BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND – It’s a difficult time of year for survivors of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the August anniversaries inevitably swing around.
For one hibakusha, living thousands of kilometers away in Northern Ireland, it’s especially tricky, as her memories of the trauma, her grief at losing her brother and her nostalgia for her homeland after a lifetime living abroad all get stirred up.
Aged 78, Nobuko Pollock knows she is among the last of the survivors and worries that the commemorations — to which she faithfully tunes in on her satellite TV every year — will lessen over time.
“It’s so important to remember,” she says, surrounded by origami cranes and kimono-clad dolls in her small but pleasant Belfast home.
“How else will we honor the dead? Not only that, but how will we remind ourselves that this must never, ever happen again?”
Formerly Nobuko Miyake, she was 13 when the atomic bomb was dropped on her native Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.
She survived without any injury, as did her sister, mother and grandparents. Her brother Harunobu, who was 20 and a second-year medical student at the time, perished. Her older sister, Ayako, died 15 years ago from bone cancer, the only member of the family to develop terminal illness, apparently as a result of radiation exposure.
Nobuko Pollock has lived in Belfast since 1962, when she traveled there to marry the love of her life, Bobby Pollock. Since his death in 2000, she has lived alone, although her son ,Martin, a civil servant, his wife, Anne, and their 7-year-old daughter, Rebekah Naomi, visit often from their home 30 km away.
The couple met in Nagasaki while both were working for Caltex, the company that would later become Texaco. A Belfast native, Bobby was a naval engineer who traveled all over Asia during the shipping and oil boom of the 1950s. Nobuko was a bilingual secretary.
It was love at first sight and she had no hesitation in making the journey two years later to Northern Ireland to embark on a new life in a land she knew little about.
In those days, there was no Japanese community in Northern Ireland (it’s still tiny, around 150 individuals) and, unlike now, there was no Asian Supermarket and no Japanese Society through which to meet other expats.
You couldn’t buy tofu, green tea, nori or even noodles, except in the most specialist of shops.
As Pollock points out, you didn’t just get on the phone or the computer to talk to your family regularly, the way you can these days.
In short, what a shock it must have been for a woman who had never left Japan, although she had lived in Osaka and Innoshima, to wash up in the uninspiring suburbs of north Belfast — uncomfortably close to riot flash points when the civil unrest usually referred to as “the Troubles” broke out less than a decade later.
Coming to terms with an alien way of life was one thing, but grappling with the political, cultural and social tensions of a deeply divided society was another.
Pollock remembers, in the early days of her Nagasaki courtship, hearing about water cannon being used to quell a riot in Belfast. “I thought, my God, what am I headed for?” she remembers.
Her first impressions, when she arrived, were of the strange “pebbledash” finish on the houses and “the height of the policemen — like giants!” she laughs, her eyes all agog.
It was only a sometime home, however, as she and her husband still traveled with his work — sailing past Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand — until she became pregnant four years later. He worked at sea until retirement, meaning she was often home in Belfast with a young child for up to eight months at a time.
When the Troubles broke out at the end of the 1960s, it brought enormous amounts of civil unrest and street disturbances. One of the hot spots for rioting was the area known as Ardoyne, just a short walk away from Pollock’s house. What did her family back in Japan think?
“My mother understood that if you love someone, you go with them, but my sister was bitterly against my international marriage. She worried that if anything happened, I was so far away.”
But she has no regrets.
“Bobby and I had a wonderful, wonderful life together,” she says, her eyes welling up. She nursed him through Alzheimer’s for eight years, refusing to hand his care over to others, despite pleas from friends and family that she was exhausted.
“My minister was very worried for me,” she smiles, referring to the clergyman at the local Methodist church. She converted to Christianity in her 20s, while still in Japan and before meeting her husband.
“So I decided to take a holiday. I went back to Nagasaki for a fortnight. After one week my son phoned to tell me to come home. Bobby had become very ill and was dying. I just made it home in time.”
It wasn’t her first trip back to Japan — she made one while her mother was still alive to introduce her to her grandson.
But the 2000 trip was the first time Pollock visited the Nagasaki Peace Park built in memory of the 1945 tragedy.
“I thought it was very beautiful,” she says. “But I could not go into the museum. I just couldn’t bear all the memories that would come flooding back.”
Indeed, despite her age, Pollock’s memories of the day Nagasaki was attacked are remarkably vivid, if a little patchy.
Her childhood home was around 6 km from the hypocenter.
“What I remember is the huge noise. We ran next door, to an American hotel, as we knew they had a concrete bunker. Our own house was on fire. Most of Nagasaki was on fire, of course, as all the buildings were wooden.
“That night my brother didn’t come home. My mother and grandfather went out looking for him. They found his body at the hospital morgue. There were no burn marks on him, but we assumed he had died instantly, as he had been at the university, just 500 meters from the bomb.”
His body was cremated in the street by his family. Pollock had been extremely close to him, a fact she puts down to losing her father as a baby.
“I thought I would go out of my mind with grief,” she remembers. “More than that, I thought my mother would go crazy.”
After nine days spent living with their neighbors in a local supermarket — a concrete building, it had been damaged but remained intact — her family evacuated to her grandfather’s home village of Kikitsu, a half-hour’s train journey from the city.
Her memory of that journey is still raw.
“We saw so many refugees — people on stretchers, people with no hair, with burns all over their bodies. The fields were full of dead animals. The buildings were flattened. It was a nightmare. I will never forget it.”
It seems remarkable that neither Pollock, her mother, nor grandparents went on to develop cancer, especially given that her mother and grandfather had been in the immediate vicinity of the blast within 24 hours, looking for her brother.
Pollock was very ill, however, after the birth of her only child, Martin, in 1967, and had to undergo a hysterectomy, something her doctors in Belfast believe may have been linked to radiation exposure.
An immensely cheerful and friendly woman, she says she has never felt anti-American sentiments — indeed, her adult life would be intimately tied up with the West — although she does remain angry at why more time was not left after the Hiroshima bomb to secure a surrender by Japan.
After receiving an American-style education in Nagasaki — she remembers the culture shock of boys and girls attending high school together after the Occupation forces overhauled the education system — she attended typing school and learned English in her spare time.
“When I was young, the sense was that everything was happening in the English-speaking world,” she explains.
How things change. Now she is pining for her motherland — the “old Japan,” she says, in particular.
“I know all this technology is important,” she explains, “but it’s the seasons I am longing for. Kyoto in the autumn, with the maple leaves turning red. . . .”
She would dearly love one more trip back to see this great display of nature. “But,” she says, her face brightening with characteristic optimism, “if it’s not to be, I will watch it on my satellite TV.