“Learning the personal experiences of hibakusha was by far one of the most powerful experience
of the Nuclear Studies Institute. There is no doubt that John Hersey’s Hiroshima deserves the
title of the most influential piece of journalism in the twentieth century. By tracing how people
from different walks of life experienced the bombings and by publishing shortly after the war,
Hersey challenged the national narrative quickly solidifying in the United States. The works
that followed Hersey’s publication, many of them written by survivors, built upon his effort to
highlight the human experience of the bomb and prevented the triumphant American narrative
from going unchallenged. Of these, I felt especially connect to Takashi Nagai’s The Bells of
Nagasaki. I can only imagine how experiencing something of the magnitude of an atomic bomb
would challenge a person’s faith and commitment to serving others. To read of Nagai’s devotion
to the care of bomb victims and continued faith even as he suffered from radiation sickness
himself inspired me to think about ways I can commit myself to caring for others.
The opportunity to hear the stories of survival from the hibakusha themselves during
the trip is what I will treasure most from my experience. From the reading I completed before
leaving for Japan, I was familiar with many of the horrors shared by our hibakusha speakers.
I was unprepared, however, for the power of these stories when related by someone who
experienced them. The sensory details they included and the emotion many carried even behind
often-performed recounting of their experiences moved me every time. I was expecting more
anger in their stories, but was surprised to find compassion and peace to be the motivating forces
in their lives.
Koko Kondo’s moving description of how she rejected revenge and animosity for
reconciliation helped me understand how the hibakusha could let go of their anger in order to
embrace peace. Having her travel with the group reinforced the message of peace she expressed
on the first day of our trip. The institute was incredibly intense and Kondo’s light and
hopefulness for the future helped us as students to see how a commitment to peace lives every
day. She kept us focused on the learning about the past as a way to inspire us to steer our shared
future towards peace.
I find myself returning to the remarks of Sakue Shimohira most after coming back to
DC. “Dying takes courage too,” she shared when talking about her sister’s suicide and her own
contemplation of death after the bombing. “It took courage to die and courage to live and I was
torn between the two.” This statement really drove home for me the physical and psychological
damage hibakusha experienced as a result of the bomb. Shimohira admitted that though she
would prefer not to think about her experiences, she considers it her duty to share her story so
that people will know about the horror and misery caused by nuclear weapons. Other survivors
called upon this sense of duty as well. I am thankful that she and the other survivors we met
have the courage to tell their stories publicly because in doing so they are some of the most
powerful witnesses for peace the world has ever known. I feel very privileged to have had the
opportunity to learn directly from hibakusha especially since I am part of the last generation who
will have the ability to do so.”
Alison Koostra, is an MA candidate from American University, Washington, DC. She traveled with AU’s 2012 Hiroshima/Nagasaki Peace Tour.