Yuda-en: Former office manager looks back over the years

by Toshiko Bajo, Staff Writer

Last fall Saeko Ueno retired as office manager of Yuda-en, a support center that served as a haven for atomic bomb survivors in Yamaguchi Prefecture for more than 40 years. Ms. Ueno, 61, had been employed at the facility since it was established. The Chugoku Shimbun spoke with her about the history of Yuda-en, which began as a spa for A-bomb survivors and went on to offer them support through grassroots efforts including gathering accounts of their experiences and establishing a memorial to some A-bomb victims.

40 years of support for atomic bomb survivors

Located in the Yuda Onsen hot spring district of Yamaguchi Prefecture, Yuda-en was built primarily through the efforts of A-bomb survivors and academics in the area. As a health resort, it offered a hot spring where survivors who suffered from the aftereffects of the bombing could relax. The facility, which also included an inn, opened in May 1968. Because of the aging of the building and financial difficulties, the health resort operations were discontinued in 1995. By then visitors had made use of the facility 436,000 times.

"You know, when I hear that figure I feel humbled once again," Ms. Ueno said. "Of course, I didn't talk to every one of those people, but I never took time off in all those years. I didn't even spend the New Year's holiday with my family. I never had one full day off in 42 years."

Construction of Yuda-en began in 1967, the year Ms. Ueno graduated from high school. At the urging of her grandmother, who supported the project and had provided the construction site, she became a staff member of the prefectural committee that was established to oversee the building of a welfare facility for A-bomb survivors in Yamaguchi. The committee's offices were housed on the first floor of a two-story prefab building at the site. Initially, there were only two desks and a phone.

"I didn't have any relatives who were atomic bomb survivors, and I wondered what I'd be doing. At first, I did bookkeeping and typing, but then I was told to get a driver's license, which was useful later on when we traveled around Yamaguchi Prefecture to provide health checks and counseling.

"When construction began we still hadn't collected enough money. The hardest thing was going around to places like shrines and municipal government offices asking for donations. We drove all over the prefecture and stood on street corners soliciting donations. In the evenings we screened movies."

The majority of the facility's 43 million yen construction cost came from donations. The three-story building had 12 guest rooms, a large hall, and a consulting room as well as large and small baths. The number of users peaked at 25,266 in 1972, an average of 70 per day.

"None of us on the staff had any experience. We didn't know anything about running an inn, so it was really hectic. Even Hatsuma Nagamatsu (who passed away in 1991), the executive director at the time, did things like cleaning the baths. I helped dish up food and serve it. I did a little of everything from early in the morning until late at night. I didn't have time go to home at night, so I slept in the storage area where we kept the futons.

"There weren't enough guest rooms, and I recall that we sometimes laid guests' futons out in the large hall or in the corridors. Even so, they were pleased.

"For consultations, I didn't sit across a desk. I just chatted with guests in the lobby after they'd gotten out of the bath or finished eating. I listened to them talk about their lives or their atomic bombing experiences. It was like a real consultation."

Driving force

There is another spot where Ms. Ueno provided support to those affected by the atomic bombing: the Miyanoera area of Yamaguchi where the remains of soldiers who fell victim to the atomic bomb were discovered in 1973. Witnesses stated that the remains of soldiers who died at the Yamaguchi Army Hospital after being treated there just after the bombing had been buried there. Based on these accounts, Ms. Ueno, along with volunteers, began excavating in the area. Today a white memorial stands on the spot, and a ceremony in memory of the victims is held annually on September 6, which has been designated "Hiroshima Day in Yamaguchi." The ceremony is sponsored by Yuda-en, the Yamaguchi Prefecture Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations and other groups.

"We wore gloves and dug with our hands. Engineering students from Yamaguchi University helped us. We kept turning up more and more crumbling bone fragments. It was frightening to think that the atomic bomb had done that to them.

"As time passed, and I heard more stories from the A-bomb survivors, the more absorbed I became. I seemed to share their pain with them. I mean, it seems to me it isn't somebody else's problem but a problem that each of us must think about."

