The challenge of Hiroshima

on Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The challenge of Hiroshima

Special to The Japan Times

MEDFORD, Oregon — When the penetrating heat of summer rises to a scorching point, I am brought back to one sunny day in 1945, faraway from my Oregon home today. I was a sixth grader waiting for my mother. On that day, Aug. 6, in Hiroshima, the sun and the Earth melted together. Many of my relatives and classmates simply disappeared. I would never again see my young cousin, Hideyuki, who had been like a brother to me, or Miyoshi, my best friend. And on that day of two suns, my mother did not come home.

Sixty-three years have passed. The survivors of Hiroshima continue to testify to the horrific consequences of that day and the casualties that continue to the present. At the same time, nuclear arsenals have made quantum leaps in quantity and effects. More nations possess such weapons today — enough to extinguish the world. The worst evil, "the fear of violent death at the hands of other men" in the words of 17-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, resonates in these developments. The demise of Hiroshima was a beginning of what was to come from the darker side of human nature.

However challenging, we must now appeal to our higher nature and take hold and seek a pathway of hope, valuing and affirming life rather than ending it, before it is too late.

My path to Hiroshima began in Tokyo, where I was born. My family life changed abruptly when my father was drafted into the military. We moved to his hometown, Hiroshima, where my grandfather owned and ran a multinational conglomerate that produced rubber goods and sewing needles. He was a devout Buddhist who taught charity to all in daily life and employed disabled persons to do what they could. In school, filial piety, patriotism and Spartan discipline were our early building blocks beneath a sweeping nationalism. Despite a mythic hope of victory, the toll of the war was evident in the disappearing food, material goods and young men. The end came on the day the A-bomb exploded.

Moments after the explosion, a sea of injured and dazed emerged as their city went up in flames. I fled with a friend from next door and her family. She had just gotten home from an outdoor assembly and was so burned that her face was unrecognizable. As I searched for my mother I found a kindergarten teacher from the neighborhood lying naked without any sign of burns or any other injuries. She died in front of me, gasping for air and convulsing. Many people continued to die around us in a similar way. I developed a high fever and remained for sometime on the borderline between life and death.

The often unexpressed inner wounds were as scarring as the physical wounds. The void created by massive loss and termed "psychic numbing" by American psychiatrist Jay Lifton, who is known for his studies of the psychological effects of war and atrocities, permeated our very being and remained. Intense anxiety persisted over ubiquitous radiation effects. Our internal resistance to complaining and the prohibition by the Allied authorities on reporting the growing casualties kept the matter silent.

I read voraciously in search of the meaning of our predicament, but found nothing that spoke to my devastated soul. This compelling quest since my teens would not be fulfilled without a lifetime of searching and trials. It would include deeply sincere encounters and bonding with dedicated teachers, loyal friendships from both sides of the ocean, and study abroad with lengthy graduate and professional training in the healing profession in which I would spend most of my adult years in the United States.

The country that took away my mother and relations during the time of war also sent a young missionary who believed in me and filled my empty heart. In the segregated South, I found black college students and their families living with unbending dignity in spite of social injustice. A Pennsylvania Dutch family welcomed me as a daughter and even included me in their will before they passed away.

In the Nuclear Freeze movement of 1982, I began to speak on the subject of Hiroshima in the U.S. and Britain. But it was not until I came to the University of Chicago Hospitals as a clinical social worker in 1987 that I witnessed so clearly a life-validating choice for the use of radiation. There in the Radiation Oncology Department, not far from the site of the Manhattan Project, the very substance that destroyed our city and its citizens was saving and extending lives.

My father believed that there would be a peaceful use of radiation. I also remembered his recollection of stopping civilians from stoning a very young wounded prisoner of war shortly after the bomb explosion. As a commanding military officer, he ordered burials, out of respect for Western tradition, for prisoners of war who died that day. They, too, became a part of our soil.

Since my retirement from the hospital in 2003, I serve on the Multicultural Commission for the city of Medford, Oregon. I took some 40 Americans to Japan to sing songs of peace for the 61st anniversary of Hiroshima's bombing. We sang to the sick in Kyoto, with the Kwansei Gakuin Glee Club OB in Kobe, and with the Iris Choir in Hiroshima. In the Peace Park by the Memorial Mound, where the 70,000 unidentified ashes rest, my daughter sang an ode she wrote to my mother whom she never met. Our American conductor sang his own song of regrets over Hiroshima and of his prayer and love for the people of Japan and their land. The hosts and the visitors embraced each other in this experience of a lifetime.

Today, OSD (One Sunny Day) Initiatives, an educational organization I formed after this trip, provides pathways to connect people for purposes of reconciliation and collective healing. Among its activities is assisting the Hiroshima Peace Museum in presenting its photo exhibition in all 50 states in the U.S. by the end of 2008.

We have seen ultimate destruction, but it is not enough to simply warn against it. Amid the threat of human extinction, the formidable challenge is living and spreading a life-affirming quest for being truly human. Our future depends on it

Hideko Tamura is a retired therapist/consultant and a Hiroshima survivor living in Medford, Oregon.