HIROSHIMA – “The bomb on the 6th of August, 1945, deprived me of my parents, my friends, my reason … No, it deprived me of my entire life. From that day, I became entirely a living corpse. The only thing I wanted was to destroy everything with that axe … Yes, everything… Even my own life.”
These words, uttered by the ax murderer “M” during an interview with Kaoru Ogura, lie among hundreds of pages of raw details of postwar Hiroshima recently unearthed when Keiko, Ogura’s widow, discovered the frail carbon copies of letters written by her husband nearly 60 years ago.
“A woman’s engagement was broken off,” reads another passage, “because it was feared she would give birth to deformed children.”
Very little was understood about the effects of atomic radiation at the time, and the survivors of the 1945 U.S. bombing frequently faced immense prejudice, even among their own families. “It is often reported that graves were not permitted to be made for the ashes of bomb victims,” Ogura wrote.
Born in Seattle in 1920, Kaoru Ogura grew up in Portland, Oregon, speaking Japanese and English. In 1930 he moved to his parent’s hometown, Hiroshima, and later served in the Imperial Japanese Army. After the war he worked as an educator, interpreter and translator, and often assisted foreign journalists who visited Hiroshima.
In 1957, as atomic bomb survivors continued to die mysteriously of unknown causes — and fierce debate raged about whether or not to preserve the artifacts of the bombing (including the Atomic Bomb Dome itself) — Austrian author Robert Jungk, aided by Ogura, set out to discover the true stories of the A-bomb victims. Over the next 2½ years, Ogura would send 213 letters, totaling 836 pages of research notes, to Jungk, the contents of which furnished Jungk’s internationally acclaimed book “Children of the Ashes,” which has been translated into a number of languages.
“As Hiroshima became more and more just another large city, so the gulf that separated the survivors of the bomb from the world in which they lived grew wider and wider,” wrote Jungk in his book. “The houses and streets might be rebuilt, but they remained ruins — human ruins.”
Due to Ogura’s efforts, Jungk’s work captured the true voices of the A-bomb survivors — the hibakusha — and tore through the veil of silence surrounding them. In addition to “M,” Ogura interviewed everyone from doctors, politicians and scientists to medical patients, laborers and peace activists. He even talked with the celebrated postwar mayor of Hiroshima, Shinzo Hamai.
Yet surprisingly, Ogura was not present during the interview with Keiko, then a girl of 19.
“I had learned English in school, so Jungk interviewed me himself,” relates Keiko (who to this day withholds her maiden name, as her family does not wish to be publicly connected with hibakusha). It wasn’t until three years later, when Jungk returned to Hiroshima for a film project, that the two happened to bump into each other, and Jungk introduced her to Ogura.
“At one point Jungk bought me a kimono, so the next day I wore it and performed a Japanese dance for him and Ogura in the traditional garden of my parents’ home,” Keiko recalls. “I didn’t know it at the time, but Kaoru fell in love with me in that moment.”
When asked how she felt about him in return, Keiko replies: “To me he was an orchestra — soft and loud, high and low, large and small. … Other men had good points, but Kaoru had all good points. I refused to accept anyone else.”
They married in 1962, and Ogura, who by then had become director of the Peace Memorial Museum, dedicated his life to peace activism and the antinuclear movement.
Robert Jungk remained a family friend of the Oguras, and stayed in touch with Keiko after her husband’s death in 1979.
“I remember it was a few months after my husband passed away,” Keiko recounts, “when Robert called me on the phone and said, ‘Keiko, why are you still crying when the peace movement needs you? You must continue Kaoru’s work!'”
With Jungk’s words resonating in her mind, Keiko began working as an interpreter for Hiroshima’s peace efforts the following year, and in 1984 founded Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, a nonprofit organization providing language assistance to journalists and peace activists visiting Hiroshima. As part of HIP’s mission, every year on Aug. 6 members organize a live English testimonial of atomic bomb survivors.
Then, in 2010, Keiko discovered the first 300 pages of her husband’s letters. She uncovered the remaining 500 in 2016.
