Editorial: Rethinking the nuclear age

As in years past, prior to this year’s anniversary of the atomic bombing, many readers of the Chugoku Shimbun submitted letters for our readers’ corner. When these letters are read, one by one, they evoke the anger and sorrow that has yet to heal.

Most impressive, though, is the sense of mission the writers convey: “We must not forget”; “We must hand down our experience to the next generation.” This sense of mission seems to be growing stronger each year.

Sixty-seven years ago today, at 8:15 a.m., a single atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the United States took a great many lives and burned the city to ash. Even after enduring that indescribable catastrophe, the survivors have had to live under the constant threat of the A-bomb’s invisible radiation.

Thus the nuclear age, in which we now live, dawned on that day.

As the years have passed, the A-bomb memories have faded. But the nuclear accident of March 11, 2011 teaches us that we should not permit such memories to recede. Although atomic power involves the two aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, the accident in Fukushima underscores the fact that there is no difference between the two when it comes to the risk of radiation damage.

Isn’t it time we took to heart the significance of handing down the A-bomb experience? Efforts to rethink the nuclear age must begin in Hiroshima, not elsewhere.

Above all, as long as we continue to live side by side with the atom, it is clear that our safety and security cannot be ensured.

Survivors are aging

The average age of A-bomb survivors has exceeded 78. The number of survivors who hold the A-bomb Survivor’s Certificate is slightly over 210,000, including some living hard lives overseas. When compared to the more than 370,000 certificate-holders around 1980, that number has dropped by almost half.

Still, memories of the atomic bombing remain alive in every corner of the city. They may be faint whispers, but they can be heard by listening keenly. Listening with the ears alone, though, will have little impact if you don’t also listen with your whole heart.

The declining number of survivors is not the only concern. The generations that have no first-hand experience of the war can hardly find it easy to grasp or imagine what took place under the mushroom cloud. And yet people seem to think that they already have a full understanding of what occurred.

We must seek to understand the experiences of the survivors, share them with the people around us, and hand them down to the next generation. On behalf of the survivors, it is now our duty to disseminate their stories. If we fail in this task, what happened on that day in the long-ago past will be forever forgotten. The succeeding generations must feel a stronger sense of urgency.

Considering the average age of the survivors, at the time of the bombing they were roughly 11 years old. They were still very young when their skin was burned, their family members and friends were stolen away, and they spent many sleepless nights worried about their future and fearful of the effects of radiation. Children of the same age today should be encouraged to put themselves in the survivors’ shoes to understand the tremendous pain of losing loved ones.

Contradiction lies in idea of nuclear deterrence

As he did last year, Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui will quote from A-bomb survivors’ accounts in the annual Peace Declaration. The City of Hiroshima has also launched a program where participants will be trained to convey the experiences of A-bomb survivors on their behalf. These are signs of the urgency felt by those involved in such efforts to prevent the A-bomb memories from fading. At the same time, more than a few survivors who were once reluctant to share their experiences have recently begun to speak out.

Hesitating to talk about distressing experiences of this kind is only natural. Still, we hope the survivors will do what they can to relate their stories to younger generations or make brief written accounts of these experiences.

“I don’t want my children and grandchildren to suffer the same ordeal as I experienced” is a familiar sentiment shared by all survivors. From this conviction has come the will to seek peace and prevent nuclear war, reducing, albeit slowly, the number of nuclear weapons existing on this planet.

On the other hand, we can hardly be optimistic about current international conditions. It is true that strategic nuclear arms have been reduced in number, a fact unimaginable during the Cold War. However, the nuclear weapon states are all still enslaved to the idea that their nations cannot be defended if they should completely abandon their nuclear arsenals.

The Japan-U.S. alliance has not broken free of this notion, either. We should not forget that the Japanese and U.S. governments have viewed U.S. nuclear deterrence as “an essential complement to Japan’s defense capability” on the occasion of the realignment of U.S. bases in Japan.

While maintaining its reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the A-bombed nation makes calls for the elimination of nuclear arms. It goes without saying that the basis for this contradiction lies in the idea of nuclear deterrence. In other words, unless a fundamental change is made in this regard, no changes will be seen in Okinawa or Iwakuni [where U.S. military bases are located].

The only road to the elimination of nuclear weapons is the complete disapproval of nuclear weapons themselves. The public must be involved in putting wise ideas into action to advance the idea of a nuclear weapons convention. And leading this effort should be the A-bombed cities and the government of the A-bombed nation.

Breaking away from nuclear energy

The other event that has highlighted Hiroshima’s role was the disaster of last March 11. The “peaceful use of nuclear energy,” which the A-bombed nation promoted as national policy, has ended up producing more hibakusha [victims of radiation exposure].

The people of Hiroshima are disturbed over the prejudice and discrimination suffered by those who were exposed to radiation as a result of the nuclear accident. A-bomb survivors experienced similar hardships over such issues as obtaining access to free medical care.

Over the years, hibakusha have overcome such resentment and bitterness and have nurtured the spirit of Hiroshima, embodied in the expression “nuclear power and human beings cannot co-exist,” and have worked to convey that message. We must make an effort to understand their feelings and cooperate with the people of Fukushima in order to ensure that our nation’s policy is not deflected from a phase-out of nuclear energy.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will attend today’s Peace Memorial Ceremony. Among the participants mourning the victims will be U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos, who also attended the ceremony two years ago.

We ask the policymakers of all nations to turn their attention to August 6 and the memories preserved in Hiroshima, listen to the authentic voices of the survivors, and once again pledge to build a world without nuclear weapons.

The declaration heralding the end of the nuclear age should be issued at the place where it began.

(Originally published on August 6, 2012)