Hiroshima Survivor Recounts Experiences at Memorial Service

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The commemoration service at Koyasan Buddhist Temple included a display of photos showing the impact of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The horrors that followed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima were recounted on Aug. 4 at Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin of Los Angeles during the 74th commemorative service for atomic bomb victims.

The temple and the American Society of Hiroshima-Nagasaki A-Bomb Survivors (ASA) traditionally hold the service on or near the anniversary dates of Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9).

ASA President Junji Sarashina recalled “the orange flash and the explosion … The whole city of Hiroshima started to burn. Three days later, Nagasaki. We lost 70,000 people in Nagasaki. In Hiroshima, 120,000 people perished. I happened to be one of the survivors.”

The officiant was Bishop Junkun Imamura, assisted by Rev. