High school students at the UN International School at Waterside Plaza welcomed two World War II survivors from Japan to their class on Monday to hear their experiences from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The program was brought to the school by the organization Hibakusha Stories, which is a UN-affiliated NGO and is honoring the 70th anniversary of the bombings this year. A uranium bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6 and a plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
Yasuaki Yamashita from Nagasaki and Setsuko Thurlow from Hiroshima shared their experiences with the students.
Yamashita, now an artist in Mexico, was six years old at the time and living a mile and a half from the hypocenter in Nagasaki. He explained that on the morning that the bomb was dropped, he was playing outside by himself when a neighbor and his sister both said they heard strange airplanes flying over the city.
“My mother took my hand and when we got inside our house there was a tremendous crash,” he said. “It was like a thousand lightning bolts at the same time. She covered my body with her body. There was tremendous noise and then there was silence. When I looked up at the windows, doors and roof, there was nothing there.”
Yamashita said that he and his family attempted to reestablish normal life afterwards. He explained that didn’t really think of himself as an atomic bomb survivor until he was working in an atomic bomb hospital after he graduated high school and he encountered a young man with leukemia who was around his age.
“One day he was suffering and his body became covered in black marks, and he died the next day,” Yamashita said. “Then I thought it would happen to me.”
Thurlow was 13 at the time of the bombing of Hiroshima and was working at army headquarters to help the war effort.
“We were trained to use math skills to read top secret messages from the front lines and decode them,” she said. “It is unimaginable that a 13-year-old girl was doing this.”
She described a bluish-white flash when the bomb exploded. Her body flew through the air and she lost consciousness. When she awoke, a man was trying to free her because she was trapped under debris and once they got out of the building, it was engulfed in flames.
“That meant that most of my classmates were burned to death,” she said.
One student asked if either Yamashita or Thurlow had any anger towards the U.S. for the bombs.
“Most Americans didn’t know about the Manhattan Project, which produced the weapons, so I can’t be angry at those people,” Thurlow said, but she expressed frustration at the seeming lack of regret from the government. “The decision was a crime against humanity. The country that used such immoral things hadn’t expressed remorse. Truman said that he would do it again.”
Sophomore Takahiro Origuchi, who was born in Japan and has lived in the United States for the last nine years, asked if Thurlow thought that abolishing nuclear weapons would solve the problem.
“Humans are always creating new innovations,” he said. “What if something more powerful is created?”
Thurlow said that initially the question upset her because it contradicted much of what she had talked about. However, after the question was reworded for her, Thurlow then explained that she has heard this argument before, but disagrees with the reasoning.
“Many people believe it is a good deterrent but it hasn’t worked,” she said.
Origuchi explained after the presentation that especially as someone with a personal history in Japan, he hadn’t wanted to offend Thurlow but was thinking about possible technologies that might be created in the future.
“Let’s say we get rid of nuclear weapons and then someone created something bigger,” he reasoned. “What if they created something worse and we had no defense against it?”
Kathleen Sullivan, an educator for disarmament who’d organized the event, then responded that from their point of view, human beings will always create things but there are other obligations to consider as well.
“We have big brains but we have moral responsibilities too,” she said. “We have to rise to a greater humanity.”
The students at the event were primarily sophomores in the UN Studies class taught by humanities and history teacher Kyle Gross. Gross said that he was referred to Hibakusha Stories by a colleague and the program hasn’t participated at the UN International School since it began going through city schools in 2008.
“It seemed like an amazing project so we’ve been spending the last five months planning this,” he said.
Both Yamashita and Thurlow said that their experiences are painful to share, but necessary.
Yamashita said that a friend first encouraged him to share his account of the events in 1995 and although it was a difficult experience, he felt it was important because of nuclear tests that were taking place in the Pacific.
“I suffered from the beginning but when I finished my talk I felt my pain disappearing, so I felt that I must do this,” he added. “It was like therapy for me.”
Thurlow said that she shares her experience because she feels that she and her fellow survivors have a moral responsibility to educate young people about the effects of nuclear weapons.
“We don’t share these experiences to get your sympathy,” she said. “Sympathy does not bring back our loved ones. We have to make wise decisions for the future. This civilization is too beautiful and too rich to just let it go. We have to make it richer and more beautiful to pass it on to future generations. That is our responsibility.”
“Hibakusha” is the Japanese word for atomic bomb survivors, whose average age is currently in the early 80s.
Before hearing from Yamashita and Thurlow, Sullivan asked the students if they could name the nine countries that currently have nuclear weapons.
One student was able to name five and Sullivan listed off the nine: the US, Russia, France, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, England, India and China, with the US and Russia having the majority. Sullivan said that there are roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons but the exact number is unknown.
“It’s a secret because no one will fess up to how many they have, since that would basically be suicide,” a student said in response to the question about why the total amount is unknown.
— Text and photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel