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Live From Hiroshima – 70 Years On

Aug. 6, 2015

The Atomic Bomb Dome was once an industrial promotion hall in a busy commercial district. Then the bomb exploded above the building, killing everyone inside. The building’s ruins became an icon of the anti-nuclear movement. People in Hiroshima hoped their experience would convince the world to renounce the weapons.

Instead, the Cold War superpowers began stockpiling bombs, and several other countries built nuclear arsenals.

Delegates from around 190 countries gathered in the UN headquarters in New York earlier this year to try to strengthen rules preventing nuclear proliferation -- but they couldn’t reach a consensus.

So people in Hiroshima are wondering how to get their message across, and how to keep that message alive, as the number of hibakusha -- the people who experienced the bombings -- gets smaller every year.

People have been remembering the past and honoring the victims since early this morning.

Some of those in the Peace Memorial Park today lived through the attack, and they’ve been sharing their stories.

The average age of the survivors is now 80, and people know opportunities to hear first-hand accounts are getting fewer every year. An 81-year-old survivor describes his experience. He says bodies were scattered all over the place. He says it was an inhumane act, and even if it was glorified afterward, the bombing must never be forgiven.

Another survivor says that after 70 years, she’s overwhelmed to see how Hiroshima has been rebuilt from the rubble.

A 12-year-old girl says she wants to share what she learned about the bombing, and spread the message that there should be no more war.

About 55,000 people attended the annual commemoration. Representatives of a record 100 countries took part. Washington sent its most senior official to date, Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller.

People observed a moment of silence at 8:15 AM -- 70 years to the minute after the bomb exploded over the city.

Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui placed a list of the victims’ names in a cenotaph. More than 297,000 people were killed instantly by the bomb, or later, from its long-term effects. The figure includes over 5,300 names added this year.

“As long as nuclear weapons exist, anyone could become a hibakusha at any time,” says Kazumi Matsui, the mayor of Hiroshima. “If that happens, the damage will reach indiscriminately beyond national borders. People of the world, please listen carefully to the words of the hibakusha and, profoundly accepting the spirit of Hiroshima, contemplate the nuclear problem as your own. To coexist we must abolish the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity of nuclear weapons. Now is the time to take action.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his commitment to global dialogue.

“Japan will continue to seek cooperation from both nuclear armed and non-nuclear armed countries to do even more to achieve a world without nuclear weapons,” he said.

At the close of the ceremony, members of local choirs performed a song calling for world peace.

After the bomb exploded, people rushed to the Motoyasu river. They were desperate for water. They were suffering agonizing flash burns and terrible thirst. Many of them died there, and people recall the river was full of bodies.

On the night of the anniversary people went there to set lanterns afloat on the river. It’s a ceremony called Toronagashi -- designed to bring peace to the spirits of those who died. The lanterns have messages of peace written on them.

Sho Beppu: Earlier, I saw a young lady writing “Struggles and efforts for peace.” I saw children writing, “Let’s bring smiles to all children in the world.” The lanterns are brightening up the night in Hiroshima.

Atomic bombing survivors, or the hibakusha, have spent their lives recounting their experiences to try to make sure the lessons of history will not fade away. One of them has been traveling around the world to tell her story how that day changed everything -- and what it was like when she came face-to-face with one of the men who dropped the bomb.

Koko Kondo -- a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing -- believes it’s her life mission to tell people what it was like living in Hiroshima in the aftermath of the bomb.

"Many people on the way to the center of the city asked for help. Help! Help! Help!" says Kondo.

Kondo was just 8-months-old when the atomic bomb fell on her city. She was with her mother, just over a kilometer from ground zero.

Kondo suffered radiation exposure, causing bleeding and a high fever. But she avoided many of the worst side effects. Many survivors were left with permanent scars. Kondo says it was unnerving as a young girl to see the physical effects of the bomb, and it deepened her hatred of those who dropped the bomb.

“Some of the girls could not close eyes. Some of them could not close mouth because all disfigured. As a little girl, it was a scary face,” recalls Kondo.

