Meiko Kurihara was a 19-year-old mobilized student at Toyo Kogyo (now Mazda Motor Corp.) when the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
Now 92 and living in a nursing home in Hiroshima, Kurihara remembers being badly hurt by flying glass from the blast. Despite her injuries, she tended to the wounded who managed to escape the city’s center, only to do little more than watch them die.
As the inferno caused by the bomb prevented her from entering the city, it was not until Aug. 7 that she was able to return to her burned-down house within.
Her mother, Kaneko, and her sister, Shoko, had evacuated to a nearby village to avoid air raids. But her father, Ken, had been working in the city as an eye doctor at Hiroshima Prefectural Hospital.
Worried about her father, the second-year student at Hiroshima Jogakuin Senmon Gakko wandered around the city looking for him. She came across scores of dead and injured on the road, but went on, trying not to get upset by the scene.
Unable to find her father, she used a cinder to scrawl the words “Meiko is fine” on a fire cistern before continuing on to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital to look for him there.
On the way, she froze when she came across a black object. When she picked it, she found that it was warm and, from the shape of the head and hands, she realized it was a baby. It was then that, for the first time, she was hit by grief.
It was when she was feeling down for being unable to find her father that she came across a friend from the Hiroshima University of Literature and Science (now Hiroshima University), across the street.
Shedding tears, they embraced and then entered the school, where her friend introduced her to six Southeast Asian students who had come to study at the university.
The foreign students caught up in the bombing included those from what are now Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Kurihara spent a week at the university with these students after the bombing.
At the time, the six were living together in the dormitory known as Konan-ryo. They reassured Kurihara that she didn’t have to be afraid anymore, which made her feel comfortable.
She had seen them enjoying the cool evening breeze near the dormitory before, but this was the first time she had spoken to them. That evening they ate boiled potatoes together on the school playground and slept there in the open air.
On Aug. 8, Kurihara found her mother at the wreckage of their home, where she had come with the students to search for food.
Still unable to find her father, Kurihara started spending her days searching for him, staying at the campus at night.
Whenever she returned without success, the students helped lift her spirits by telling her not to give up. The students grew to love Kurihara’s mother and called her okāsan, meaning mother in Japanese. Kurihara imagined that they keenly missed their own mothers and she felt very sorry for them, but they shared some good times together and their presence was greatly encouraging.
During that time, Kurihara heard the students had pulled a female student from the river bank onto a raft to save her, but unfortunately, the girl and the raft drifted away. They also went to a food distribution station for Kurihara.
Despite being caught up in this terrible event in a foreign country, they all did what they could to help others. In the evening, she was comforted by the sound of a violin they retrieved from the dormitory.
Kurihara and the students stayed together until Aug. 14, just a day before Japan surrendered.
After the war, Kurihara moved to the village of Kuji, where she came down with radiation sickness resulting from her exposure to the fallout. The inside of her mouth became inflamed and her hair fell out. She was terrified that she would die. While sick in bed, her mother went on searching for her father and eventually learned he had perished after being trapped in a collapsed building at Hiroshima Prefectural Hospital.
When winter came, Kurihara returned to school, working part-time to make ends meet.
After graduating, she began working for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, a U.S. government agency aimed at researching the effects of the Hiroshima A-bomb, in 1948.
The stable income helped her lead a financially better life. But reflecting on the 21 years she worked there, she felt deeply conflicted because the organization was affiliated with the country that destroyed Hiroshima.
In talking about her experience, Kurihara says what lingers most strongly in her mind are the Southeast Asian students she stayed with. Unfortunately, though, two of them died from radiation exposure, one in Kyoto after leaving the university and just before he was to return to his country.
When she speaks about her war experience, Kurihara makes sure to include the students so they won’t be forgotten.
“I hope that those who listen to my account will remember the young Southeast Asian students who tried to help the people of Hiroshima despite being exposed to the atomic bomb themselves,” she said.
This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on March 5.