A recently released English translation of a Japanese book about 321 junior high school students killed by the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima is a poignant reminder of the inescapable suffering and militaristic indoctrination of youth at the time.
POPLAR PUBLISHING CO., Nonfiction.
“Ishibumi” — meaning “cenotaph” — was first published in 1969, following a Hiroshima Television Corp. documentary about the bombing, and the first English translation of the text was published last December.
The motivation to produce an English edition almost five decades after the original was released came after former U.S. President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima on May 27 last year, said the book’s editor, Naomi Saito. At the time, outspoken Japanese writer Ayako Sono wrote in a newspaper column that “Ishibumi” was the “only book” that needs to be given to the president.
The book, which was recently sent by a group of former students from Hiroshima Second Middle School to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, describes the circumstances surrounding the death of the children and four of their teachers from the school as told by parents who survived the bombing on Aug. 6, 1945.
The students had been mobilized to work in the war effort near where the bomb was later dropped, and nearly a third of them died instantly in the explosion, which had claimed an estimated 140,000 lives by the end of 1945.
Surviving children fled toward their homes, but many died without meeting their parents. Some students became unrecognizable due to their severe burns. In other cases, only their belongings were recovered.
One of the mothers who found no trace of her son, Bunji Kano, expresses her grief in the book:
“If only I could see him in my dreams, but he never appears there. His friends from primary school are now fathers of two or three children,” she says.
Saito, editor of the book, said she was encouraged by Sono’s words, and understood the need to educate people — about the tragedy, fear of atomic bombs and nuclear power — at a time when there are few remaining who directly experienced the war.
“We cannot forget the tragedy and should also take the nuclear accident seriously,” said Saito, referring to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster triggered by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
The book also reveals the militaristic indoctrination in Japanese education that significantly influenced the way students behaved, even when facing death.
Before dying, students often sang military songs and the “Kimigayo” national anthem. They hailed the emperor and some pledged to take revenge on their attackers, it said.
In the book, a diary of one student describes how they bowed “as deeply” as they could to salute the national flag and made “a vow to fight the enemy to the end” at a morning assembly.
Yasuko Claremont, who helped translate the book, said it depicts an era when war was glorified, when children were taught that the emperor was a living god and forced to recite a military code.
“From the standpoint of current democratic education, children who appear in ‘Ishibumi’ received a wrong education that supported a wrong war,” Claremont said, adding that the book should be read widely because the risks posed by nuclear weapons are shared globally.
“The book has the mission of conveying to the next generation that there were children who were sacrificed for the wrong war,” said Claremont, an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Sydney. “We must never go to war again.”
Atomic-bomb survivor Keiko Ogura, 79, who offers her experiences in English to some 2,000 foreign students annually, said she was “overwhelmed by grief” when she read the book and imagined the heartache of parents who lost children.
“I was deeply touched by the way this book is written, which refrains from being dramatic and depicts great sorrow in a detached tone, making readers feel the profound grief and anger that exists between the lines,” Ogura said.
Ogura said she is still haunted by the memory of suffering from the atomic bombing when she was 8 years old. Many other survivors were traumatized by the attack. Suffering from both death and survival was inevitable, she said.
“I’d like people to understand that nuclear weapons trigger mass killing,” Ogura said.
The true horror, she said, is of helpless children having no place to hide when nuclear weapons are used.