HIROSHIMA memory keepers Pass down a story
Vol. 19 2023.3.13 up
Starting to give my A-bomb testimony, I learned that there are hibakusha all over the world.
Keiko Ogura was exposed to the A-bombing at the age of eight in Ushita, 2.4km from the hypocenter.
She has given her A-bomb testimony in English to people from abroad and has continued to dialogue with people overseas.
We asked her about what made her start her A-bomb testimony and what she wanted to convey to others.
What made Ms. Ogura start her A-bomb testimony in English
Please tell us what made you tell your A-bomb experience in English.
It all started with a phone call from Robert Jungk, an Austrian journalist who was personally acquainted with my husband. He wrote a book, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, which described the thoughts and behaviors of scientists who played leading roles in the development of the atomic bombs.
My husband, Kaoru Ogura, was a city official, who sometimes worked as an interpreter for successive mayors of Hiroshima. He became the Director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and often guided foreign visitors around Hiroshima and told them what had happened here.
However, he died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage in 1979, while he was writing the Mayor’s Peace Declaration.I was 42, our daughter was 15 and our son was 12.
His death came suddenly. I was at a loss what to do. I was feeling like everything in my life was over.
At that time, I got a phone call from Robert Jungk.
He said that he would come to Japan and hold a press conference for the publication of a new book of Atomic Empire, which was about the movement against nuclear power. He wanted me to be the interpreter for him.
I declined firmly, saying, “I don’t have enough English skill to interpret for you. Absolutely, it’s impossible.”
However, he persuaded me, saying, “Keiko, you really understand the pain and suffering from losing your loved husband. You have witnessed the sufferings of hibakusha in Hiroshima. War takes away loved ones in an instant from us. Moreover, the worst thing is nuclear weapons.You deserve to be an interpreter to convey Hiroshima.”
I felt like being swallowed up in a big vortex.
After that, people continuously have come from all over the world, and I have shown them around Hiroshima, telling them my A-bomb experiences.
Didn’t you give your A-bomb testimony before your husband passed away?
No. I was exposed to the A-bombing at the age of eight. I was determined not to talk about my exposure to the A-bomb for fear of discrimination against A-bomb survivors.
When I was a junior high school student, I participated in a camp with other students from all over Japan. There, I faced curious eyes when I told them I was from Hiroshima.
In the shower room, I felt other students’ gaze, checking if there were keloid scars on me. I felt that people outside of Hiroshima saw the A-bombing suspiciously, so I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was exposed to the A-bombing.
For a while after the war, it was said that exposed women could not give birth to a normal baby.
At a wedding reception when a matchmaker introduced a bride as someone from Hiroshima, there was an expression of surprise among the relatives on the other side. Sometimes, when it was found that a partner was an A-bomb survivor or a child of an A-bomb survivor, the proposed match was broken off. Those things often happened.
Many people know what happened on the day of the A-bombing, but don’t know about discrimination against hibakusha and the mental conflict of those who survived.
That’s right. Though it is difficult for non-hibakusha to understand, many hibakusha feel guilty about surviving the A-bombing.
Please imagine that the blast from the A-bomb destroys your house, and your family are still in the debris. You are trying to pull them out to save them, but a fire is approaching. They are still alive, but you have to flee, leaving them behind.
“I fled at that time. Why did I survive?” You are driven by remorse with this thought stuck in your mind. You can’t forgive yourself for doing that, and you have kept it in yourself without being able to tell others about it.
I think that there are many hibakusha who died without saying anything.
When I give my A-bomb testimony, I try to convey the inside of the hibakusha’s mind, which cannot be seen in data, photos or mementoes.
I want to convey how deeply miserable they were and how much they suffered from discrimination.
I strive to let listeners imagine their sufferings and empathize with their situation that they wanted to speak but they had to hide.
Hibakusha all over the world
Please tell us about some impressive experiences you’ve had since you started telling your A-bomb experience to foreign people.
Starting to give my A-bomb testimony to foreign people, I learned that there are hibakusha all over the world.
Hibakusha from abroad come to Hiroshima, thinking that Hiroshima people who had the same experiences as them can understand their feelings and will listen to them.
I had thought that Hiroshima would be the place for telling the experiences of the A-bomb-survivors, but I found that Hiroshima was also the place to listen to nuclear victims from around the world.
Hibakusha come to Hiroshima from various places, such as Nevada, Tahiti, Rongelap Atoll. Showing his scar from thyroid surgery, one of them said to me, “I had to abandon my hometown because of nuclear tests.”
There are also hibakusha in the U.S. For example, there is an organization called the National Association of Atomic Bomb Veterans. Soldiers who were present at nuclear tests organized this to request compensation for their radiation sickness.
One African-American ex-soldier showed me his teeth that he kept in a bag, saying, “These teeth are important to me. I didn’t have any tooth decay before, but I lost all of my teeth due to nuclear tests. So, I always carry them with me.”
In another story, there were children who died of the after-effects of radiation. They read the newspaper article, “A Big Firework Will Go off Tomorrow,” so they climbed up a small hill carrying a lunch box only to see a nuclear test. I met these children’s mothers. How dangerous ignorance is!
To say, “Come to Hiroshima. Listen to hibakusha and learn about nuclear damage” is a very haughty attitude. We are all nuclear victims.
We are all in the same sad group of a nuclear-victim chain.So, we should talk with each other to understand, instead of speaking unilaterally about our own sufferings.I strongly hope that Hiroshima people will take a leading role in connecting hibakusha in the world.
What is important when she talks with foreign people
Please tell me what is important when you talk with foreign people.
People in different backgrounds have different interests in the A-bombing.
It is important to start talking after knowing about the other people’s interests and about their countries’ politics, economy and history.
For example, people in developing countries come to Hiroshima to know about how Hiroshima was rebuilt, how Hiroshima hibakusha made a group to seek compensation for A-bomb damage, and how to appeal to the government.
Students from Rwanda, which has a history of genocide, come to Hiroshima to know about how A-bomb survivors could get over their hatred of having their loved ones killed and why they didn’t think about revenge.
Some in Asian countries may say, “My grandfather was killed by a Japanese soldier.” Can you just say to those people, “We are A-bomb victims?”
I think that we should know the backgrounds of the people we talk with, study the history of their countries and then convey what happened in Hiroshima.
Do you have any special approach you use when you give your A-bomb testimony to foreign people?
Nothing in particular. I just tell what I experienced.
In the first place, telling my A-bomb experience, listeners’ attitudes in other countries is different from listeners in Hiroshima .
Those who come to Hiroshima and listen to my testimony have interest in the atomic bombing, so many people react to my story as, “Your story resonated with me.”
However, you should keep it in mind that there are people who don’t know about the atomic bombing. It is OK if they just don’t know about it, but some think that dropping the A-bombs was good.
I talked about my A-bomb experience in the U.S. for the first time at the first World Conference of Nuclear Victims held in New York in 1987.
At that time, an American said to me, “A-bombs were dropped so Japanese didn’t need to commit mass suicide. We saved many Japanese lives. Congratulate us, Keiko, on our dropping the bombs.” I remember I got very angry.
On the other hand, in California, when I gave my testimony to people in their 70’s to 90’s who experienced World War II, they hugged me crying, “I didn’t know such terrible things had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ignorance and indifference cause war. I’m so sorry.”
Messages to young people
Ms. Ogura, you gave your testimony to overseas leaders in English, didn’t you?
Yes. I had an opportunity to give my testimony to former prime ministers and presidents of various countries in the OB Summit held in Hiroshima in 2010.
At that time, I thought about the meaning of conveying Hiroshima to world leaders.
I feel angry not with ordinary American citizens but with the president and scientists who were involved in the decision to drop the A-bomb.
As leaders are responsible for giving orders to drop the A-bomb, I thought that I should appeal directly to them and let them know how horrible nuclear weapons are.
We, citizens, choose our leaders.
When they have the right to vote, I want young generations to choose leaders after they think carefully about them.
Thank you very much. Finally, please give some message to young people who don’t have any experience of war.
Ukraine and Russia are at war now, and we have concerns about Russia‘s use of nuclear weapons.
Russia has nuclear weapons, so these weapons are used as a threat.
The number of people who don’t know the horror of nuclear weapons is increasing.
I think that at the mere mention of nuclear weapons, all mankind must feel fear and show an allergenic reaction.
The rivers in the city were filled with bodies after the A-bombing. On August 6th every year, I go to the river and pledge to those who died, “We survivors will do our best to convey to the world that you died confused and miserable, and we will work to abolish nuclear weapons.” However, I’m feeling that I am powerless and my effort is not enough. I would still be really afraid if there was even one nuclear weapon on the earth.
Sometimes, I am told by foreign guests, “I want you to educate Japanese young people instead of telling us about your A-bomb experience. Many of them are indifferent to war or nuclear weapons, and the Japanese government has not signed the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty.”
The time is coming when people cannot listen to us directly, we who experienced war and know that war is miserably tragic.
What should be done from now on?
As the first step, learn history and get knowledge. Then, put value on dialogue.
Know the other’s background, try to empathize with them and discuss with them. Widen the talk.
The connection between vertical and horizontal axes is important.
The vertical axis is from parents to their children and their grandchildren. The horizontal ax is to people in the world.
First of all, please start from what you can do, and connect to the future.
Do not involve children in war.
Not even a single nuclear weapon must exist on this earth.
To this day, I have worked to abolish nuclear weapons.
Now, I am passing the baton to you young people. Please pass the baton you take from me to the next generation.
Interviewed on July 2022.
"Interviews with HIROSHIMA memory keepers" is a part of project that Hiroshima「」– 3rd Generation Exhibition: Succeeding to History
We have recorded interviews with A-bomb survivors, A-bomb Legacy Successors, and peace volunteers since 2015.
What are Hiroshima memory keepers feeling now, and what are they trying to pass on?
What can we learn from the bombing of Hiroshima? What messages can we convey to the next generation? Please share your ideas.