NAGASAKI – Mutsuko Yoshida is eager to gather as many details and facts as possible as a storyteller. But when it comes to accounts of hibakusha, she knows a certain line has to be drawn.
As she gathers stories by talking with atomic bomb survivors, Yoshida understands the intricate and personal nature of their experiences and how sharing them with her is a big decision on their part.
Her important mission, she says, is to serve as a bridge between aging survivors and people born after the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki leading up to Japan’s surrender in World War II.
At 76, Yoshida, who is not an atomic bomb survivor herself, is taking on a new challenge: going overseas to share the story of a hibakusha in English.
In what will be Nagasaki’s first international dispatch of an English-speaking storyteller of a hibakusha’s story, she will travel to Portugal in late September for a series of gatherings in three cities that she, along with local officials, hopes will inject momentum into the drive to eliminate nuclear weapons.
“We tend to think getting burned or injured is symbolic of the suffering of the atomic bombing but that is not all,” Yoshida said.
“Those who had radiation exposure afterwards have also continued to live with the fear of not knowing what would happen and with their inner struggles.”
She plans to share the story of a male hibakusha who, at age 9, was not near the hypocenter in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing on Aug. 9 but was exposed to radiation in the following days. The bombing killed an estimated 74,000 people by the end of 1945.
Through her storytelling, Yoshida hopes to help deepen understanding abroad of what an atomic bomb can do to ordinary people.
The term hibakusha refers not just to atomic bomb survivors but also to people who entered a 2-kilometer radius of ground zero within two weeks of the respective bombings.
Survivors who try to pass the baton to future generations say sharing their stories is not always easy despite its increasing urgency.
The extent to which each survivor has suffered from the atomic bombings — directly or indirectly — varies. And to atomic bomb survivors, it means exposing themselves, and often their family members, by talking about what happened.
“It’s true that there are hibakusha who do not want to share everything that happened. The person may want to share it but doing so might also involve their family members and put them in the spotlight too,” Yoshida said.
This year marked the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki three days later. As of March, nearly 155,000 atomic bomb survivors lived in Japan, according to government data. People who entered a 2-kilometer zone during the two-week period following the bombings and have been recognized as hibakusha accounted for less than a quarter of the total. The average age of hibakusha now stands at 82.06, prompting officials and citizens to deeply consider how their experiences can be shared and remembered.
Nagasaki has been training people to become storytellers on behalf of hibakusha and sending Yoshida to Portugal is a critical step into new territory.
“The hope is to give people outside Japan something to think about,” said an official in Nagasaki involved in the project. “If more people understand the realities of the atomic bombing, it could lead to international efforts toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.”
Nagasaki and the Portuguese city of Porto marked the 40th anniversary of their sister-city relationship this year and Yoshida’s trip will come less than two months after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a native of Lisbon, became the first chief of the international body to attend Nagasaki’s annual memorial ceremony.
Making their case for a world free of nuclear weapons, the mayors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima both touched on the influence that civil society can generate during the respective ceremonies in the two cities.
Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue stressed the importance of learning from history and listening to accounts of wartime experiences.
“There are many things that each and every one of us can do to help bring about the realization of a peaceful world,” Taue said in his peace declaration during the Aug. 9 ceremony.
Ahead of her trip, Yoshida, a former English teacher, is spending hours trying to figure out how best to get her message across as she puts the finishing touches on her roughly 30-minute performance.
She is feeling the weight of her responsibility as a messenger.
“I speak for hibakusha, not myself,” she said. “But my message is that an atomic bomb, once used, makes people suffer for years and years. You can’t put a period to it.”