On a recent weekend, an 84-year-old survivor of the 1945 Nagasaki atomic bombing retraced his movements on a map: the inferno during his 20-km walk home, the “black rain” of falling radioactive particles and how he felt sick days later.
His audience of eight listened intently, some asking questions and taking notes. They hope to tell his story to future generations after he is gone, to take their listeners to the scene on Aug. 9, 1945, the way Shigeyuki Katsura saw and experienced it.
In a government-organized program in the western Tokyo suburb of Kunitachi, 20 trainees ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s are studying wartime history, taking public speech lessons from a TV anchor and hearing stories from Katsura and another Kunitachi resident who survived the Hiroshima bombing at the same time.
“It’s been 70 years since the bombings, and we survivors are getting old. Time is limited and we must hurry,” said Terumi Tanaka, the 83-year-old head of a national group, the Tokyo-based Japan Confederation of A and H Bomb Sufferers’ Organizations.
In a way, they are going backward in this digital age, learning face-to-face from their elders in order to carry on a storytelling tradition. It is not unlike Kabuki actors inheriting their seniors’ stage names and performing their signature pieces.
The same stories may be in video and text on the Internet, but organizers feel that in-person storytelling adds an invaluable human touch.
The Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing in Hiroshima killed about 140,000 people from injuries and immediate effects of radiation within five months, and another one dropped on Nagasaki three days later killed 73,000. The death toll linked to the attacks and their radiation effects has since risen to 460,000, with the number of survivors declining to some 183,000, according to latest government statistics.
Most survivors live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Katsura said about 20 survivors live in Kunitachi, but only a few, including himself, are healthy enough to make public appearances.
Tanaka, a retired engineering professor, survived Nagasaki but lost five relatives there when he was 13. He said it would be almost impossible for storytellers to describe the horrors as vividly as the survivors, but hopes their imagination, compassion and commitment to peace will make up for any shortfall.
Mika Shimizu, a 32-year-old high school teacher, hopes to do just that, by putting a survivor’s experience in language her peers and others as young as her students can relate to.
“Even if we hear the same story, the way each of us retell it would be different, because we all have different sensibilities,” she said.
Another trainee, Sachiko Matsushita, missed her chance to find out directly from her father, who hid his exposure in Nagasaki for most of his life, and largely kept the story to himself. Initially she wanted to revisit her father’s path, but now is devoted to passing on Katsura’s.
“I’d much rather hear the stories directly from people, and pass them on to people,” the 47-year-old company worker said.
Katsura was 14 when he and his schoolmates, put to work for the war effort, were delivering a cartful of weapons parts from school to a factory when the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb exploded over Nagasaki.
“Having witnessed what the man-made nuclear weapon did to humans, I must condemn it as absolutely wrong, and the mistake should never be repeated,” he said. “That’s what drives me to tell my story, and I’ll continue to do so as long as I live.”
The course in Kunitachi is modeled on one started in Hiroshima in 2012. The first group of 50 Hiroshima storytellers debuted this year, with some 150 others underway.
Kunitachi official Mamiko Ogawa said storytelling requires a deep understanding of both the historical background and the survivors’ emotions, along with a touch of the teller’s personality. That’s what makes it different from digital archives.
“I think the stories are best conveyed when told by real people,” she said. “I hope the trainees would fully absorb the survivors’ experience and feelings, so they can tell the stories using their own sensibilities.”