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Daughters of the bomb: my reckoning with Hiroshima, 75 years later via The Guardian

Erika Hayasaki for Narratively

On the 75th anniversary of the A-bomb, a Japanese American writer speaks to one of the last living survivors – and traces connections from Malcolm X to the fight to end nuclear war

I keep a red file folder, its edges faded from nearly three decades of exposure to dust and light. Inside, the title words I typed in 1991: “The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima.” It is the first research paper I ever wrote. Tucked inside of the folder’s front flap are three stapled index cards, each with reference titles written in smudged pencil. The first book listed is the one that mattered to me most: the journalist John Hersey’s 1946 nonfiction classic Hiroshima. The book’s scenes, vivid and wrenching, are lodged inside my memory. Particularly this one, about the Rev Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pulling bomb victims from a sand pit: “He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces.”

Hersey introduced me to Mr Tanimoto, a man who wore his hair parted down the middle and moved through crowds of mangled, dying people, bringing water and apologizing: “Excuse me for having no burden like yours.” At a time when Japanese people were roundly excoriated in the US, portrayed as demons, yellow monkeys, and savages deserving of death, one historian claimed Hersey’s book transformed “subhuman Japs back into Japanese human beings”. His omniscient, controlled voice felt godlike and all-knowing, free from authorial editorializing. He was hailed as a writer who “let ‘Hiroshima’ speak for itself”.

When I first read the book in 1991, I was struggling to make sense of my place among some Americans who still – 46 years after the bomb – saw someone like me as subhuman. I was a child with a Japanese immigrant father (he was born three years after the bomb) and a white mother. I grew up in a small midwestern town as one of only a handful of Asians. There was name-calling: “Chink.” “Gook.” “Jap.” There were days when white kids threw rocks at me on the playground or recited the all-too-common phrase: “Go back to where you came from.” Being anti-Asian was an easy fallback for your garden-variety middle school bullies. I have memories of hiding in a blue paint-chipped bathroom stall, wondering what was wrong with me.

[…]

Reading Hiroshima, I learned how Mr Tanimoto ran to look for his wife and baby, encountering hundreds of fleeing people along the way. “Many were naked or in shreds of clothing,” Hersey wrote. “On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns – of undershirt straps and suspenders.” The shapes of flowers from kimonos seared on to their skin.

My personal torment suddenly fit into a context of racism and war. Classes at school did not teach me about the internment of Japanese Americans, nor about all of the rest of the groups deemed subhuman. So, as a teenager, I went searching for more books that did.

[…]

It was through my grandfather’s stories that I also learned more about my grandmother’s brother, Jim, a graduate student of the University of Wisconsin who studied nuclear physics. Jim had been recruited right out of college to work on a top-secret project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Years later, the family would come to find out what Jim had been working on all of that time: the Manhattan Project. My American great-uncle, as it turned out, helped build the very same atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima, and three days later, Nagasaki.

[…]

Kondo had lived in the US during the height of the civil rights movement, first at a junior college in New Jersey, and then as a student at American University in Washington, DC. She learned about freedom protests for Black Americans, and she came to admire the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, who wrote: “The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.”

Kondo realized her own calling when it came to social justice was to take on the legacy of Hiroshima. She decided she did not just want to see nuclear weapons controlled or curtailed. She wanted them abolished. And she knew that for as long as she still had her voice, she would continue to tell their story – Hiroshima’s story – to anyone who would listen. Today, Kondo has one unequivocal pursuit: a nuclear-weapon–free world. “For the sake of the children,” she told me.

[…]

Martin Luther King called for the abolition of nuclear weapons, linking the idea to racial harmony: “We must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a positive contest to harness man’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace.”

[…]

In 1964, the JapaneseAmerican activist Yuri Kochiyama invited a group of hibakusha to her Harlem apartment. She also invited Malcolm X, who surprised everyone when he showed up and knocked on the door. “You have been scarred by the atom bomb,” he told the Japanese survivors. “You just saw that we have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.”

 Yuri Kochiyama with two civil rights activists. Kochiyama fought for Latino, African American, Native American and Asian American civil rights and causes. She held weekly open houses for activists in her Harlem apartment. Photograph: Courtesy US National Park Service/Narratively
Eight months later, Malcolm X was gunned down in a ballroom in New York. Kochiyama had developed a friendship with him and was in the ballroom when he was shot. As others fled, she rushed toward him, picking up his head and putting it in her lap, begging him to stay alive.

[…]

Today, the nuclear weapons system is still sanctioned by structures of white supremacy and power, under claims of safety and self-defense. It continues to protect those in power, while nuclear testing harms people of color around the world, contaminating food and water resources and exposing residents to radiation. In the 1960s, France conducted nuclear tests in the Sahara Desert in Algeria, and in French Polynesia until 1996. There has been little to no compensation for victims of those tests. The US also conducted nuclear tests in the South Pacific, to the detriment of impoverished indigenous populations.

In Washington state, the Spokane tribe of Indians has long suffered from health and environmental damage due to a uranium mine for nuclear weapons, which closed in 1981, though cleanup did not begin until 2017. Native American tribes in close proximity to the Hanford site in Washington State, a decommissioned nuclear production complex, were also exposed to radioactive contamination. And a birth study of the Navajo Nation, which spans Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, found that 27% of those tested had high levels of uranium in their urine, decades after the nuclear weapons mines were closed.

Read more at Daughters of the bomb: my reckoning with Hiroshima, 75 years later

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