A pair of atomic bomb survivors from Nagasaki have been passing on their experiences using traditional storytelling techniques, as part of efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Hiroshi Suenaga, 82, a survivor of the 1945 U.S. attack on the city, has documented survivors’ stories using kamishibai (paper drama) — a form of narrative-driven performance art that uses paper picture boards. He has put on shows at elementary, junior high and high schools in Japan.
His first kamishibai, titled “No More Hibakusha,” is about the life of activist Senji Yamaguchi, who died in July 2013 at age 82.
A leading figure in Japan’s anti-nuclear arms movement, Yamaguchi served as chairman of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations for nearly three decades through 2010.
The kamishibai highlights when Suenaga became the first survivor to speak at a United Nations session on disarmament, in 1982.
In one scene, Yamaguchi shouts “No more hibakusha!” during his speech, while showing a photo of himself with severe scarring on his face and body — from the massive burns he suffered as a 14-year-old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 9, 1945.
Yukio Inoue, 85, another Nagasaki hibakusha, also contributed drawings to the work.
Inoue began drawing pictures about the atomic bombing after he learned that students he was teaching some 35 years ago at a junior high school to the east of the city had little knowledge about what had unfolded.
Inoue was at home in Nagasaki when the city was bombed. He and many others evacuated and sought refuge in a park in the city’s Urakami area.
Among them was a woman with charred hair and clothing, and an elderly man with severe burns to his face.
All the people he saw smelled of gunpowder, Inoue said.
“A boy who was in first or second grade was staggering along unaccompanied,” Inoue recalled. “I still can’t forget the boy’s empty eyes.”
After transferring to a junior high school in Nagasaki, Inoue met Suenaga who was teaching social studies there. The encounter led to their joint kamishibai production.
In September 2017 Suenaga visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine together with Yoshino Oishi, a 74-year-old photojournalist known for her work in war-torn countries.
In the world’s worst commercial nuclear plant disaster, the plant’s unit 4 exploded in April 1986. The explosion spread contaminants widely in areas of the former Soviet Union that are now Belarus and far western Russia, with radiation forcing some 330,000 people to permanently relocate.
Suenaga remained stoic during the visit, his grim expression captured when Oishi turned her camera his way as he stood in front of the ill-fated reactor.
Calling for the abolition of all nuclear-related activities, Suenaga has long been opposed to atomic power because he believes it is basically the same as nuclear weapons and poses similar risks.
At an observation deck that offers a view of the now steel-encased unit 4, a spokeswoman at the plant explained to visitors how the accident, in which many workers lost their lives, unfolded.
When asked by Suenaga what she thinks of nuclear power plants still in operation, however, a spokeswoman said, “As far as the use of nuclear energy goes, I’m all for it.”
“I was surprised by what she said while talking about the catastrophic accident,” Suenaga said.
Oishi also said, “I couldn’t contain the anger I felt hearing her give impassive approval of nuclear power generation.”
Oishi expressed admiration for the two survivors’ efforts to convey their horrific experiences using the easy-to-understand medium of kamishibai, which was a form of Japanese street theater and storytelling that was popular during the depression of the 1930s and in the postwar period in Japan. “I believe Mr. Inoue’s memory gives his pictures a sense of presence and generates tremendous impact,” she said.