Akira Kawasaki is a key Japanese member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons(ICAN), a global civil society coalition, and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The organization has helped bring about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted at the United Nations by a vote of 122-1 in July, 2017. Kawasaki sat down with NHK WORLD before attending the awards ceremony.
Q: First of all, how do you feel now that you’re going to go to Oslo to receive the Peace Prize?
It’s a great honor, but at the same time, it’s a matter of great responsibility, because now we’ve got the treaty to ban nuclear weapons. And the Nobel Peace Committee decided to send the signal to move this treaty forward for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, so I think they trust ICAN and all campaigners and abolitionists of nuclear weapons to work more. So, attending the ceremony means that we need to work more--more actively, more strongly--for our goal that is the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Q:Tell us about the history of ICAN and the history of your activities, especially with the hibakusha, the people who have suffered from the nuclear bombs.
ICAN was created in 2007 under the initiative of Australian medical doctors. International Physicians for the Prevention of War of Australia formed a working group to launch an international campaign focusing on the creation of a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty.
And then in the year 2011, as the network grew, we’ve gotten the international office in Geneva, Switzerland, and due to generous financial support from some governments and also private foundations, we became able to hire some staff members at the international office, and now we have more than 460 organizations from more than 100 countries.
And my organization Peace Boat is a Tokyo-based organization working on various peace issues using a big passenger ship. And with this ship, we conduct peace education. Nuclear weapons abolition is one of the most important themes. We regularly invite survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hibakusha, to come on board to share testimonies with the people of the country we visit.
So in the year 2008, we Peace Boat members met the founding chair, Mr. Tilman Ruff from Australia of ICAN. Then, Peace Boat was invited to join ICAN and I came on the leadership board of ICAN. Since then, Peace Boat, together with many other Japanese groups, has been playing a major role, especially in the field of spreading the message of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.
Q:How would you describe the role of hibakusha and their testimonies that they send out to people in the world. What has been their role?
Well, hibakusha have been playing the very fundamental role of spreading the message of humanitarian consequences that any use of nuclear weapons brings about. Humanitarian impact is just two words, but by listening to their storytelling, the first-hand experiences, face-to-face from a real human being, it has a very big impact on an audience. And almost everybody around the world knows the name of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. They basically understand that there exist many nuclear weapons, but often, it is dealt with as a political game, an international power game, because people do not understand what it would actually mean on the ground if nuclear weapons were used. So, the first-hand testimony of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors significantly changes people’s perceptions about nuclear weapons.
I’ve visited so many countries and I can recall so many young students, kids, or young professionals, being so keen to come to the survivors and ask questions so that they can know more. And they were all surprised and so excited to be exposed to such first-hand storytelling, and I think the hibakusha stories have been shaking their souls and having a very great impact.
It’s a kind of irony that here in Japan, it is said that young people have been losing interest, although the stories of hibakusha are in textbooks, and it is part of the official curriculum and they can easily access that information. But now, more and more young Japanese people say that we can’t feel interested in those old stories. But on the contrary, the young people who I met in many countries in other parts of the world are so keen to know more and question more.
I think the story of hibakusha has not been well shared or informed in the past with the world. So, it’s very new for most of the people except Japan. For Japanese, they have been repeatedly exposed to that information, so they feel a bit bored already, “Oh we know already.” “It’s enough.” But it seems that for many other parts of the world, it’s still very new and fresh.
And also, I think just eight years ago, when the former president of the US, President Obama, delivered a historic speech in Prague for a nuclear weapon-free world, focusing on the moral responsibility of the nation that used nuclear weapons. It, I think, changed the people’s perception. And President Obama even came to Hiroshima. So that act had a very big impact on people’s perceptions or approach to this. So, they’ve got a human aspect or perspective in dealing with the nuclear weapons issue.
Q:How did you feel when the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty was adopted this year and you were there?
It was such a great excitement! Everybody really celebrated. A standing ovation and a big hug and kiss, and the tears and the smiles. It was such a moving moment for myself and for many hibakusha and for many diplomats, those enthusiastic governments, those diplomats who have worked so hard. And we did it! We did it!
When people got serious and when different actors like NGOs, hibakusha, or governments and the Red Cross get united, we can make a change, and we did it. So, it provided me with very strong confidence in keeping this movement ahead.
So, “we can abolish nuclear weapons” would be the main message from ICAN in the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
And how? Firstly, we’ve got this treaty, so by having enough signatures and ratifications to the treaty, the treaty will be enforced in the near future. And this treaty will change the value attached to nuclear weapons. Before the ban treaty, nuclear weapons have been thought of as a symbol of power. And with such weapons, you can enter a big nations club. But now, after the ban treaty, with this ban treaty, nuclear weapons are just wrong and bad weapons. You have to, you know, keep away from them, right?
So, big political, economic and social pressures will be put on the shoulders of those who possess nuclear weapons, or who are relying on nuclear weapons in security policies like Japan itself. So now, nuclear weapons are made illegal, so using nuclear weapons means that such a person or such a government will be regarded as a criminal. The use of nuclear weapons is now a war crime, you know. So, it will make the use of nuclear weapons more and more difficult.
And then, reasonable leaders will think, “How are we maintaining these unusable weapons?” And also, in the economic sense, the banks and the financial institutions will start to think of divestment from any companies assisting the production of nuclear weapons because now, international law says producing nuclear weapons are bad and inhumane. So, responsible banks will stop investing in those companies. And then how can you maintain nuclear weapons?
It’s true that nuclear weapon states may not join this treaty in the short term or the foreseeable future, but having such a strong, normative pressure, they cannot live with nuclear weapons for a long time.
Q:How do you feel as a Japanese citizen about the fact that Japan didn’t participate in the process?
It’s very frustrating and disappointing. And it’s a shame, it’s a shame. The Japanese government has been talking repeatedly, publicly, in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemoration that Japan is the nation calling for a nuclear weapon-free world. And they even said they are taking the lead in this endeavor. But in reality, Japan even did not participate in this debate. So, in this process of making the ban treaty, Japan lost is its credibility on worldwide nuclear disarmament efforts.
Q: Do you think there’s still room for the government to change its course and participate in the debate?
Yes, public opinion can change it. Because this nuclear weapons issue, or this treaty, or UN debate has been in the hands of a very small circle, experts, or a small number of NGOs. But with this Nobel Peace Prize now, it is a more wildly recognized public issue.
So, I’d like to make this Peace Prize Ceremony as a starting point or kick off point for the Japanese public to review and reconsider our nation’s position on nuclear weapons. We have to do it, you know, we shouldn’t just celebrate, “Hey, we’ve got this prize, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now recognized.” It’s not such a happy story. It’s a serious story for us, Japanese.
We have very serious double standards. On one hand, we are talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, but on the other hand, the government is just resisting and just boycotting the nuclear ban treaty. Is it OK for us?
I believe if the vast majority of people start to think about it and start to talk about it, it will certainly have an impact on the policy-making of Japan. And I think eventually the country of Japan will make the right decision to go.
Q: How would you refute to those who say, “But the nuclear umbrella is keeping us safe”?
There’s no logical ground that this nuclear umbrella will function, or their logical nuclear deterrence will be functioning. When the nuclear disaster in Fukushima happened, people realized that we were caught in a myth of safety. The deterrence of nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence, keeping the world safe is also a myth.
So, once such a deterrence theory is broken, some nuclear detonation happens, who--and how--to take responsibility? What will be the consequences? What sort of rescue is available? And who takes the responsibility? All those questions are un-answered.
And if Japan claims, “OK, there are nuclear weapons in North Korea, so we have to protect ourselves with the US’s nuclear weapons.” So, if nuclear weapons versus nuclear weapons, if you accept this logic, then many other states would also start to talk about the same. So we will eventually come to a world full of nuclear weapons. Every county will start to acquire nuclear weapons. Is it a safe world? The answer is very clear.
So, yes, there is a nuclear threat from North Korea, but it is the very reason why we need to work for total prohibition and total elimination of nuclear weapons.
Q:Now all the hibakusha are aging. What do you think would be the best way to continue their legacy?
Well, I think the nuclear weapons ban treaty is one way to continue the legacy because the actual sufferers will go sooner or later. But in maybe 5 years or 10 years, suddenly we’ll come to a stage where we cannot hear any first-hand experience of atomic bomb suffering.
But this treaty declares that any use of nuclear weapons is illegal. So, it is an international norm, a legal norm, that is the last thing of legacy. You know, for human beings, it’s very difficult just to pass down actual memories. Memory will be gone, unfortunately. Of course, there are ways to record or archive and digital methods. All those things need to be established and there are so many initiatives going on. That’s very important.
But the real message--this suffering should not be repeated--is now written in this very important treaty. So, promoting this treaty is a way to pass down the message of the Hibakusha.
Q:Lastly, what would be your message to people around the world, especially for young people?
Firstly, there are still many hibakusha in Japan who are really keen to speak their story. And we NGOs, including Peace Boat, will provide opportunities for them to speak in many countries.
So please pay attention to those survivors’ messages, and please learn from them. I think that’s the very important contribution that Japanese civil society can do for the world.
And secondly, we can change the world, as we made this treaty, by civil societies’ efforts in partnership with governments and the Red Cross and so on. We can change the world. If this very bad weapon exists, if you stand up and take action, you can change it. It was shown by ICAN’s efforts so far, and that was recognized by the Nobel Peace Committee. So, young people, you can follow it and you can make much more, much better change to come.