From 1980 through 1990 Yuda-en published seven volumes of the accounts and memoirs of 44 A-bomb survivors in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Ms. Ueno visited many of the survivors to listen to their stories.

"Some people didn't like to talk, but they would talk to me because I was a Yuda-en employee. I visited each person at least five or six times to hear their story, and I stayed in touch with them after that. I wasn't listening to them just for the book.

"A newspaper reporter advised me, 'When you go in the house, first check out your surroundings. Try to get a feel for what sort of life the person is leading.' I wanted to record what they had experienced in their lives.

"There was one older man I'll never forget. He had never married, and he was in poor health. He had been bedridden for a long time. His sister took care of him. Every time I went to visit him he was in his nightshirt. One day he said tearfully, 'The trees on the hill across the way grow, but I remain the same.' Time had stopped for him the day the atomic bomb was dropped.

"A few years ago I was seriously ill. I had seen A-bomb survivors maintain a positive attitude while battling their illnesses, but when it happened to me, I understood even more clearly their anxiety and their frame of mind."

The future

In 1995 Yuda-en discontinued its health resort operations, and the land was sold. The organization now has offices on the first floor of the building that was erected on the same spot and continues to offer consultations to A-bomb survivors. There are three staff members, including the executive director. Two of them went to work with Ms. Ueno just after Yuda-en opened.

"Forty years went by so fast. The memories just flash before my eyes. The A-bomb survivors had a truly terrible time during and after the war. But they were determined to go on living even though they were in poor health.

"The health resort is gone, but with a subsidy from the prefectural government, A-bomb survivors can get discounts at three hot springs in Yamaguchi Prefecture. I try to look at it in a positive light: it must be hard for some of them to come all the way to Yuda Onsen, so it's good if they can go to another hot spring nearby.

"Yuda-en's health resort business also owed a lot to volunteers from Yamaguchi University. Some students walked here in wooden clogs all the way from the engineering department in Ube to help out.

"One reason I was able to keep going was I was inspired by the enthusiasm of Mr. Nagamatsu, Kazunari Abe, the former chairman of the board, and other people around me. Yuda-en could only be built because of everyone's strong desire to support the A-bomb survivors.

"Mr. Nagamatsu was a survivor himself, and he worked very hard despite the fact that he was ill. He continued to work while getting a shot nearly every week. He felt a sense of indebtedness about having survived, and he had a strong sense of mission to rid the world as soon as possible of that inhumane weapon that can only be understood by those who have seen what it brought about. I worked hard to keep up with all of them.

"I'm glad to see that now, with Obama as president of the United States, the movement to abolish nuclear weapons is gaining strength. If you could combine that with the enthusiasm we had at the time Yuda-en was built, I think we really could eliminate nuclear weapons. Support for the A-bomb survivors will always be an issue, too. Standing here again at the memorial site, where it all began, takes me back to the way I felt in the past."

The History of Yuda-en

August 1965: Promoters' committee for building a welfare facility for atomic bomb survivors in Yamaguchi established; fund drive begins the following month
March 1967: Construction begins
May 1968: Yuda-en opens
May 1970: Group health checks for A-bomb survivors begin
July 1973: Remains of A-bomb victims found in the City of Yamaguchi
September 1973: Excavation conducted in cooperation with volunteers
September 1974: Memorial erected on site where remains of A-bomb victims found; remains and a list of victims from Yamaguchi Prefecture placed inside the memorial
September 1975: First "Hiroshima Day in Yamaguchi" ceremony held
February 1976: Exhibition of paintings by A-bomb survivors held
November 1977: Health checks conducted throughout the prefecture on weekends with the cooperation of the prefectural government and other agencies
January 1980 : First volume of accounts of A-bomb survivors published
July 1990: Effort to preserve memoirs of survivors' A-bomb experiences and their post-war lives begins
March 1995: Survey on health and daily lives of 6,500 A-bomb survivors in the prefecture conducted in conjunction with Yamaguchi Prefecture Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations
May 1995: Inn, spa closed
June 1995: Demolition of building begins
January 1996 : Work resumes in new office in prefectural workers' union hall

(Originally published Jan. 18, 2010)