National

Survivors' memoirs gain new significance 70 years after atomic bombings

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

Michiko Hattori, 86, calls herself an “obscure” atomic bomb survivor with no special writing skills. But the 70th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Japan this year unexpectedly brought her a chance to publish her life story afresh.

The idea for the book “Anohi Pikadon ga” (“On the Day of the Atomic Bombing”) started taking shape as Hattori’s earlier self-published autobiographical work in 2011 caught the attention of Tokyo-based publisher Bungeisha Co.

“We have people tasked to excavate little-known books buried in libraries in regional areas and found Ms. Hattori’s work at the Hiroshima Prefectural Library in January. We proposed to her releasing a new book based on it,” said Yukihisa Ono, 37, who planned the book at Bungeisha.

According to Ono, Hattori, who now lives in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, was initially hesitant to accept the proposal as she already had a book that recorded scenes she witnessed following the atomic blast in Hiroshima near the end of World War II, along with stories on her centuries-old family history.

But Ono had the impression that her original work lacked focus, and he encouraged Hattori to publish a book that delved solely into the atomic bomb issue.

“I want you to think about what you can leave to the generations who do not know about war, because you cannot keep talking about your experiences forever,” Ono recalled telling her before she signed up for the project.

Born in Tokyo, Hattori moved to the city of Hiroshima in 1940 due to her father’s job as a radio operator on ships carrying supplies for the military.

The atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 6, 1945, when Hattori was a nurse trainee at a military medical unit. She survived the attack unharmed, but as a girl who had just finished her secondary education, she at first could do nothing but shudder at the sight of patients whose faces were bloated, skin dangling and eyes popping out.

In her book, Hattori also recalled gasping when she saw a severely burned mother carrying a baby on her back and asking for help, unaware that the baby no longer had a head.

“As I quickly tried to take up the baby, I blurted out words I shouldn’t have: ‘Oh, no! The baby has no head!’ At that moment, the mother shrieked and died,” Hattori said in her book, a memory that continues to haunt her to this day.

Hattori’s family left Hiroshima in September the same year and moved around before settling back in Tokyo. They were sometimes shunned as “beggars” and spoken ill of as “lazy” even though they were just struggling with lethargy, a common symptom seen among people exposed to atomic bomb radiation. Her father died in 1946 apparently due to radiation-caused diseases.

Hattori has been frank about her private life, including having abortions amid fears of the impact of radiation on a baby. But she said in a recent interview that she has sometimes “forced” herself to speak on some issues, thinking that no one should ever have to suffer like her.

“It may not be right to blame war for what happened in my life . . . but I sometimes had to choose a path that was against my will and I want people to know life can change (due to war),” she said.

Over the past several decades, Hattori has engaged in efforts to share her experiences and call for the abolishment of nuclear weapons. Now in her mid-80s, she said she feels “a sense of urgency” to pass on her memories to as many people as possible and even joined in 2014 an around-the-world cruise trip organized by the civic group Peace Boat aimed at spreading the messages of hibakusha.

Ono said the new book is significant in that it contained Hattori’s current activities as an atomic bomb storyteller and her message upon the 70th anniversary of the bombings.

“The schedule for releasing the book was quite tight, but we thought it was very important to get this book out for the anniversary (in August). I also have the impression that Ms. Hattori is the last generation who can leave these kinds of books,” he said.

Bungeisha is not the only publisher that has paid attention to privately printed books on the atomic bombings that have been around for some time.

Shogakukan Inc., one of Japan’s major publishers, republished a book by Teiko Okuda — a woman who wandered the city of Hiroshima for eight days to look for her brother’s children in the aftermath of the devastating attack — that was first printed in 1979.

The book’s editor, Mitsuyo Imaida, said she learned late last year about Okuda’s original work and thought it was “unique” in that it was a diary recording the last words of children she met on the street who were on the brink of death due to the bombing.

“The voices of the children who later died are not something we can hear now. I was also moved by the children, who, like angels, cared for their other family members or people around them despite being in a painful situation themselves,” she said.

Imaida, 56, admitted that she first thought it might be difficult to publish Okuda’s book commercially because the author was virtually unknown and already dead. But she pushed for its publication, thinking this year could be the last to make it reachable to a wider audience.

The book is being sold under the title “Sora ga Akaku Yakete” (“The Sky Glowing Red”).

“As the number of people who can speak about their experiences decreases, I think these kinds of books will take on added significance,” she said.

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