One afternoon in March, Keiko Ogura stood before a group of foreign visitors in the Peace Memorial Park and urged them to embrace pacifism.
It’s a result she’s sought on many occasions during the past 36 years, as she recounts her memories of Aug. 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb “Little Boy” laid waste to her native Hiroshima.
Ogura, 78, told high school students from Hawaii about the day the A-bomb fell, that burn victims walked past her house pleading for water. Ogura ran inside and brought what they asked.
Some died in front of her, vomiting blood. She was too horrified to tell her parents. For decades, she was plagued by nightmares.
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“This is my invisible scar,” Ogura, director of Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, told the students. A few broke into tears. She concluded with a peace message: Every student can contribute something to help stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
“Coming here is your start,” Ogura said. “Please tell what you experienced here to your friends and family.”
Ogura, who was eight years old when the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, killing 80,000 people, often worries about the younger generation. She hopes that through first-person accounts, young people will be inspired to work for peace worldwide.
She doesn’t foresee ending her mission. Her work is too important, especially because many in Hiroshima are concerned that Japanese leadership is losing sight of the A-bomb survivors’ peace message.
Japanese pacifism dates back to the U.S. drafting of a constitution during the occupation following Japan’s defeat in World War II in August 1945. Hiroshima’s legacy of pacifism has been central to the Japanese identity since the end of the war, but now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is showing signs of chipping away at that post-war commitment to peace. The PM is expected to make a statement in the coming weeks commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, even as the majority party pushes bills expanding the country’s military capability through Japan’s legislature.
Ogura and Hiroshima’s other survivors remain steadfast in their message of promoting world peace, but time has eroded both the health of the survivors and the political force of their message.
“Time is limited,” Ogura said. “I have to do something meaningful by handing my story down to the future generations.”
Reinterpreting the constitution
The Abe administration’s attempts to reinterpret Japan’s 1947 peace constitution represent the most profound challenge to a legacy of pacifism treasured by many Japanese. Included in the constitution is Article 9, a peace clause that renounces Japan’s right to wage war. Japan was allowed to establish the Self-Defense Forces, which remain the only semblance of a military.
On July 1, Abe used a cabinet decision to adopt a resolution ending the country’s ban on collective self-defense, a reinterpretation of Article 9 that will allow the Self-Defense Forces to go to the aid of Japanese allies, namely the United States.
Abe has pushed for collective self-defense because of perceived hostility in East Asia, said Yasuhiro Inoue, a professor at Hiroshima City University. Many Japanese are angered by threats from North Korea and China. Changes to the pacifist constitution could mean that Japan would be able to protect itself more actively.
While the Japanese government reports a record 30 percent of Japanese would like to see the capabilities of their Self-Defense Forces expanded, 56 percent were opposed to Abe’s July 1 action, according to the national newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
Many still consider Article 9 precious, Inoue said. Seiko Ikeda, who survived the Hiroshima bombing as a 12-year-old and spoke through a translator, says she often worries about the peace clause.
“I feel anxiety at the idea that this wonderful peace constitution would be damaged in some way,” Ikeda said.
Choosing to tell her story
On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Ogura’s father told her she shouldn’t go to school. He had a strange feeling about that day. If she had gone, Ogura would have probably died along with many of her classmates. Instead, she stayed with her family at their house, about a mile from where the bomb fell.
Ogura and her family were unhurt and lucky enough to escape the radiation poisoning and injuries that would kill at least 60,000 more victims by the end of 1945. Still, the A-bomb shaped every aspect of her life, as it would with so many others who were in Hiroshima when “Little Boy” fell from the belly of the Enola Gay. For many years she remained silent about the bomb. Soon after her husband died in 1979, she began giving speeches, sharing what she witnessed mostly with English-speaking audiences.
Now, she is the director of Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, a volunteer group focused on spreading survivors’ message globally. She spends most of her days guiding visitors around Hiroshima’s Peace Park and speaking about her experiences.
For members of the group, the idea of the peace clause being abolished is too much to bear.
Survivors’ political force
Mayor of Nagasaki Tomihisa Taue incorporated survivors’ stories into his 2014 peace declaration, an annual speech given by the mayors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Taue addressed collective self-defense directly, saying the survivors have continued to communicate the principle of pacifism through their stories.
“The rushed debate over collective self-defense has given rise to the concern that this principle is wavering,” Taue said. “I urgently request that the Japanese government take serious heed of these distressed voices.”
More than 16,000 nuclear weapons exist in stockpiles around the world despite the warnings of survivors, Taue added in his address.
Bo Jacobs, a professor at Hiroshima City University, said that while pacifism remains an important part of Hiroshima’s identity, the city’s peace message does not hold sway nationally.
“As time has gone on, it is more and more local culture, and less and less national culture,” Jacobs said.
Many of those who remember the devastation are concerned for their country’s future. Inoue, the Hiroshima City University professor, worries that young people are uninformed because they are further removed from memories of the war. The younger generation is more apathetic, he said. Only about 38 percent of people in their 20s voted in the 2012 election.
James Orr, a professor of East Asian Studies at Bucknell University, said there has been more of a sense of patriotism under Abe, something that he said has been particularly popular among Japan’s youth. Orr thinks Abe hopes to unify citizens under the idea of collective self-defense.
“Abe is trying to create a less complicated national identity,” Orr said.
Responsibility to tell the story
Etsuko Nakatani is a second-generation survivor, meaning she was not yet born on Aug. 6, 1945, but her parents were affected by the bomb. She works for a group that organizes second-generation survivors and advocates for their health benefits.
Her mother talked about the atomic bombing every day, she said through a translator in a café near the Peace Park. As unusual as it was for survivors to talk to their kids about their experiences, Nakatani said, her mother liked to unburden herself of the tragedy.
It is important to continue to pass down survivors’ stories, even second-hand, Nakatani said.
“As long as we remember what happened, we won’t create conditions where they happen again,” Nakatani said.
Most survivors never spoke to their families about the bombing. They were often discriminated against, mostly because of the fears surrounding the illnesses that resulted from the radiation effects of the bomb.
Ogura said it is not the Japanese tendency to pass down their stories or linger in the past. Her own family would prefer her not to talk abut the bombing or the war, but she believes that those affected have a responsibility to share their stories. As she sees it, survivors’ destinies are to carry on the peace message.
“To survive is very important,” Ogura said. “Underneath the mushroom cloud, everyone has the same destiny.”
Wildeman: 919-829-4845, @mkwildeman