However, her discovery was not accidental.
After attending a Jungk exhibit, Yuji Wakao, professor emeritus of modern history at Nagoya University, concluded that copies of the letters might exist among Ogura’s belongings. He contacted Keiko in 2009 and urged her (apparently over the course of several sumptuous dinner outings) to search for the letters.
Shortly after the recovery of the letters, Wakao assembled a team to translate them into Japanese. Their work will be published in an annotated volume later this year by Nagoya University Press.
According to Wakao, the publication couldn’t be more timely.
“Nuclear issues have traditionally been the realm of journalism, not academia,” says Wakao, “but the study of nuclear issues has never been more vital. East Asia as a whole is shifting away from nuclear power, even as North Korea scrambles to develop nuclear weapons. We hope our efforts will inspire young scholars to take on nuclear issues.”
The legacy of Ogura himself proves in large part Wakao’s concern. While Ogura was active with scholars and universities, his primary work involved assisting journalists and authors in their efforts to document the realities of postnuclear Hiroshima, simply due to the greater demand from those sources.
“What sets Jungk and Ogura’s work aside,” says Wakao, “is that they were interested in looking beyond the symbolism of the bombing — the Dome, the paper cranes, the Peace Park — to acknowledge the real lives of the human beings who suffered and gave rise to those symbols.”
However, their efforts have not been easy.
When asked to describe a particularly difficult challenge to the project, Yuko Kawaguchi, a lecturer at Hosei University and one of the translators for the project, immediately replies, “Only one?”
“Aside from the sheer volume of the text, Ogura’s work contains the names of people, places, businesses and events from 60 years ago that now require meticulous research to understand. But of course,” she adds humbly, “our research is nothing compared to Mr. Ogura’s.”
Additionally, as Ogura’s letters were written on a typewriter (i.e., without spellcheck), passages sometimes contain typographical or grammatical errors that further obscure the original meaning. Not less significantly, working from 60-year-old carbon copies also means frequently guessing at words that, either from age, wear or a weak imprint from Ogura’s typewriter, are now illegible.
Yet despite their historical significance, Wakao’s team is only translating about 40 percent of the letters.
“Many pages contain Ogura’s translations of Japanese newspaper articles,” says Kawaguchi, “and for copyright reasons we can’t reproduce them in our book. For those parts we’re including references so people can look up the originals.”
Yet other, more sensitive issues also curtail what content can and can’t be published in their book.
“Some families named in the letters don’t want to be associated with hibakusha,” explains Keiko, “and some passages contain details like ‘This person murdered that person’ or ‘So-and-so was with a prostitute’ — things certain people probably don’t want publicized.”
Yet despite these challenges, Jungk was convinced of the importance of Ogura’s letters in telling the story of the people of postwar Hiroshima. In the beginning of “Children of the Ashes,” he asserts: “Unfortunately I have only been able to make use of a fraction of [Ogura’s] written communications; had I printed them all, this book would have been eight times its present length. It is my hope that a research institute may be interested in safeguarding this material.”
Perusing even a single paragraph of Ogura’s writings makes it all too clear why Jungk felt so strongly.
“Any one of these pages could provide a lifetime of research,” says Wakao, his eyes scanning over the immense binder of photocopied letters. “It was an incredible time in world history.”
Some quotes from Ogura’s letters have been slightly edited for clarity, but most have been reproduced as they were originally typed.
• “My Small Steps from Hiroshima,” an NHK World documentary about Kaoru Ogura, will screen on NHK World on Saturday, Aug. 6, at 9:10 a.m., 2:10 p.m. and 7:10 p.m., and on Sunday, Aug. 7, at 2:10 p.m. It will be broadcast in the U.S. on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus on Sept. 5 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 7 at midnight.
• Three atomic bomb survivors will tell their stories in English at the International Conference Center Hiroshima (in the Peace Park) at 10 a.m. on Aug. 6.
