My conversations with survivors of the atomic bomb, and my own family's story, all share the same message: Never again.
By Michael Judge
TOKYO — On Aug. 6 people from across the globe will gather at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, in recognition of the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombing of that now bustling and beautiful city of 1.2 million souls. They will reflect on the more than 140,000 men, women and children who died in that horrific, world-changing instant, and in the hours, weeks, months and years that followed.
I will be with them.
As a journalist who attended the 50th anniversary of the bombing in 1995, I had hoped to be among those in attendance two years ago, on the 75th anniversary, not only to mark the solemn occasion but also to retrace my steps as a much younger man with far fewer ties to a land I now consider my second home. I also wanted to better understand what drew me to Hiroshima so many years ago.
Only this time, I wouldn’t be traveling alone, as I did 25 years ago; I’d be traveling with my wife, Masae, and our then 8-year-old son, Max, who proudly calls himself “half-Japanese, half-American.” We do our best to visit Max’s beloved grandparents (Jiji and Baba), aunts, uncles and cousins at least once a year. In 2020, we had hoped to attend an event or two at the Tokyo Olympics and then take a train to Hiroshima to join others—sojourners and residents alike, from all nations, races and creeds—in a communal prayer of “Never again.”
Sadly, the pandemic, as I’m sure it did for countless others, shattered our plans to revisit Hiroshima in the summer of 2020. We’ll do it another time, I told my son. We’ll plan another trip when we can honor the dead in Hiroshima properly, shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of other mourners and kindred spirits.
“My first interview was with Yoshito Matsushige, a photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper in Hiroshima. ‘It was great weather that morning,’ he said, ‘without a single cloud. But under that blue sky, people were exposed directly to heat rays. They were burned all over, on the face, back, arms, legs — their skin burst, hanging. There were people lying on the asphalt, their burnt bodies sticking to it, people squatting down, their faces burnt and blackened. I struggled to push the shutter button.’”
Why, one might ask, would an American whose grandfather fought in Okinawa want to take his child to Hiroshima? The answer is quite simple, and can be summed up in two words — to heal. As the parents of a half-American, half-Japanese son, my wife and I embrace the humanity, traditions and history of both our cultures. That includes the suffering, which runs deep on both sides of our family over four generations, due to one costly war.
My 85-year-old mother — who turned 10, my son’s age today, when her father was away at the war — likes to call us “bridges.” By that she means to her our lives serve as bridges, not just between two nations that were once at war, but between two families who were wounded by war, suffered deeply, and, like millions of other families, continued to live, love and bridge the divides of this world.
My wife’s father, Yasumasa, who turned 80 in January, lost his mother and two younger siblings in the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, an unimaginable conflagration that claimed more lives than the nuclear attacks on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Like so many others, they didn’t die in the bombing. They died fleeing the bombing, some 200 miles away, in the mountains of Yamagata prefecture where my son’s great grandmother, a local beauty named Kaneyo, was raised.
Malnourished and weakened by the long journey, their bodies couldn’t digest the rice they were fed by family in Yamagata. They died of “burst stomachs,” my wife’s father says. Miraculously, he, the oldest and strongest of Kaneyo’s children, was the only survivor. When his father, Tsukasa, returned from the war, his wife and two of his three children were dead. He was never the same.
When my mother’s father, Dinsmore Brandmill, returned from the war, his wife and three children were alive. But he, too, would never be the same, his wounds never fully healed. Major Brandmill, a rural K-12 teacher and principal, was over 40 when he shipped out for Okinawa. The commander of a clean-up squad, he fought alongside men half his age rooting out entrenched Japanese forces.
The fierceness of the fighting on Okinawa was unequaled, with the civilian population caught in the middle. More than 12,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in less than three months; 36,000 more wounded. Japanese casualties, including Okinawan conscripts and civilians, are estimated at more than 200,000.
Tetsu no ame, rain of steel, is what the Japanese called the battle. Kamikaze attacks sank 36 and damaged more than 360 U.S. ships. On its last legs, the Imperial Army recruited local Okinawans — willing or not, some as young as 13 — as frontline fighters and suicide bombers. Many local women, told by Japanese soldiers they’d be raped by U.S. forces, their children slaughtered, jumped from cliffs with their children. Entire families committed suicide.