Kondo’s father was a pastor. After the war, he raised money for women who’d been disfigured by the bomb. He arranged for them to go to the US for treatment.

Kondo had another life-changing experience when she was 10 years old. She and her family appeared on an American TV show to talk about her father’s activities. It was on that show that she met Robert Lewis, one of the pilots of the Enola Gay -- the plane that dropped the bomb. Lewis spoke of his regret, and how, on the way back, he’d written in a flight journal, “My God, what have we done?” It had a profound impact on the young Koko.

“Since I was a little girl, someday I wanted to do the revenge. But right after he said the words, tears came down from his eyes,” she says.

Kondo says she realized she should hate war, not the people who take part in it. She wanted to meet the pilot one more time to say thank you.

She still visits the US to deliver her message -- that a forgiving heart is the way to eliminate war.

Koko Kondo joins Sho Beppu in Hiroshima to talk more about what happened in the aftermath of the bombings and beyond.

Beppu: Koko, thank you for coming. We saw in the video that you met one of the pilots of the Enola Gay, and when you saw him, you were able to overcome your desire for revenge. How did that happen?

Kondo: Well, I had so much hatred of the people who dropped the bomb. So someday, I really wanted revenge because the girls, the Hiroshima victim girls, they treated me like their little sister. They were so sweet to me. They were disfigured very heavily. That’s why, I grew up thinking they’re the bad ones, and I’m the good one. That’s why I wanted revenge.

Beppu: But that’s not what you’ve done. How was he like that time?

Kondo: Right after he was in the meeting with my father and the two girls, he told me what happened on that day. I was staring at his eyes because I thought he was the bad one. His tears came out. When I saw his tears, I looked deep in myself, inside. I realized I have so many evils, in myself too. Then I learned, I shouldn’t hate this person. If I hate, I should hate the war itself, not that man.

Beppu: You were also trying to meet him again. Did that ever happen?

Kondo: No, but when I was a student in the United States, I really wanted to see him, to thank him. Because of him, my whole view changed. Tears were coming out from his eyes when he said, “My God, what have we done?” That changed my total view. That’s why I wanted to say thank you. But he was in hospital, and later, I learned that he passed away. Then one of the psychotherapists showed a sculpture which he’d made at the hospital. It was a mushroom cloud, with tears. So he’s a victim too, I felt.

Beppu: Talking about hibakusha -- the people who were exposed to the bomb -- their average age is now 80 and there are fewer and fewer people who share the experience. How are the hibakusha living now?

Kondo: As you know, they’re old, and I never thought about it, but some of the girls, they’ve been living since they were 13 years old with the same appearance, they’ve never overcome, and of course inside and outside the feeling is really inside of their heart. I recently met an 85-year-old lady who wanted to see me and talk to me. She said that when she had cancer, she went to the doctor, and she was hospitalized. They saw the scars and a young nurse in Hiroshima said, “What’s happened to you? Is that some kind of injury?” They didn’t realize it was by the burns from the atomic bomb.

Beppu: Even a nurse in Hiroshima didn’t recognize it immediately?

Kondo: Yes.

Beppu: In addition to the memories of the hibakusha, you’ve been saying it’s important that we carry on the memories of what Japan was doing in Asian nations leading up to the bombing. Is that right?

Kondo: Yes. When I was in China about 30 years ago to talk about hibakusha in Hiroshima, one lady said, “Don’t you know what Japan did for Asia?” Then I started thinking, I always talk about the survivors of Hiroshima, I never thought about people in Asia. But I learned there, we have to learn the history of what we did as Japanese. Today’s young people should know that too -- about the war that went on.

People who survived the bombs have been long suffering from health problems. They’re entitled to receive government subsidies for their treatment. But for those living abroad, getting that help has been a long battle. The Japanese government says around 4,200 hibakusha live outside Japan. NHK World’s Hiroki Yajima has the story of one man who spent decades fighting to secure these benefits for himself -- and for those like him.

