HIROSHIMA — A group of American teenagers sat in a circle in rapt silence, listening to a 72-year-old Japanese woman speak.
“Remember, that was war,” Michiko Yamaoka said Saturday at a public hall in Hiroshima. “I want children in the world to know that.”
The survivor of the 1945 atomic bombing here has told her experiences to high school students from the United States every year since 1986 to inform them of the horror of nuclear weapons and persuade them that war is irrational.
According to many hibakusha, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. last year posed a challenge to pacifism activists in Hiroshima, which was the site of the world’s first nuclear attack.
A number of hibakusha and peace activists have expressed sorrow for the devastating attacks on the U.S., but also for President George W. Bush’s military campaign in Afghanistan, which has cost many innocent lives.
Among the American teenagers who on Saturday heard about Yamaoka’s ordeal were the students of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, which encountered the terror of biological warfare after suspicious mail suspected of containing anthrax was sent to a local post office.
Margot Dankner, 17, said she was forced to realize her country was vulnerable. “I feel the fear of terrorism much closer.”
Before listening to Yamaoka’s speech, she said she felt sad that civilians have been killed in the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, but at the same time is glad that the Taliban regime has been removed. “It is a very difficult situation,” she said.
Yamaoka, who was a 15-year-old junior high school student on Aug. 6, 1945, was on her way that morning to a telephone office where she worked as a switchboard operator under the student mobilization program. She was about 800 meters from the hypocenter.
Although her mother managed to save her from the rubble, she suffered terrible burns to her face and body, which made her look “like a monster” and caused her physical and psychological torment for years.
She said she would not leave her house for four years, where she silently lived with her mother, for fear of exposing herself to the eyes of people.
“I hated the world both the U.S. that dropped the bomb and Japan that started the war.” Yamaoka said it still torments her to recall her experiences.
Since that day, she has never been able to eat sausage because it reminds her of victims with their bowels spilling out of their stomachs. She does not look at rivers at high tide for fear of seeing the face of a friend who died in a river while fetching water.
But her life changed considerably after she traveled to the U.S. for corrective plastic surgery with the help of Quaker volunteers. She said she was healed more by the goodwill of American citizens than by medical procedures.
When Americans expressed their sorrow for all she had suffered, she decided not to hate Americans but to hate war, she said.
After finding herself alone following the death of her mother 24 years ago, she decided to continue living to pass down her experiences to the world’s younger generations.
“The hate in my heart was changed by meeting people,” she said. “Fate has let me survive only to see you young people and talk with you.”
Hiroyuki Suda of the U.S.-Japan Culture Center, who organizes the annual program for American students, said he hopes the American teenagers learn something from hibakusha of Hiroshima who try not to hate Americans but war itself.
“Hiroshima has sent the message that the chain of violence will not solve anything,” he said.
Yamaoka told the teenagers she does not know much about politics, but she wants the children of the world to understand what happens to innocent people in war.
Yamaoka’s story seemed to touch the teenagers.
Asked about their feelings at the end of the session, most could only express their thanks and respect for Yamaoka’s courage.
“It was too much to put in words,” said 17-year-old Alex Citrin. Another boy said he had read about the damage of the atomic bombing in books but had never felt it so personally. Yamaoka said, “I know what you feel even if you don’t say a word.” The girls approached Yamaoka and hugged her.
The American students were to attend the 57th memorial ceremony of the bombing at the Peace Memorial Park on Tuesday along with Yamaoka.