Until not so long ago, renowned actor Mikijiro Hira had not talked much in public about his late mother, Hisayo, who barely survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The bombing, which took place on Aug. 6, 1945, is estimated to have ultimately killed, by the end of that year, about 140,000 people.
Hisayo, who was in her 30s, was walking to work at a post office. As she bent down beside a building to tie a shoelace, there was a strong flash of light.
It was the world’s first atomic bombing. The bomb, dropped by a U.S. B-29 bomber, exploded about 600 meters above downtown Hiroshima and the subsequent fire that swept the city after the heat, blast and radiation left nothing but rubble from incinerated buildings.
“If she had not been behind the building, she could have been burned to ashes because the place was so close to the hypocenter,” Hira said in a recent interview. Hisayo was a single mother. Her husband had died when Hira was just a baby.
Amid the aging of the hibakusha and their passing over time, Hira gave the interview at a time when Japanese face the daunting task of passing on the experiences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bomb survivors to future generations.
Hira, a Hiroshima native who was then just 11 years old, is not a hibakusha. He had been evacuated at the time of the bombing to his great-uncle’s house in a mountainous area of the prefecture.
A relative somehow rescued Hisayo from the devastated city after learning that “a strange, awful bomb” had been dropped on Hiroshima.
Hira, an only child, said his mother at one point slipped into critical condition, but recovered and lived until 1990, when she died at age 80. She lost her hair and eyesight but later regained them, the latter by surgery, yet she was prone to illness and remained visually impaired.
Like other hibakusha who refrained from talking about their trauma, Hira said his mother was reluctant to talk about the bombing and the inferno. He added that he, too, had not made a point of mentioning that she was a hibakusha, partly because he leads a “nonpolitical” lifestyle.
Hira, whose lifetime goal is to act in every Shakespeare play, also said he has rarely accepted roles that highlight his wartime experiences, adding that he does not like the situation in which it is taken for granted that hibakusha would crusade against war.
“I used to dislike being defined in such a single, uniform way,” he said.
But with no “particular trigger” to prompt him, he has recently started talking about his war-related experiences in interviews. “It may be because I’m aware that I’m approaching my end,” he said.
“I was so afraid of the war,” Hira said. “(Boys my age were all) saying they were going to join the boys’ flying corps or a naval academy . . . but I was thinking to cut my fingers when I turn that age” to have a physical impairment to avoid having to go to war.
Hira recalled early postwar life was one “of poverty with a feeling of nothing to depend upon.”
He and his mother did not return to Hiroshima because their home was gone. Hira lived at his great-uncle’s house until he entered high school, and his mother worked in Tokyo and sent him money.
Born in Canada to a family of emigrants, she was able to speak English and worked as a maid for high-ranking U.S. military officers, he added.
It was not until two decades after the war ended that he went back to Hiroshima for the first time. This was after he had moved to Tokyo and had embarked on a career as an actor. When he was in his mid-30s, he had the opportunity to tour with a production of “Hamlet.”.
Among the many theaters, movies and TV dramas he has appeared in, Hira starred in productions directed by Yukio Ninagawa that were taken on overseas tours. One such production was Ninagawa’s version of “Macbeth.”
Hira also received a number of awards from the government, one of which was the Medal with Purple Ribbon in 1998.
But Hira said that had he been born a year earlier, he might have been working, like many young Japanese boys were forced to do at the time, in a local factory to aid the war effort.
He recalled that when the bomb hit, those young laborers exposed to the heat shed their skin along with the clothes that were burned off them. Many just returned home and died. “There were many such kids in my neighborhood,” Hira said.
In contrast to their fate, “I lived to be 80. I have a job, became an actor. I feel that I lived with their will to live . . . so I think I have to do something all the more (to make up for my successful life),” he said.
Hira married an actress but they later divorced. His son, Takehiro, is also an actor.
Hibakusha in Singapore
Two people who survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima visited Singapore on the weekend to share their experiences with young people in Asia.
In a speech Sunday, Susumu Tsuboi, 85, talked about the aftermath of the bombing, which took the lives of his mother and dozens of his school friends in a matter of seconds.
Shigeko Sasamori, 81, said she lost consciousness after she saw a B-29 bomber flying over Hiroshima drop a bomb on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. When she woke up, the entire landscape had turned black, she said.
More than 100 students in the audience asked questions, including whether they feel anger toward Americans and whether it is realistic to believe there can be a world without war.
Before they delivered their speeches, the two offered apologies about Japan’s wartime deeds in other parts of Asia.