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As the world struggles with COVID-19, Hiroshima marks the 75th anniversary of the first atomic bombing in history, which leveled the city on Aug. 6, 1945.

The metropolis that arose from the ashes reimagined itself as a “City of Peace,” and began promoting peace and nuclear disarmament around the globe.

However, while the coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on inbound tourism, it hasn’t slowed Hiroshima’s anti-war efforts nearly as much as one might think.

“Coronavirus is a bad thing and a sad thing, but it also gives us new things,” says Tomoko Watanabe, executive director of ANT-Hiroshima, a local group focused on peace-building and peace education founded in 1989.

ANT-Hiroshima doubled down on online outreach as conferences and travel plans fell through.

“I’m a super-analog woman,” says Watanabe. “But we now have the ANT Friends Instagram. And I even tried YouTube.”

Yet, as an official partner of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), ANT-Hiroshima boasted numerous international outreach programs prior to the rise of COVID-19, most of which remain largely unaffected by the pandemic.

For example, the group made a children’s picture book, Paper Crane Journey, which tells the story of Sadako Sasaki, the young A-bomb survivor who folded more than 1,000 origami cranes as she succumbed to leukemia 10 years after the bombing. ANT-Hiroshima has so far translated the book into 32 languages. Though available for sale, the group sends most copies to schools and youth organizations in war zones and disaster areas overseas.

The group also sends seeds and saplings from A-bombed trees as peace offerings through its partner, Green Legacy Hiroshima, and posts A-bomb testimonies online — both activities which remain unfazed by the pandemic.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum has also shifted its strategy in response to COVID-19.

“Our doors closed completely from Feb. 29 through May 3,” explains Katsunobu Hamaoka, the deputy director of the museum, which first opened in 1955. “So we made a YouTube channel and started uploading footage from our vast archive of A-bomb testimonies.”

The channel already boasts nearly 500 videos. The museum plans to add English subtitles to enhance international accessibility, but faces linguistic obstacles of a more domestic variety.

Katsunobu Hamaoka, deputy director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, says the process of transcribing old testimonies into modern Japanese and then other languages can be quite demanding. | PETER CHORDAS
Katsunobu Hamaoka, deputy director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, says the process of transcribing old testimonies into modern Japanese and then other languages can be quite demanding. | PETER CHORDAS

“Japanese sentences often don’t include a subject, so it isn’t always clear what’s being spoken about,” says Hamaoka. “And in older recordings, many survivors use an old and very thick form of the Hiroshima dialect. So in those cases we kind of have to translate them into Japanese first.”

As with ANT-Hiroshima, the museum’s international outreach efforts started long before the coronavirus reared its ugly head.

For the past 10 years, the museum has been offering live testimonies via videoconferencing platforms. Sessions include 45-minute presentations by A-bomb storytellers with a 15 minute Q&A. If there’s an interpreter, times become longer.

Intended primarily for schools and peace groups, online testimonies through the Peace Memorial Museum require a minimum of 10 participants, though multiple households can register together to meet the requirement. The application is available on the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum’s website.

Meanwhile, organizations that focused on Hiroshima’s immense pre-coronavirus ranks of overseas visitors have had to completely retool their activities.

“We haven’t been able to hold regular meetings, so we started using Zoom,” says Reiko Inaba, treasurer for Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, founded in 1984 to provide guided tours and translation services for activists, journalists, and other visitors to Hiroshima.

Reiko Inaba, treasurer for Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, says it is important to transmit the message and experiences of Hiroshima to the world. | PETER CHORDAS
Reiko Inaba, treasurer for Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace, says it is important to transmit the message and experiences of Hiroshima to the world. | PETER CHORDAS

But after COVID-19 flared up on the global stage, the group changed roles and now plans to livestream in English from the Peace Park for the 75th anniversary. Broadcasts will occur throughout the day with virtual tours of the Peace Park and testimonies from two A-bomb survivors.

Inaba welcomes the change.

“Speaking only with visitors to Hiroshima, it becomes easy to feel like everyone knows the facts about atomic bombs,” she says. “We have to bring Hiroshima’s message to people around the world who don’t know what will really happen if someone uses a nuclear weapon.”

Watanabe also sees the COVID-19 age as a catalyst for transformation.

“We can get a lot of inspiration from the coronavirus situation on how to change our society, our economy, and our relationships with one another,” she says. “The whole planet faces the same situation — not only with the pandemic, but also with climate change and nuclear war.”

Yet she fears that people often forget the latter of these threats.

“It fades from their minds,” Watanabe says. “So, how can we raise global consciousness of nuclear war? That is our mission as citizens of Hiroshima.”

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