Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Peace Forum: What can Hiroshima and Nagasaki teach us about Peace?

By Valerie Hurwitz

How much did the US population know about the aftereffects of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the 50s and 60s? How much do they know now? The lessons of these two cities were hard-learned in Japan, but have taken longer to filter out to the rest of the world. ESR Master of Divinity students Erin Hougland and Abbey Pratt-Harrington have both spent time in Hiroshima, Erin as an English teaching in a nearby town and Abbey as a summer researcher at the World Friendship Center.

Erin and Abbey explained that the bomb detonated about mile over Hiroshima and immediately killed around 70,000 people. There was no food or water in the area afterwards, and the medical centers were overwhelmed. Some people survived, but so badly burned that they jumped into the river, only to be killed by the boiling-hot water in the river. Radiation poisoning killed many more in the first 6 months and it is difficult to say in the end how many people died later because of various forms of cancer. No one was sure what the long-term effects of the radiation would be on the health of survivors.

The Japanese coined the term “hibakusha” to mean anyone in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when the bombs were dropped, or who were inside the city limits within two weeks afterwards, or who had direct contact with bomb victims. This is not a historical term, but a quite current one as the Japanese government recognizes more than 200,000 living people as hibakusha and some receive a special form of government health insurance.

In Japan, hibakusha were and are marginalized for fear that they could contaminate others or that their children would have genetic abnormalities. Particularly right after the bombs, they had difficulty marrying and often hid their status. Still, many went on to thrive and live long lives. Erin spoke of meeting a Japanese woman in her Tai Chi class in Japan who was 6 months old when Hiroshima was bombed. The next day, her mother took her and her 2-year-old brother into the city to look for her (the mother’s) parents. Her little brother, who had no shoes and so walked barefoot, died 6 months later of radiation poisoning. The woman grew up, married, is healthy herself, and has many healthy children and grandchildren. Erin told us this story in part to demonstrate the lack of knowledge Japanese individuals had in the after mass of the bombings (e.g. jumping into rivers or allowing their children to walk barefoot in the city) and the unevenness of the effects (some hibakusha have/had health problems, while others are quite healthy). American scientists initially told the Japanese that it would take 70 years for vegetation to grow in the area, but seeds sprouted the next spring. Erin describes modern Hiroshima as beautiful and lively.

Abbey’s connection to Hiroshima began when she started volunteering at the Peace Resource Center, located on the campus of Wilmington College in Ohio. Barbara Reynolds, the founder of the center, traveled to Hiroshima in the 50s with her husband. American and Japanese scientists were uncertain of what the long term consequences of the blast and Earle Reynolds traveled to Hiroshima to study radiation
and child development. Barbara brought 2 hibakusha to the US in 1962 to speak about the dangers of nuclear warfare. Returning in 1964 with 25 hibakusha, they traveled to several countries to speak against nuclear weapons. These survivors still travel; when Abbey was there in the summer of 2009 she met two hibakusha who had just returned from speaking in Pakistan.

Abbey and Erin were asked about how people in today’s Japan see the bombings and whether they blame the US. They told us that people take a broad view; the Japanese emperor led the country into war and ignored the US announcement that the A-bomb would be dropped if Japan did not desist. “They told me ‘this is what war does’” Erin explained, saying that Japan sees the bombings as punishment for the crimes committed by the government. This is not to say that everyone in Japan is of one mind on this issue. A small minority continually calls for repeal of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces war and nuclear weapons.

Food for thought:

• Perhaps Abbey and Erin can tell us how the reaction to the Fukushima nuclear power plant being damaged in the spring was related to the communal memory of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan. Abbey? Erin?
• What would the US look like if it renounced all nuclear bombs and laid down the entire military?

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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