Personal histories born of August 6 increasingly common

by Toshiko Bajo,Staff Writer

There is a growing trend among atomic bomb survivors and their families to record their personal histories. At a meeting late last year of social workers and others in Hiroshima who offer counseling services to survivors, they were urged to write accounts of their experiences. Looking back over their lives means describing not only the harm inflicted by the war and the atomic bomb but also the subsequent efforts by families and the community to recover and rebuild. The Chugoku Shimbun spoke with people who are recording their experiences.

Yuzuru Hirai, Hiroshima: Regret, hardship and joy

Until recently Hiroshima resident Yuzuru Hirai, 77, was unable to talk about his experience of the atomic bombing. Recalling that day made him weep uncontrollably. He didn't want to think about it, and he wondered whether, as one who escaped direct exposure to the atomic bomb, he had the right to tell of his experience.

He first related his experience last August 6 in front of a small group. Through this talk he became determined to speak out about his classmates who had died. And recently he took up his pen.

Screams reverberated through Koi Elementary School, which overflowed with the badly burned.

One mother came to get her son. All the children had severe burns and she was unable to find him. Following the sound of a faint voice calling "Mom," she finally located him. "I'll help you," she said, and she put him on a two-wheeled cart and left.

That evening one of Mr. Hirai's classmates whose entire body was red and swollen called out to him. "If I die, you can have my belt," the classmate said. It was a black leather belt.

"I couldn't do anything for him. I can't imagine how sad he must have felt seeing parents coming for other children."

The students in Mr. Hirai's year at the junior high school he attended were divided into four classes. Two of the four classes were in Koami-cho (now part of Naka Ward), where they were exposed to the thermal rays of the atomic bomb at close range. Another class was at the school in Nakahiro-cho (now part of Nishi Ward). Only Mr. Hirai's class had been dispatched to work in Naka Fukawa, in the northern part of the city, and thus escaped direct exposure to the bomb. Although he went to Koi Elementary School, where his badly burned schoolmates had been taken, there was nothing Mr. Hirai could do. Because he soon left Hiroshima to live with relatives in Hokkaido, he doesn’t know what happened to the classmate who talked to him about his belt.

According to Mr. Hirai, the students all got along well with each other. He recalled tough training in which they had to run barefoot in the school yard in the middle of winter and sharing sweet potatoes that they had grown.

"Even after the bombing, I had a rough time," Mr. Hirai said. His father had died just before the bomb was dropped. Mr. Hirai and his mother soon returned to Hiroshima. He recalls going to a farm on the outskirts of town to buy food, being repeatedly refused and eating the seed potatoes he was finally able to get. He also remembers standing in line to buy dumplings that he and his family shared after mixing them with rice bran. With the changeover to the new yen in 1946, their lives became even more difficult, and Mr. Hirai dropped out of junior high school. He went from one job to another, saved up his money and eventually was able to buy a bicycle.

When he was 26 he went to work in an automobile factory, which was bustling because of the popularity of its three-wheeled vehicles. He recalls the gas stove in the kitchen of the apartment where he and his wife lived, and remembers buying a pendulum clock. He was able to continue working to retirement age.

Recalling small pleasures, he records each scene in a notebook.

Mr. Hirai said that since he began writing his personal history he has been able to think about things from the standpoint of others by recalling his encounters with various people, many of which he has put to paper. "I was able to live with everyone's help," he said. "I'm not alone."

Kenji Kawamoto, Shunan, Yamaguchi Prefecture: Lingering fear of loud sounds and bright light

Even after nearly 65 years, Kenji Kawamoto, 82, is still startled by loud sounds. He can't look directly at the headlights of oncoming cars because it reminds him of the rigidity of his body, which was burned by the thermal rays. Suffering from poor health, Mr. Kawamoto lives alone in an apartment. "The atomic bomb affected my entire life afterwards," he said.

At the time of the bombing, Mr. Kawamoto, now a resident of Shunan in Yamaguchi Prefecture, was digging a bomb shelter near Yokogawa Station, about 1.5 kilometers north of the hypocenter. His entire body was burned and his parents found him near death at the facility where he had been taken. He was unconscious until around October.

In the ensuing years he was in and out of the hospital. He sometimes collapsed at work and had difficulty holding down a job. He never married or had children out of fear of the genetic effects of the atomic bombing.

He was inspired to begin writing his personal history in 2007 after consulting with the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-bomb Sufferers Organizations and joining a lawsuit to be certified as a sufferer of the effects of radiation. Last spring he prevailed in the first trial. At the end of last year a law was passed that will provide aid to others who lost their suits. "This happened thanks to those who supported us. I want to record my experiences in some form in an effort to repay them," he said.

Among the materials he prepared for the lawsuit is a photo taken by the U.S. military and returned to Japan in which Mr. Kawamoto can be seen. He reads his account over, and then slowly scratches out more in pencil on fresh sheets of paper. He writes in the waiting rooms of hospitals while waiting for doctor's appointments or while sitting beside his bed at home. Then he makes a clean copy.

He has described seeing his burned body in a mirror, muffling sobs in bed and working despite his physical limitations. Not a day goes by that he doesn't look at his scars.

No matter how much time passes he cannot escape his mental or physical scars. That is precisely why he wants to tell people not only about the day of the bombing but also his life afterwards. He writes in the hope that a massacre involving innocent citizens will never happen again.

Interview with Yoshie Kurihara, publisher of atomic bomb survivors' accounts: Awareness of being a survivor, conveying thoughts and feelings

The Chugoku Shimbun asked Tokyo resident Yoshie Kurihara, 62, publisher of Personal History Newsletter: Hibakusha, about the significance of the writing of personal histories by atomic bomb survivors and their families. Below are Ms. Kurihara's thoughts:

Most of the accounts written by the atomic bomb survivors describe their experiences just before and after the bombing or until their recovery from the acute symptoms of radiation sickness. But that does not represent the full extent of the harm inflicted by the atomic bomb. Later many of the survivors suffered from not only the physical effects of their exposure to radiation but also discrimination and emotional distress related to marriage, work or the birth of children. There was a tremendous impact beyond what the survivors themselves are aware of.

Writing about their experiences is very meaningful. By looking back over their experiences and describing them, they can review their lives and organize their thoughts. It is also useful in helping them lead better lives from now on. Recalling those who died, many recognize themselves as survivors and decide to convey their thoughts and feelings to others.

The accounts inspire sympathy in those who read them. Some people who read A-bomb accounts that record only the time before and after the bombing itself merely think to themselves, "I'm glad it wasn't me" or "That's all in the past." But when they read the survivors' personal histories and sympathize with them, the account leaves a lasting impression, and they can regard the issue as one that concerns them as well.

The writing process is a struggle for some because they are forced to recall painful experiences. In some cases it takes time for people to get past that. They need the support of their friends and families. I would like them to ask questions, offer advice and help the survivors express their feelings more clearly.

Yoshie Kurihara
Yoshie Kurihara is a certified social insurance and labor consultant. She was a staff member of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organization from 1980 through 1991. In 1993, she launched the monthly Personal History Newsletter: Hibakusha and sought contributions from writers. To date, the accounts of about 800 people have been published in 205 issues. Currently 640 copies are distributed nationwide.

(Originally published Feb. 9, 2010)

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Hiroshima Memo: Accounts written by A-bomb survivors must be passed on (Feb. 16, 2010)

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