Akihito Ito: Keeper of the tales of a nuclear hell

'Never again' Akihito Ito has been recording the voices of atomic-bomb survivors for 40 years


Has George W. Bush ever heard of Akihito Ito? Dismayed at Pentagon plans to develop a new generation of “tactical” nuclear weapons — so-called mini-nukes — Ito sent Bush a gift: a box of CDs carrying the recorded voices of 284 atomic-bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“I know there are U.S. laws forbidding politicians from accepting expensive presents, so I stuck a price on the cover,” explains Ito, “$1.”

The recordings contain enough horrors to keep even the architect of the Iraq War awake at night. Witness after witness describes incinerated and shredded human bodies, babies clinging to dead mothers, unrecognizable friends and loved ones.

“I found a friend of mine in the water. He looked at me and asked, ‘Is there anything wrong with my face?,’ ” says one survivor. “It looked like a melting candle. I told him that his face was falling off.”

Ito first heard accounts like that when he was a reporter for Nagasaki Broadcasting in the late 1960s, and persuaded his bosses to put them on air. When he was told to move on to other work, he quit instead and began to track down and record hibakusha (survivors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 and Nagasaki three days later).

“I’m not finished yet,” he says, showing off his latest discovery: YouTube, where he has just posted a video-clip titled “Hiroshima Nagasaki A-Bomb Victims Voices” ( jp.youtube.com/watch?v=p2LCqgbdHog ). The video introduces the latest stage of Ito’s long campaign to preserve the hibakusha stories: English translations, which have been uploaded onto the Web site “Voices of the Survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki” ( www.voshn.com ). They are, says Ito proudly, unedited and unique.

“When I was a reporter, short comments by these people were used, but the rest of the recordings were thrown away,” says Ito. “I always thought, ‘Is this right? — They’re so important.’ ”

Now retired and, at age 71, living in a Tokyo home for the elderly, Ito has never been busier. He recently returned from a one-year stay in Hiroshima, where he videotaped hundreds of A-bomb survivors. In October he will head off to Nagasaki to do the same. He and a small team of about a dozen Japanese and foreign volunteers are also just starting work on a Chinese translation of the Web site contents, which will be followed by a Russian version.

Everything is funded from Ito’s own pocket, as it has been for the last four decades. Ito won’t accept sponsors because he says it would compromise his journalistic integrity. After resigning from his Nagasaki post, he survived by working in a succession of part-time jobs, including as a security guard, a waiter and an encyclopedia salesman, while traveling the country to interview 1,840 survivors. He sent more than 1,000 sets of his audiotapes to libraries and research institutions, then later transferred them onto CDs.

When a friend told him he could reach many more people by using the Internet, Ito was overjoyed — but overwhelmed.

“I’d never operated a computer until two years ago,” he says.

The Japanese Web site has since had a respectable 100,000 hits, but there have been just 3,600 in English, so this month, Ito, who lives on a state pension, took out six ads publicizing his Web site in The Japan Times, at a cost of about ¥1.2 million. (Ed: He did this without requesting or requiring any editorial coverage.) He reckons he has spent the same amount on Japanese-language newspapers in the last year.

“Crazy,” he laughs.

Ito’s online introduction starts with an apology. “We Japanese once invaded and annexed Asian countries . . . We attacked Pearl Harbor without a proclamation of war. We treated prisoners of war cruelty (sic).” Then it begs the world to abandon the A-bomb, which incinerated about 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is still killing radiation victims today.

Comments from foreign readers have started to trickle in, although Ito can only decipher them with the aid of a dictionary.

One reads: “Thank you for making these voices available to the rest of the world. My hope is for complete elimination of nuclear weapons for the present and for coming generations.”

Ito shares that goal, and is undeterred by one of the bleakest periods for ban-the-bomb campaigners in a generation.

The old nuclear club of Russia, China, France and Britain has been joined by Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is widely acknowledged to be crumbling. The United States, which still boasts an arsenal of about 8,000 “active or operational” warheads — which each average 20 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb — is one of only three countries that late last year opposed a U.N. resolution demanding the abolition of nuclear arms (the others were India and North Korea).

“I’m an optimist,” says Ito. “I believe our information age makes it harder to use these weapons because we can instantly see the damage they cause. There are only four photographs of Hiroshima on the day it was bombed. Think about what would happen today if such a thing occurred.”

He never got a reply to his letter to Bush, nor to a package he sent to former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which came back opened. But he knows what he would say if he ever met either. “Don’t kill babies or children or anyone else with nuclear weapons.”