After Okinawa, my grandfather spent time in a military hospital for “battle fatigue” and returned home with what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. My mother tells of long rides down country roads, holding his hand in silence. He died a decade before my wife and I married in 1997. But I’d like to think my grandfather would have seen our marriage the way my mother has, as a bridge between two nations, two cultures.
My wife’s parents attended our wedding ceremony in America. And her grandfather, after some early grumblings, attended our reception in Tokyo along with all her friends and relatives from across the country. My mother and older brother, David, attended the Tokyo celebration as well.
One day I’ll tell my son how his American grandmother shared a photograph with his Japanese great grandfather, a man who lost nearly everything in the war. The photo was of her father, shortly before shipping out to Okinawa, in full military dress. Looking at the photo, with tears in his eyes, he bowed his head and said Gokurōsama deshita (thank you for your hard work).
Three years earlier, I had visited Hiroshima to write about the Chugoku Shimbun, a daily newspaper just one kilometer from the hypocenter of the blast. The 15-kiloton atomic bomb was detonated at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, 500 kilometers above the city. The explosion created a massive fireball, with temperatures near the hypocenter reaching 3,000 to 4,000 Celsius (an iron bar melts at half that temperature). Of the 76,000 buildings near the hypocenter, 70,000 were destroyed. Of the 300 employees working at the Chugoku Shimbun that morning, 113 were killed. Yet, incredibly, thanks to the use of other papers’ printing presses, and a press the Chugoku had moved out of the city, the paper resumed publication just days after the bombing and is still in operation today.
It was during that trip that I first fell in love with Hiroshima — the city, its people, their resilience, and the great responsibility they feel as the first human beings to have suffered the horrors of an atomic attack.
I returned several times after that, once to interview the mayor of Hiroshima in the weeks before the 50th anniversary of the bombing, and once to interview three hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bomb). The word holds a kind of hallowed and, sadly, taboo status in Japan, and can be broken down into three parts: hi, which means to suffer; baku, which means explosion, and sha, which means person.
The hibakusha as a people were long shunned by the general population, especially outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but in recent decades have received the compassion and respect they deserve. This is in large part due to their willingness to tell their stories, to share their suffering with others, and above all the strength, moral clarity and dignity in their constant refrain: “Never again.”
As John Hersey showed in Hiroshima, his unequaled report on six survivors that filled the Aug. 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker, later published as a book, the victims of the atomic bomb were ordinary men, women and children whose lives were obliterated or changed forever by circumstances beyond their control.
The first of the hibakusha I interviewed was, like me, a journalist. A photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun, Yoshito Matsushige was at his home 2.7 kilometers from the hypocenter when the blast occurred at 8:15 in the morning. His immediate reaction was to grab his camera and head toward the fire. But when he saw “the hellish state of things” he couldn’t bring himself to take pictures. “It was great weather that morning,” he said, “without a single cloud. But under that blue sky, people were exposed directly to heat rays. They were burned all over, on the face, back, arms, legs — their skin burst, hanging. There were people lying on the asphalt, their burnt bodies sticking to it, people squatting down, their faces burnt and blackened. I struggled to push the shutter button.”
After more than 30 minutes, he said, he finally brought himself to take two pictures of people, horribly burned, who had gathered on Miyuki Bridge, about 2.3 kilometers from the hypocenter. Many were middle-school children, their bodies terribly burned. Someone was applying cooking oil to their wounds. He remembers asking them for forgiveness, wiping away his tears, and saying “I just took a picture of you as you are suffering, but this is my duty.”
In all, Matsushige snapped his shutter just seven times, the only photos taken in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. He died in 2005, at the age of 92, a dedicated peace activist who shared his story with people around the globe, including before the U.N. General Assembly.
That same summer I spoke with a survivor who, after breaking a long silence, had been sharing her story with schoolchildren for a decade. Seiko Ikeda, a 63-year-old retired teacher and grandmother of five at the time, was 13 when the bomb changed her life forever. Only 1.5 kilometers from the hypocenter of the blast, she was exposed to massive amounts of radiation and suffered severe burns on her face and body. Over the next 20 years she would undergo a series of 15 operations to remove the scars that once covered her face and arms.