Ninety-one-year-old Kwak Kwi-hoon visits a monument in Hiroshima for Korean victims of the atomic bomb. He’s one of approximately 2,400 atomic-bomb survivors living in South Korea -- which is the largest number outside of Japan.

Kwak has devoted himself to securing their rights. He prays for the more than 20,000 Koreans thought to have perished from the attack. He says he came to Hiroshima to pay tribute to the Korean victims who died in such a regrettable way.

Kwak was conscripted into the Japanese military in 1944, near the end of Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. He was training in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. He was only about 2 kilometers from ground zero.

Kwak says the blast burned his whole left arm. Ten years later, keloid scars appeared and the doctor said they were an after-effect. Kwak suffered severe burns on his back, too.

He later met a South Korean man who’d received survivor certification in Japan. He visited Hiroshima in 1979, and received his own certificate. But its value was purely symbolic. Certified survivors would lose their right to benefits if they left the country.

Kwak says they are all atomic bomb survivors, whether they’re in Japan or not. He says the idea that the benefits are lost once the victim leaves the country is nonsense. He filed a lawsuit demanding equal rights for survivors outside Japan. Some citizen’s groups in Japan offered to help.

He spoke out about how they were brought to Japan by force, made victims of the bombings, then ignored by the Japanese government. They said they were victimized 3 times over.

Kwak won the suit. The Japanese government began providing the same benefits to survivors living abroad as they did to those in Japan.

A group of students from Japan and South Korea are studying relations between their 2 countries. They visited Hiroshima to hear from South Korean survivors of the atomic bomb. Kwak told them about his experience. He said he was not considered a hibakusha in South Korea, because that status only applied in Japan. But when he arrived in Japan for court, he became a hibakusha again. Then, once he left to go back to his country, he would lose that status.

He says Korean survivors have suffered through pain and hardship. Almost 90% of them have died, and fewer and fewer remain.

A South Korean student who listened to Kwak speak says that neither she nor the people around her knew about the Korean survivors. She says South Koreans should memorialize the victims and survivors of the bombing as they do in Hiroshima.

A Japanese student says that his generation has advantages like the use of social media. He says it can be used to spread the experiences of the hibakusha.

Kwak has decided to share his experience with younger generations for the rest of his life. He hopes such a tragedy will never be repeated again.

Sho Beppu interviewed 2 experts who have been applying the lessons of Hiroshima on the global stage. Peter Kuznick is a historian and a professor at American University. Hideaki Shinoda is also a professor. He’s teaching at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, and he specializes in post-war reconstruction.

Beppu: First, Professor Kuznick. Recently, you organized an exhibition in the US with paintings that depict the horrors of the atomic bombings. How do you think the exhibition could change the American perspectives on the bombings?

Kuznick: This is actually the biggest exhibitions on the atomic bombs that have ever been held in the United States. Our goal is to reach as many people as we can because we’re up against a very, very deeply-believed myth in the US, and the myth is that the atomic bombs ended the war in the pacific; that the atomic bombs were necessary in order to avoid an invasion, in which perhaps a half-million American soldiers would have been killed. That’s the myth. The reality is quite different. The American public started in 1945 85% of the American people said they approve of the atomic bombing, and a couple of months later, 23% said they wish the Japanese had not surrendered so quickly, so the US could have dropped more atomic bombs on them. So this is what we’re up against.

The reality is obviously quite different. The reality is there were 2 ways to expedite the end of the war without using the atomic bombs. One was to tell the Japanese that they could keep the Emperor, because they were very, very concerned about the terms of surrender-- the US was demanding unconditional surrender which meant the Emperor would be executed as a war criminal. The second way was to announce that the Soviet Union was about to come into the war. The thing that the Japanese dreaded the most was Soviet intervention, and the Americans knew it. If you look at American intelligence, from April on, it says over and over that once the Soviet Union comes into the war, the Japanese will realize that defeat is inevitable. However, Truman didn’t do that because he wanted to drop the bomb. This was part of America’s broader post-war strategy to send a message to the Soviet Union that if the Soviets interfered with American plans in Europe or the Pacific, then this was the fate that they were going to suffer.

Beppu: Talking about the history that you just told us, you’ve been educating the American public about this history of the bombings. In your university, you made a specific institute to learn about the history of the atomic weapons. Also, you’re bringing students every year to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and you’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. When these students come here, do they realize that what they’ve learned was a myth? What are their reactions?

Kuznick: They have a very powerful reaction on a very visceral level. I can teach them on intellectually and academically in the classroom and they can read and study. But they come here, and they experience it in a very personal, emotional way. The lantern ceremony is very powerful, and the peace ceremonies during the day. But the thing that has the biggest impact on them, that they say is life-changing, is spending time with the hibakusha. They spend the entire 2 weeks that we’re here with Koko Tanimoto Kondo, who you just spoke to. What a powerful human being, what a loving person, what a story she has to tell. We meet with a lot of other hibakusha, and they travel with and study with Japanese students and professors and also students from China, Vietnam, Korea, other parts of Asia, so its learning this together, going through the experience together, that makes this so transformational, so powerful.

Beppu: Next to you, Professor Shinoda. When we hear the word “Hiroshima,” it evokes thoughts of the global peace movement. How were people feeling about Hiroshima becoming the symbol for peace?

Shinoda: Initially, people weren’t thinking about promoting peace. Immediately after the war, people were focused on survival. They needed food, housing, jobs. It was more natural for them to talk about revenge, or hatred, than peace. But things changed gradually. Now, people are supporting the idea of making Hiroshima a “peace memorial city,” as we can see today.

Beppu: Was there something that brought about the change?

Shinoda: There were many factors, but for instance, the first mayor of Hiroshima, Shinzo Hamai, played a significant role. He Introduced the project of constructing a Peace Memorial City in Hiroshima and argued that those who knew the worst elements of the war should be able to talk about peace. People in Hiroshima did not support the idea initially, but they came around gradually. But what’s important is that people like Hamai believed that Hiroshima needed such a vision as a Peace Memorial City to enable people to move forward, especially to let them overcome the feeling of hatred.

Beppu: You’ve been engaged in post-conflict situations globally. Do you think lessons from Hiroshima can be applied? Is there something we can learn from Hiroshima globally so that it could give a clue for the other parts of the world?

Shinoda: I wouldn’t claim that the history of Hiroshima is universally applicable, but still, people all over the world can learn quite a lot from the history of Hiroshima. I have organized many workshops in Japan, in post-conflict countries with Afghans, Iraqis, Sierra Leoneans, Sri Lankans, and so on. They are interested in Hiroshima, especially in how the people overcame the feeling of hatred. They say that there are many lessons that Hiroshima can offer to the world. There are many NGOs including the one I’m involved with, Hiroshima Prefectural city offices, developing ways and materials to present Hiroshima for reconstruction peace building in the contemporary world.

After hearing from survivors and experts, Sho Beppu shares his thoughts on the bombings and what they have caused in the time since.

August 6th, 70 years ago, was a hot and humid day, just like today. Workers were heading to their offices, schoolchildren were attending morning assembly, and some people were at home having breakfast. Then, at 8:15, in a flash, their lives were taken away.

Now, we know how destructive nuclear weapons can be. Yet, all 5 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are among those who still possess the weapons and continue to develop them.

When I was a correspondent covering the UN headquarters in New York, I heard from delegates and diplomats from countries such as the US, UK, Russia China and France saying things like, “Nuclear weapons are an effective deterrence,” and, “They’re in safe hands with the major powers.”

I also heard people saying that “Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a necessary evil to end the war.”

But today, standing here in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, I wonder if those people could express those views directly to the survivors.

On this 70th anniversary of the first nuclear bombing, as I listen again to the stories of survivors, it’s clear to me that it’s time for us all to recognize the reality -- that nuclear weapons are inhuman.