. 6, the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, seven speakers, including hibakusha and those who lost their parents in the catastrophe, were invited to speak at the cafe. A small group of attendees of the event included families, high school girls, Hiroshima natives who returned home to commemorate the day and American citizens.

“I want people to become friends with hibakusha,” says Abiko. “By knowing them, you can become more sympathetic to them and also understand that issues raised by their stories are not just problems for the A-bombed cities. I want to make the cafe a place where more people meet and connect with each other.”


Such efforts receive support from hibakusha. Terumi Tanaka, an 86-year-old hibakusha and representative member of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations (Nihon Hidankyo), urged Hayashida to become the leader of the international signature campaign.

Hibakusha are facing strong frustration in their efforts to pass on their experiences to young people due to radical social changes over the past decades. Tanaka decided to leave the task to young people.

An NPO called “No more hibakusha: Kioku isan wo keisho suru kai” (No more hibakusha: Association to inherit hibakusha memory assets) is collecting and preserving materials related to Nihon Hidankyo’s activities as well as testimonies, memoirs and pictures by hibakusha.

The organization publishes these records and materials on the Internet and is seeking to open a center for its mission in Tokyo.

University students and other volunteers help sort and classify the materials.

A group of several participants has developed a system to create a digital archive of records concerning hibakusha.

The system is designed to allow users to follow the lives of hibakusha before and after the atomic bombings on digital maps. It is aimed at introducing hibakusha scattered around the world and encouraging people to contact them.

Hidenori Watanabe, 43, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school, is supporting this project. Watanabe says young people are well-versed in state-of-the-art technologies and willing to offer ideas for the system.

He is trying to help young people think more about the atomic bombings through this project and start playing active roles in the efforts to pass hibakusha experiences to future generations.

The steadily shrinking number of hibakusha have the common and deep desire to see a world without nuclear weapons.

It is encouraging to see young generations, who are to create the future, working to make the hibakusha wish a goal for the entire human race through their flexible thinking and commitment to action.

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