In 1984, she began sharing her story with students who visited Hiroshima on school trips. She did so because she felt compelled to “convey to the younger generation the terrible reality of nuclear war so that the tragedy is never repeated.” When I interviewed her, a student who had heard her speak a decade earlier had recently returned to Hiroshima and told her how much her story had influenced her life. “She still had what I had told her emblazoned on her heart,” Ikeda explained. ‘Your story will always be a part of me,’ she said. ‘You helped me decide what I wanted in life and gave me the courage to pursue it.’ I was very moved.”
In 1985, in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the bombing, Ikeda traveled to all countries with nuclear arsenals, including the U.S., China, France, Great Britain and the former Soviet Union, to tell her story.
“My final and most difficult interview was with a gentle, 64-year-old man named Yoshitoki Inoue. A retired teacher, Inoue was 15 and just beginning teachers’ preparatory school when the bomb killed his father, mother and younger brother. Yet from what I could see, he had no self-pity in him, no anger. Instead, like the good teacher he is, he tells his students that ‘from the soles of your own feet, the heart of peace is the heart of kindness. Don’t discriminate. Don’t bully.’”
My final and most difficult interview was with a gentle, 64-year-old man named Yoshitoki Inoue. A retired teacher, Inoue was 15 and just beginning teachers’ preparatory school when the bomb killed his father, mother and younger brother. Their house was near the hypocenter. That morning, his mother was walking his little brother to nearby Sei Hospital, directly below the hypocenter, when the blast occurred. “You couldn’t distinguish between the dead,” he told me. “So I couldn’t find them.” His brother, a sixth grader, had been sent home from school a safe distance away due to an illness. “It’s like he came home to be bombed,” he said. His uncle, who had seen his mother and brother that morning, survived by wading into the river. “His face was puffy and swollen, and his body was burnt,” Inoue said. He was a city councilor. He died three days later, on Aug. 9, the same day as the Nagasaki bombing.
Inoue’s life was spared because, as he explained, his school was a safer distance away, on the other side of the Kyobashi River. “I was behind Mt. Hiji,” he said, but he still was thrown to the floor. “The window right above me flashed so bright … after a few seconds, the building shook like this [gesturing with his hands and making a rumbling noise], and the window frames and the glass from the windows fell on top of us.” He realized that “there were pieces of glass in his arms and legs.” Still, he tried most of the day to cross the Kyobashi River to get to his family. “But I couldn’t,” he explained, “because the other side was a sea of fire.”
The next day he crossed the river into the city. It was then that he discovered his uncle, swollen, burned and muddied, and learned that his father, mother and little brother were gone. His older sister, who had married and survived the bombing in her home, took him in and raised him as her own. He even took her husband’s family name, changing his name from Sakai to Inoue.
Inoue, from what I could see, had no self-pity in him, no anger. Instead, like the good teacher he is, he tells his students that “from the soles of your own feet, the heart of peace is the heart of kindness. Don’t discriminate. Don’t bully.” That kindness is revealed in a story he told me about the day after the bomb was dropped. He came across a little boy who asked only for a glass of water. So he helped him. He went for water but when he returned the little boy had died.
As former U.S. President Barack Obama said during his historic 2016 visit to Hiroshima, “Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering, but we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again. Someday the voices of the hibakusha will no longer be with us to bear witness. But the memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change.”
This weekend I will return to Hiroshima with my wife and son. Thanks to the miracle of modern science and the brilliant human ingenuity that the coronavirus vaccines represent, we’re spending much of the summer with Max’s grandparents in Tokyo this summer. I’m not sure how he’ll react to Hiroshima and the enormity of the human tragedy that happened there. But I know one thing for certain: He’ll fall in love with the people there just as I did nearly 30 years ago.
And who knows, perhaps on the 100th anniversary of that death-filled August day, when Max is 33, he’ll visit Hiroshima with his 10-year-old son, tell him our family’s story, and say aloud—for all of us—Never again.
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