Akihiko Ito, interviewer of more than 1,000 atomic bomb survivors

by Kensuke Murashima, Staff Writer

The accomplishments of Akihiko Ito, who recorded the accounts of more than 1,000 atomic bomb survivors (hibakusha) at his own expense, are being recognized once again. Mr. Ito, a former reporter for Nagasaki Broadcasting Company, died last March at the age of 72. The accounts of A-bomb survivors that he recorded on cassette tapes and compact disks are being uploaded to a website and conveyed to the world in English translation by members of the next generation who sympathize with Mr. Ito's ideas and activities. English-language videos have also begun to be released on the website. The Chugoku Shimbun looked at Mr. Ito's achievements and the efforts of those who are carrying on his work.

Recorded voices

Mr. Ito went to work at the Nagasaki Broadcasting Company in 1960. The following year he interviewed a woman who was the last survivor of a crackdown on Japan's so-called "hidden Christians" in the mid-19th century. In Genshiya no Yobuki (The Book of Job in the Atomic Wasteland) in which he looked back on his experiences in those early days, Mr. Ito wrote, "Someday the last survivor of the atomic bomb will leave this earth. In anticipation of that day, their voices must be recorded."

In 1968, while working at Nagasaki Broadcasting, Mr. Ito proposed the creation of a new radio program called "Hibaku wo Kataru" (Talking about the Atomic Bombing) and served as its first producer. But in his book Natsu no Kotoba (Words of Summer) he wrote that he was relieved of his duties about six months later because of his involvement in a labor union movement. Years later he described his state of mind at that time on his blog: "I felt a real sense of loss as if I had trained for a marathon and then was told to drop out after running only 200 meters."

Mr. Ito left Nagasaki Broadcasting in 1970 and began recording the accounts of A-bomb survivors on his own the following year. Carrying his tape recorder, which weighed 13 kg (about 29 pounds), he spent eight years traveling to 21 prefectures from Aomori in northern Japan to Okinawa.

Mr. Ito firmly believed that the atomic bomb survivors must tell their own stories in their own words. In his book Mirai kara no Yuigon (A Will from the Future) he wrote: "I want to hand down unedited recordings to the next generation…They can interpret or edit the accounts as they like."

Keiji Nakazawa, 71, a cartoonist who lives in Saitama Prefecture, gave his account of the atomic bombing to Mr. Ito about 35 years ago. He clearly remembers Mr. Ito and his large tape recorder. "I sensed his strong desire to record the voices of as many atomic bomb survivors as he could."

While Mr. Ito succeeded in recording the accounts of more than 1,000 survivors, he said nearly as many refused to talk to him. One survivor told Mr. Ito that talking to him would be "as painful as reopening wounds that have finally begun to heal."

Mr. Ito edited the accounts and issued them himself. They include a reel-to-reel version with 51 accounts produced from 1982 to 1985, a cassette-tape version with 14 accounts released in 1989 and a CD version with 284 accounts released in 2006. Copies were donated to libraries and pacifist organizations throughout Japan.

Advances in information technology have sustained Mr. Ito's efforts. In May 2006 Yoshihisa Furukawa, 55, a copy writer residing in Saitama Prefecture who had been given a copy of Mr. Ito's CD, created a website, "Voices of the Survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki," to allow the stories of the A-bomb survivors to be heard throughout the world. Mr. Ito was surprised, Mr. Furukawa said. "Having a way to disseminate the survivors' accounts sparked his motivation again," he said.

Six months later, in November 2006, Mr. Ito switched from a tape recorder to a video camera and began recording again in Hiroshima, Tokyo, and Nagasaki.

Around that time Mr. Ito sent an e-mail message to Mr. Furukawa in which he said, "I started this work 40 years ago with the 'first pitch.' I don’t know whether or not it will turn out to be a 'complete game,' but as long as there are hibakusha who are willing to tell me their stories, I will keep on trying a little longer."

