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Column: A Conversation with a Survivor of Hiroshima (Letters from Japan, Part 5)

This spring Mr. Thompson is a visiting professor at Osaka University of Commerce. This is the fifth of his"Letters from Japan."

A conversation in a cab

I met Keiko in the museum café where we shared a coffee and a light lunch. My brother was visiting me for a week and I brought him along. We were also joined by an English speaking volunteer guide who had given us a walking tour of the memorial park.

Keiko had been hired as an interpreter for a speech I was making that afternoon to the Prefecture Association of Pachinko Parlor owners.

Keiko told me that she was anxious to meet me following our brief telephone conversation two days before. In that exchange she asked me if I was looking forward to seeing Miyajima, a nearby island park with a shrine and deer running about. The park was one of three “special” places in Japan considered world heritage sights.

I wanted to tread softly but I stumbled ahead with the words, begging that she not take them as an offense, though they may have seemed offensive. I told her I knew the park was beautiful, but I had seen it before, and when I did I was not wanting to see a beautiful park, and that I had been bothered that I had been taken there as I wasted valuable time. I was given but an hour to see the memorial park. I told her I wanted to see Hiroshima not a beautiful park—that the world was full of beautiful parks, but that there was only one Hiroshima . I added my opinion that all Americans should come to Hiroshima, that perhaps we should make it a “Mecca” thing. She said that she was very impressed by my thoughts. I did not consider myself to be impressive at this place.

We took a cab from the museum to the Century 21 hotel where I presented my talk.

As we got into the cab, we laughed and traded barbs about my brother's and my gray hair, and somehow our birth years were revealed. Coincidence—Keiko, like my brother, had been born in 1937. It only took a second and it hit me. She had told us at lunch that she was a native of Hiroshima. I thought, “Oh My goodness.” I didn't want to ask. She sensed my expression, and she said, “I am a survivor.” I wanted to know, but I did not want to be intrusive. She answered my questions without my having to ask them. She volunteered just a bit of her story.

Keiko was eight years old. Her house was 2.4 kilometers away. She said she was at home in her front yard. The house stood between her and the city. The house shielded her from the flash. Her older brother was at the side of the house. He had run outside when he heard the engines. He loved airplanes. He was yelling, “It's a B-29, it's a B-29.” Then he saw the plane and he was excited. Moments later he saw a tiny speck, an object, fall from the plane. He was taking a physics class at school, so he carefully followed the arc of the object as it fell, and he figured the trajectory as the bomb stayed under the flight path of the plane.

The flash gave serious burns to his face. I asked about his eyes. Keiko said that because it was a sunny day her brother had his hands above his eyes to block out the glare of the sun. His hands protected his eyes. He also survived as did members of her family inside the house.

The house was on the road going out of the city. Keiko remembers so many hurt people walking from the city and passing by her house. Many were injured very badly and her family brought them into her house. She saw so many people die in her house that day and in the next days. Keiko also has stark memories of bodies, bodies and more bodies dead in a river that was not far from her house.

Keiko offered her opinion about the bombing. Maybe her ideas should receive some consideration and careful thought. She believes that the intent of the bomb that fell on her city was NOT to end the war. The American military command and its civilian leadership frantically rushed to drop the second bomb. They wanted that bomb to fall BEFORE the Japan could surrender. She points out that the first bomb was a uranium bomb, and it had been tested before. But the second bomb mechanism—it was a plutonium bomb—had never been tested, and the Americans wanted to see how it would work, so it was important that the first bomb NOT end the war. So much for the quest for knowledge—maybe another result of the Garden of Eden thing.

Over the years—now 59 years—Keiko has joined together with others in organized appeals to ban nuclear weapons, their testing, and their proliferation. She has given her testimony to many committees including ones at the United Nations. And she visited the Smithsonian museum with a Japanese delegation when the Enola Gay was put on public display.

She laughed nervously as she told about that day. She recalls that she walked in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum door and her eye caught just a glimpse of the wing of the B-29. She says she felt a terrible fear cover all over her, and she began crying.

An American friend came and held her in her arms, but she just kept crying and crying. She had never reacted that way during all the times she had presented her testimony and her experiences. A photographer and a television camera caught her image, but she was unaware of their presence. That evening she called her daughter in Japan to tell her of the events of the day, but her daughter told her, “I know where you were, it was all on international television.” Several guests at her hotel came up to her the next day. She had also appeared on the front page of the Washington Post.

SHE told ME, that she had felt ashamed. I felt rather small. Then I gave my speech and she interpreted. As I write this I am on the Shinkansen—the bullet train, bound for Nagasaki . I think I have a duty to go there.