A-bomb survivors tell stories

Former captives of Japan discuss life after the war in documentary

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Documentary filmmaker Shizu Azuma wants to send a message through her latest film, “Utsukushii Hito”: Just as we should never forget those who lost their lives in the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we should not forget those who survived, either.

Completed last year, the 116-minute film, known as “Beauty Within” in English, shows the lives of not only a Japanese survivor, but also Koreans and former Dutch captives of the Imperial Japanese Army, now leading peaceful lives back in their home countries.

Azuma, 39, said she wanted to focus not on the devastation of the war — which a lot of films about the bombings have done — but on the “beauty” of the people who outlived the calamities of the war. This is why she titled the film “Beauty Within,” she said.

Azuma also said that she didn’t want to create a film to comfort the Japanese about the sufferings endured during and after the war.

“I definitely didn’t want to make people think that we were the only victims of the war. This was not just a Japanese tragedy; it was a tragedy for every human being who lives on the Earth today. It’s a message that transcends all races,” she said.

In the documentary, Azuma interviews seven survivors: a Japanese woman, three Koreans and three former Dutch captives.

Azuma said she was inspired to make the film by a photo she saw of the Japanese woman, Chieko Ryu, at an exhibition devoted to the victims of the nuclear bombings. In one photo, a young woman, looking dazed in the midst of charred ruins, stands next to a human skull.

Azuma later learned it was the skull of the Ryu’s mother.

“I just couldn’t forget about this photo, which showed such a sharp contrast between the living and the dead. I wanted to find out how this woman managed to live her life after this,” recalled Azuma.

With help from the exhibition organizer, the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, Azuma managed to track down the woman, who was still living in Nagasaki.

She filmed the 83-year-old Ryu and her son, who explained that many hibakusha and their children had trouble finding spouses and even jobs.

“I want to introduce to the viewers through my film the people who suffered like this, and make people think about discrimination and malicious feelings that are particular to human beings,” said Azuma.

Azuma then filmed three Korean women living at the Hapcheon Atomic Bomb Victim Welfare Center in Hapcheon, South Korea, northwest of Busan.

Opened in 1996 with the assistance of the Japanese and Korean governments, the home supports Koreans who survived the atomic bombs. They are now in their 70s to early 90s and still suffering from the physical and psychological aftereffects.

After Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, many Koreans immigrated to Japan, especially to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where employment opportunities were good. Later, during World War II, more Koreans were taken by force to work in Japan.

About 70,000 Koreans are thought to have been in the two cities when the bombs were dropped. About 40,000 were killed.

“It was shocking for me to find out that an institution like this existed — and those Koreans who live there today had no choice but to live in Japan, and fell victim to the bomb,” said Azuma.

Almost 70 years after the war, most of the survivors are nearing the end of their lives. To film them, Azuma thought it was now or never.

“They are now quite willing to talk about their war experiences in a calm manner,” she said.

“Some of them said they wanted to forget about what they experienced in the war, while others said they want to share their experiences with others. The Korean women said they have fond memories of Japan, where they spent their childhood years,” said Azuma.

The three Dutchmen in the documentary are former captives who were sent to Japan from Indonesia, which was occupied by the Netherlands then.

About 140,000 members of the Allied forces were taken captive by the Imperial Japanese Army and sent to Japan and other places such as China or Japan-occupied Korea to work as forced laborers.

In Nagasaki, roughly 70 percent of the 195 detainees in a relocation camp about 1.6 km from ground zero were Dutch, while most of the remainder were Australian or British.

Six Dutchmen and one British captive were killed by the atomic bomb.

The fact that the POWs had become victims of U.S. forces as well is said to have complicated the lives and sentiments of the surviving captives, said Azuma.

One of them, Willy Buchel van Steenbergen, says in the documentary that the past is past, and he tried hard not to lose his mind over what happened.

“What matters is that I managed to live. . . . We had a bad time, and so did the Japanese,” he said.

In April, he traveled from the Netherlands to Nagasaki for the second time to visit what’s left of the relocation camp and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.

According to Azuma, after the documentary was screened at the museum, van Steenbergen said, “It’s important to respect each other — no matter which nationality or ethnicity or race — and to learn from what happened in the past. That’s the path to peace.”

K’s Cinema in Shinjuku is screening “Utsukushii Hito” in Japanese from May 31 through June 20. For more information, visit utsukushiihito.jimdo.com (in Japanese). Those interested in bringing the English version to their local community should send an email to sapro@quartz.ocn.ne.jp.

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