Referring to his own experience, Mr. Ito said, "Someone who was exposed to the atomic bomb at the age of 5 and lives until the age of 92 would be able to recount their experiences of the atomic bombing until the year 2032." But with the passage of more than 60 years since the bombing he felt that the accounts of the survivors were losing their immediacy. In January 2009 Mr. Ito suspended his efforts to record survivors' accounts, which were no longer progressing, and returned to Tokyo from Nagasaki. Two months later he died at the age of 72.

Mr. Ito's personal theory was: "Nameless ordinary people have a spirit we can truly respect." He described the Internet, which allows for free-wheeling discussions, as a symbol of democracy. Mr. Ito hoped to inject the spirit of the A-bomb survivors into the website and translate their accounts into Chinese, French, and other languages of nuclear nations so they could be shared around the world, but he was unable to see his project to its completion.

The spirit to carry on

Yoshihisa Furukawa set up "Voices of the Survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki," the website on which the A-bomb survivor accounts collected by Akihiko Ito are posted. "I was overwhelmed by the power of the survivors' accounts," he said. Mr. Furukawa, a native of Nagasaki, whose father was an A-bomb survivor, has heard accounts of atomic bombing experiences since his childhood. But he said that when he first heard the CD that Mr. Ito had produced, the feeling of hearing the survivors' tell their stories in their own words was completely different.

Mr. Furukawa took steps to ensure that the survivors' accounts could be conveyed more effectively on the website. The survivors' voices are accompanied by transcriptions that appear on the screen. Former classmates from Mr. Furukawa's junior high and high school days helped with the transcriptions. Survivors' accounts have been uploaded to the website since May 2006.

In analyzing the times at which hits to the website peaked, Mr. Furukawa found that many of them coincided with use by school students, so he added the readings of Chinese characters and explanations of difficult terms.

Tokyo resident Tsuyoshi Sato, 56, is a member of a group that supports the effort to convey the survivors' accounts to the world, which was formerly headed by Mr. Ito. Mr. Sato also produced a catalogue of the accounts. When the accounts recorded on cassette tape were uploaded to the website in August 2009, he proposed a method that allowed the site's visitors to participate in the preparation of the subtitles, thus improving the website.

Mr. Furukawa has pondered the meaning of the term "experiences of the atomic bomb survivors," which Mr. Ito used repeatedly. He believes it refers not only to their experience of the atomic bombing itself but also to the loss of their health and the destruction of their families as well as the history of their efforts to regain their health and rebuild their families. In addition to recollections of the bombings, the website also features survivors' accounts of what happened to them afterwards.

There are currently 298 survivors' accounts on the website. The majority of them also feature English subtitles. The accounts in English are intended to convey the stories of the survivors to young people in nuclear nations, particularly the United States, and to help ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again, which was also the wish of Mr. Ito.

In his later years Mr. Ito recorded 349 survivors' accounts on video. Last December nine of them, in which the survivors spoke in English, were uploaded to the website. On March 3, the first anniversary of Mr. Ito's death, nine more English-language accounts were added.

When videos in which the survivors recounted their stories in English were uploaded, access to the English website, which had averaged less than 200 hits per month, rapidly increased. Last December there were more than 2,500 visitors to the English site.

The site has had a far-reaching impact. A native of Nagasaki who lives in England sent an e-mail message in which he wrote, "I would like to tell British elementary and junior high school students about the site during their history lessons." Another person in Denmark wrote, "The people being interviewed do a great job."

Toshinori Namba, 43, a film producer and resident of Tokyo, is in charge of the editing of the videos. He was in the process of producing a documentary about Mr. Ito when he died. Mr. Sato said of Mr. Ito's work, "He forged ahead even in the face of adversity. He believed there was something to be gained at that point that could not be gained otherwise." With that thought in mind, Mr. Namba has continued with the editing of the Japanese language videos.

Before he died, Mr. Ito wrote on his blog: "I believe that my wishes will continue to be carried out after I am gone.”

The website, "Voices of the Survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki," is located here: http://www.geocities.jp/s20hibaku/voshn/index.html

(Originally published April 19, 2010)

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