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Connecting Anti-Nuclear Wishes

Chie Yamagishi

Sep. 17, 2015

A young American man whose grandfather took part in both the atomic bombings of Japan is visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a personal mission. Seventy years after the devastating attack, Ari Beser is connecting with survivors and sharing their stories with the world.

Beser joined the crowds at commemorative ceremonies in both cities to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombings. But the 27-year-old journalist is staying on much longer to listen to the stories of atomic bomb survivors, and he is posting what he learns from them on the blog of a US magazine.

He says the 70th anniversary offers a crucial opportunity to hear their voices. “They are the only ones who witnessed the atomic attack, and they are dying,” he says. “We might not have them at the 80th and the 90th. This is one of the most important anniversaries because we have them now."

Beser developed an interest in the atomic bombings because of his family history. His grandfather Jacob was the only crew member aboard both planes when they dropped their payloads on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The bombings killed more than 200,000 people in the two cities within months.

Beser was only 4 years old when Jacob died. He learned later that his grandfather felt no remorse about dropping the bombs, but also believed war and nuclear weapons should be eradicated.

Beser first visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki four years ago, hoping to understand his grandfather's views and the human consequences of the atomic bombings. He visited survivors to hear their stories firsthand and to understand Japanese people’s perspective. "I came to meet people. I came to listen to their story,” he explains. “I came to tell American people what they experienced, because I have a duty to them and I have a duty to my country to express the other perspective."

One of the survivors Beser interviewed is Shigeko Sasamori. She suffered burns in Hiroshima that scarred her face, neck and hands, and later visited the US for reconstructive surgery. She describes the suffering she witnessed after the bombing. "Many people were bleeding and looked like red people. Their hair was ashes and skin is burned and hanging. Many people are almost naked,” she remembers.

Beser has one question that he always asks survivors: “Do you have any anger for America?" Sasamori replies her anger is not directed at the US. “I'm angry with the war. I hate war, I don't like war,” she says.

Sasamori is pleased that a new generation wants to understand the experiences of atomic bomb survivors. “I was so happy that young people want to do something. That's important for people to know. Like Ari and young people, sort of a runner, I'm passing you a baton, and you run."

For Beser, “I just feel very lucky that I can hear her story, and it's important that we never forget things like her story." Beser has discovered that his grandfather shared some of the same wishes as the survivors he befriended. Although their views of history differ, they share the belief that the tragedies of war and the use of nuclear weapons must never be repeated.


Ari Beser joined NEWSROOM TOKYO anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to discuss his work.

Beppu: When you learned that your grandfather was on board the planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how did you feel?

Beser: I was in first grade. I learned about it the same time I learned about my other grandfather. I have two grandfathers. One, as you know, was on the planes that dropped the atomic bombs, and the other was friends with a survivor. So from a young age I learned really quickly that I knew people from both sides. And for me it didn’t always feel like history, but something that my family was connected to. I just wanted to learn about what my grandfather had done.

Shibuya: It really seemed that you connected with the survivors, but what was it like visiting the bombing sites for the first time? Did you feel nervous about meeting the survivors?

Beser: Yes, I was nervous because I have a duty to this topic and this story, and their lives. It’s not just a story, it’s their life experience. I was really overwhelmed with their graciousness and the way they accepted me. They have given me their stories and they want me to tell their experience.

Beppu: Before going, were you worried that you could be rejected?

Beser: Of course. This is a very sensitive history, but I’ve been given gracious acceptance by the survivors. I understand there is anger, but I think all we can do is to work together and they have accepted that. They understand my intentions, and that is to spread their stories.

Beppu: In the US, many people think that the atomic bombs helped end the war and saved many people's lives. What do you think about it?

Beser: No matter what you decide about history, or the rights and wrongs about that, the fact is we can’t change that it happened. Those bombs were dropped. What we have to do is understand what happens when atomic bombs are dropped, and make important decisions about the future and work together. The future is what we can change. The past, we cannot change.

Beppu: What’s the reaction to your message?

Beser: It’s been positive. If people are upset, they haven’t expressed that to me. The ones who are positive have encouraged me to keep moving forward. To be careful, but to keep moving forward.

Shibuya: Now you are blogging for a US magazine. Where do you want to take that next?

Beser: The whole point of the blog is from the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs, to the 5th anniversary of the tsunami and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, we are going to be interviewing people affected by this nuclear technology, not just bombs and not just power. I hope to be able to spread their message, to share their voice, to give these people a platform. Fulbright and National Geographic are the ones who are giving me this opportunity, and it’s about cultural understanding, so I hope that we can learn from each other.