Hiroshima Memo: Revitalizing peace education, from Hiroshima to the world

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

“To what extent is the horrific reality of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki known in the world?” While covering the world’s radiation-contaminated sites, as well as such areas of conflict as Kashmir, I have taken the opportunity to ask the people I spoke with one question: “Do you know about Hiroshima?”

The name “Hiroshima” is known, to a remarkable degree, even in such remote places as Kashmir. It is recalled as “a city where an atomic bomb was dropped.” In most cases, though, when asked what really occurred in the city that day, they aren’t aware of the true devastation of the atomic bombing. After interviews, when time permits, I offer some explanation by taking out a collection of photos on the atomic bombing from my bag. The people surrounding me, adults and children alike, gaze with intense interest at the images of devastation and express shock.

Even in the United States and Russia, the major nuclear powers, people’s awareness of the true devastation wrought by the atomic bombings is rather low.

Meanwhile, in Japan, this may be an overstatement, but it appears that a similar situation is transpiring in regard to the current level of awareness of the bombings. Even in the prefectures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the number of children unable to correctly provide the dates of the bombings is increasing. And this trend is more marked in other prefectures. Concerning the total picture of devastation, such as the effects of radiation on the human body, there has been a distinct decrease in awareness. For children, it is beyond their imagination how the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hold implications for their own lives today.

Adults, obviously, are responsible for this lack of awareness on the part of children. I must assume that most younger parents and teachers, who are in a position to teach children about this history, have been raised without being provided with sufficient information themselves.

This situation can be considered an inevitable result of past developments: mentions of the atomic bombings and World War II have been significantly edited out of school textbooks; the teachers who experienced the atomic bombings and the war have retired from teaching; and the Ministry of Education, as well as local educational bodies, have become passive and cool toward peace education. Current conditions involving peace and disarmament education is a cause for concern. And this situation is occurring in a country whose government seeks opportunities, at the United Nations and elsewhere, to pronounce itself “the only nation to have suffered an atomic bombing.”

In 1954, nine years after World War II, at a time when deep scars from the war still remained, a social studies textbook for junior high school students, approved by the former Ministry of Education, had a whole chapter entitled “International Relations and Peace.” The chapter was over 20 pages long and included information on the atomic bombings, war, and efforts for peace.

At the outset of one section is the statement that “war proved to be the worst crime” and the emergence of the atomic bomb is described in light of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The textbook goes on to say that “even ten years since the atomic bombings, a number of survivors have succumbed to the effects of radiation and burns” and quotes an essay written by a child who was suffering from the aftereffects of radiation.

In addition, the textbook depicts the effects of a hydrogen bomb “that would yield energy approximately 1000 times as devastating as an atomic bomb” if it were to explode in the center of Tokyo. With a map showing the hypocenter and concentric circles radiating outward, the effects of a hydrogen bomb’s blast and heat rays are said to spread throughout the Kanto region and “frightening radioactive ash would likely be scattered around a much larger area.”

And in a section entitled “Efforts for Peace,” the textbook calls for even junior high school students to maintain an awareness of peace building: “If children and adults, male and female, from East and West, believe they play no role and simply allow politicians and diplomats to take charge, war will be waged again and again, as in the past, and another annihilating world war cannot be prevented.”

By reading this textbook, I came to clearly realize what the adults of Japan at that time sought to convey to the next generation. The textbook manifests their remorse for war, their aspiration for peace, and their determination to prevent such tragedy from being repeated. The spirit of Japan’s “peace constitution” is embodied in this textbook and the approach to education back then.

  Memories of the atomic bombings and war are not fading merely with the passage of time. Politicians engaged in setting policy, as well as public servants involved in the administration of our educational system, bear deep responsibility. As well, the responsibility of teachers who interact with children, and those involved in the media, including ourselves, must be called into question. Viewing society as a whole, the present situation indicates that the will and the efforts of adults, in trying to convey this knowledge to the next generation, have proven inadequate.

At the same time, a number of teachers and schools are advancing against this current through their peace education efforts. In general, private schools, which have more latitude than public schools in regard to their curriculum, have long been active in this area.

  The Chugoku Shimbun, which maintains the company creed of “building world peace,” has sustained its own peace education efforts through many years of covering peace-related issues. Our future activities, too, will continue to be guided by this creed. From a nationwide perspective, though, the fading of such efforts has yet to be reversed in order to create a more favorable current.

I pose this question to myself: If a majority of the Japanese people truly understood the tragedy of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose effects still linger 64 years on, and they knew about the reality of radiation sufferers in the world, including those in the United States and nations of the former Soviet Union who were exposed during the development of atomic and hydrogen bombs, as well as the truth of radioactive contamination, what would occur? I believe the notion of “Japan possessing nuclear weapons” would never be considered, even as neighboring states seek to develop these weapons. Some politicians of the Liberal Democratic Party occasionally make such remarks because they themselves do not fully understand the reality of the atomic bombings. Their remarks also indicate that they are not sufficiently aware of the role of the A-bombed country in a world where, even after the end of the Cold War, the peril of the nuclear age persists.

Peace education is not a special pursuit; it is a central part of our lives. In a familiar sense, peace education involves eliminating discrimination and bullying, respecting both ourselves and others, and nurturing minds to value life and human rights. These ideals are then applied universally to humanity as a whole. Peace education entails learning how to settle conflicts peacefully through cooperation with others, without resorting to violence.

The first step in this effort requires a change in the consciousness of adults. Public servants involved in educational administration, including those in the Ministry of Education and on the local level, as well as principals and teachers at schools, play vital roles. Through collaboration between these educators and the parents and local communities they serve, diversified approaches suitable for the current age can be created.

In the 1970s, in the midst of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, teachers in Hiroshima who suffered the atomic bombing raised their voices to ensure that their experiences would not fade from memory. This effort led to the growth of peace education nationwide. Today, the peril of nuclear war has resurfaced and Hiroshima has become a focus of the world’s attention. It is high time for Hiroshima, as a symbol of the nuclear age, to again revitalize peace education for the sake of humanity’s survival. I hope the A-bombed city will inspire a powerful wave of peace education across Japan and the wider world.

(Originally published on April 20, 2009)  

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