By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
A commemoration of the 72nd anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings on Aug. 5 in Little Tokyo also focused on a more recent catastrophe — the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima — and those still living with the after-effects.
The gathering in Frances Hashimoto Plaza included the ringing of a “peace bell” and the release of doves at 4:15 p.m., timed to coincide with the annual observance in Hiroshima, where it was 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6 — the moment when the A-bomb was dropped in 1945. George Abe played the flute.
Rev. Peter Hata of Higashi Honganji explained that the bell came from Bishop Noriaki Ito’s cousin, whose temple is on the outskirts of Hiroshima. “Somehow this bell survived the atomic bomb, so I think it’s particularly significant today.”
Tsukuru Fors of the Fukushima Support Committee noted, “People in Hiroshima and all over Japan, and as a matter of fact all over the world, are offering prayers.”
Chanting was also conducted by Rev. Ryuzen Hayashi of Koyasan Buddhist Temple, who stressed, “When we remember anything [about]the deceased, our ancestors, they’re still living in our heart.”
Michiko Kato was living in Fukushima with her 2-year, 9-month-old son when the earthquake and tsunami damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on March 11, 2011. While staying at a shelter, she and others heard about the radiation but weren’t given all the details. She told her story, with Fors providing English translation:
“The level of radiation in the area at the time was 50 microsieverts per hour. Later I found out that with that level of radiation, the entire population of 300,000 in Fukushima city should have been evacuated. The mayor fled the area, leaving the uninformed citizens behind.
“On March 15, the water came back … But we didn’t know that the water was contaminated. Without knowing, we were bathing, washing clothes and cooking with radioactive water … I was drinking water from the faucet and having my son drink from it too … Many people lined up outside for many hours at the time to get drinking water, gasoline and food … A mother who lived at the same apartment complex called the city and was told that there was nothing to worry about since we lived 37 miles away from the nuclear power plant …
“The U.S. government had chartered a plane to evacuate American citizens who lived within a 50-mile radius of the nuclear power plant. My estranged husband is American and my son is a U.S. citizen, so I inquired at the embassy right away, but the charter plane had left already and I was told that I had to pay my own way …
“One month after the quake, my father-in-law sent us some money so my son and I could be evacuated to the States, just for three months on a tourist visa. Three months later when we got back to Fukushima, the radiation level was still high. We were told not to go outside, nor were we allowed to eat any food crops grown in the area. In the summer heat, children were going to school with long-sleeved shirts, long pants and masks.”
Rather than prioritizing decontamination, she said, the government should have been evacuating children from the area, where the incidence of child thyroid cancer is higher than normal. “People were begging the government to evacuate children, but their pleas were ignored. If children were to leave the area, their mothers go with them. If they find work where they relocate, they’ll never come back to Fukushima. With less people living in Fukushima, the government would have less tax income. It’s as if children were being held hostage.”
She moved back to the U.S. and became a permanent resident, then was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “I underwent surgery to have both my ovaries and uterus removed. When I woke up from the surgery, the world felt like hell. For the first time in my life I came face to face with death.”
The excruciating pain made her despondent, “but I was a mother of 5-year-old son. I could not leave him alone in this world … I was thrust into early menopause. Cold sweat was one of the symptoms. Everything I saw, everything I touched made me cry. But that was not the end … The doctor told me I needed to undergo chemo just in case.”
Kato was in no condition to take care of her son, “but many people supported me. I’ve never felt so deeply and profoundly touched by people’s kindness. Every day, friends sent me words of encouragement by phone and email. Some friends took turns delivering meals. I even found a babysitter for free … I am filled with gratitude for all who helped our family in our darkest days.”
She is worried about those who remain in Fukushima. “I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like to live every day with constant fear. Is it okay to drink this water? Is this food safe? We are haunted by this man-made monster.”
Kato concluded, “I would like to ask people here in the U.S. to help us raise awareness of the situation in Fukushima. The nuclear disaster that started in 2011 is far from over, and you should know Fukushima radiation has been detected on the West Coast. To create a world where all future children can live without fear of radiation, I’d like all of us to demand a nuclear-free world.”
Hiroshima Survivor Speaks
Speaking on behalf of Hiroshima survivors was Rev. Haruyoshi (Harry) Fujimoto, who was 14 when the bomb was dropped. A stroke of luck saved his life: “I was waiting for the train to Hiroshima. The train was delayed by the air raid alarm. I thought it might be too late see my sister, who was a training nurse in a hospital in the center of the city. So I gave up … and headed to the motor pool of a trucking company I was assigned to.
“As soon as I got into the upstairs classroom of the motor pool for the morning lecture, I was struck by a violent light and a loud blast that followed. I was thrown into the darkness … Somehow I got out of the darkness and debris and found myself running away on the roofs of collapsed houses and coming out on the street. I screamed for help at a truck … They heard me and picked me up and we came to a nearby hospital, but we received no help because the hospital was in total confusion …
“It took me more than five hours to go back [home]. Weary and exhausted, I survived. A few days later, I went into a ruined city that had turned into debris and ashes, still burning here and there … I tried to find my sister. I looked and looked but couldn’t find her.
“In my total despair, I cried out … I looked for revenge. My early teen years were spent with a bitter resentment toward those who dropped the bomb. They killed my sister, my relatives and my friends. So I hated Americans.”
Influenced by a Bible verse about praying for one’s enemies, Fujimoto was baptized at age 19. “Yet my resentment against those who dropped the bomb was not easily resolved. … I understood that we should forgive one another, but unfortunately my anger rose up whenever I heard justifications for dropping the atomic bomb.”
Another Bible verse — “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. For in so doing, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads” — convinced him that “I was wrong to live a life of vengeance. I must live a life of forgiveness and reconciliation … Vengeance becomes a vicious cycle of destruction. This vicious cycle is at work even now, today killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people.”
While working in Hiroshima for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, Fujimoto saw statistics showing that many people who had the same amount of radiation exposure as him had died from leukemia. “I looked at it and marveled at my survival … Now I knew I was not living for myself but was made to live as a witness of the genocide and atrocity of the atomic bomb. I felt I was called to ministry for peace.”
Fujimoto, the author of “The Way Down to Gaza: The Autobiography of a Hibakusha Minister,” said, “Let us repent of revenge, brutality and war. Let us pursue forgiveness and peace for our children and our children’s children.”
Dr. Dickson Yagi, an Okinawan American who was born to a Buddhist family in Hawaii and spent 30 years in Japan as a Baptist missionary, noted that Hiroshima survivors called the bomb “pika-don” — a blinding flash of light followed by the roar of thunder.
“The heat melted bodies and bones. The light was so severe that it burned a silhouette of human beings onto the sidewalk. The heat melted five fingers into one claw of scar tissue,” he said. “… My friend’s sister was covered in radiation … It took her two weeks to die at home. She sang Christian hymns as she weakened in bed. Radiation caused unquenchable thirst. She cried ‘Mizu, mizu’ [Water, water].”
Noting that the first hydrogen bomb was 500 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, Yagi said, “May human beings never experience pika-don again. We pray also for the victims of the triple disaster of Fukushima — earthquake, tidal wave and the disabled nuclear reactor leaking thousands of tons of water with extreme levels of deadly radiation. For our children and our children’s children, may God, all Buddhas … have mercy on us all.”
Helping the Children
Fors, who grew up in Hiroshima, recalled, “We were always told that there’s wartime use of nuclear and peacetime use of nuclear. Looking back … we were fooled by this logic, by this rhetoric that there’s peacetime use of nuclear. I don’t think there is … A lot of people here share that opinion as well. Because what’s happening in Fukushima right now, six years later, the fact is that decommissioning of the plant … hasn’t progressed, and contamination of the area continues without much media attention.”
She announced a fundraising drive for Hettsui House (Hettsui no Ie), a summer retreat center for Fukushima children funded and operated by Hisao Seki, a poet, musician and Fukushima evacuee. (Hettsui is an old-style Japanese cooking fireplace.) Located on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, it enables the children to play outdoors in a pristine natural environment. They also experience communal living and learn how to live sustainably.
Artist and activist David Monkawa announced that in order to address the continuing problems caused by Fukushima radiation, “We have a petition to the U.N. … It’s being signed by millions and millions of people all over the world … It says, ‘Listen, Japan and TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the nuclear plant] … You all don’t have it together, so we need experts from all over the world … to come in and intervene.’”
Attendees lined up to give donations and sign the petition.
The event was co-presented by San Fernando Valley JACL, Progressive Asian Network for Action, Chatsworth West United Methodist Church, Little Tokyo for Peace, Council for Pacific Asian Theology, and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development. For more information, email [email protected] or visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/334755083611990/.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)