• Your comments and Community story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org
The plea of the victims
As we learn from Ogura’s letters, the question of how to commemorate the anniversary of Aug. 6 became a flash point in postwar Hiroshima. There were even some who wanted to transform the day into a celebration of Hiroshima’s reconstruction, complete with fireworks and merchandise for sale — in other words, an event completely divorced from the experiences of the bomb victims.
In one of his letters to Jungk, Ogura describes the “three types of people” present in Hiroshima after the bombing.
“Those influential in postwar politics want August 6th to be a celebration for Hiroshima as a City of Peace. On the other hand, those ardent in the peace movement view August 6th as a ‘day of struggle,’ when we must raise our voices to oppose new wars, and demand an end to atomic weapons. And last of all are the forgotten ones — the victims who actually remember the dreadful day of hell, the sadness of losing parents, children, and siblings, and who wish only to dedicate their prayers silently in front of the cenotaph.”
It took 10 years before even the peace movement would recognize the wishes of the A-bomb survivors — and when it did, it changed the shape of that movement forever.
“In 1955,” writes Ogura, “as public opinion of Japan rose in the ashes of the 1954 Bikini Atoll Nuclear Tests, Hiroshima held the first international convention for the banning of A and H bombs. This was the first time for victims to be directly tied with the peace movement, and as a result, the convention marked the first August 6th to organically link the official peace festival with the democratic movement to halt atomic weapons. Between the participation of the A-bomb survivors, and representatives from 14 foreign nations, it was an epoch-making event.
“As one representative said, ‘What moved me most in this convention to ban nuclear weapons was the plea of the victims. On hearing this plea, we reflected that the peace movement we have hitherto built was all very casual and isolated from reality.'”
Wisdom of an ‘idiot’
One of the most important figures in Ogura’s letters is Shogo Nagaoka, the geologist who rushed into the radioactive ruins of Hiroshima the day after the bombing in an attempt to understand what had happened to the city.
Nagaoka had yet to make a name for himself, and to say that his efforts to document the bombing garnered minimal enthusiasm from his fellow scientists would be something of an understatement.
“They saw Nagaoka walking around the ruins picking up debris and said, ‘Look at that idiot,'” explains Yuji Wakao, professor emeritus of modern history at Nagoya University. “But we now know a great deal more about what happened in Hiroshima, and the effects of the atomic bomb, thanks to that ‘idiot.'”
Throughout his research, Nagaoka gathered more than 10,000 geological samples from the ruins of Hiroshima city. His collection of melted granite shards, scorched roof tiles and fused glass would later form the initial artifact display at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
What’s more, his geological observations allowed him to pinpoint the A-bomb hypocenter, which is why we know the precise location and height of the blast today.
As in modern times, many pillars, bridge railings, gravestones and ferro-concrete buildings in 1945 Hiroshima were made using locally obtained granite — a rock that Nagaoka knew contained a type of quartz that transformed at 573 degrees Celsius. (For reference, temperatures at ground zero reached between 3,000 and 4,000 degrees Celsius.) By observing the quartz “exfoliation” on granite surfaces caused by the heat, Nagaoka was able to determine the exact location of ground zero.
Nagaoka then visited 216 atomic shadows burned into the ruins of Hiroshima, and using a clinometer (a simple device that measures slopes), determined the angle of light that created them. By following the angle from each shadow to ground zero, he was able to calculate a height of 580 meters — the precise point of detonation.
“I was deeply impressed by Nagaoka’s research paper,” wrote Ogura, because it is the result of his walking around with a rucksack on his back, digging in the soil, and calculating with his clinometer in that radioactive, scorched land.”
1920 Kaoru Ogura is born in Seattle. He grows up in Portland, Oregon, before moving to Hiroshima.
1945 U.S. drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, killing tens of thousands instantly.
1957 Ogura begins correspondence with Austrian author Robert Jungk.
1962 Ogura, by now director of the Peace Memorial Museum, marries Keiko.
1979 Ogura dies at age 58.
1984 Keiko Ogura founds Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace.
2010 Keiko finds 300 pages of copies of her late husband’s letters to Jungk. She discovers 500 more in 2016.
2017 Nagoya University Press to publish translated selection of Ogura’s letters to Jungk.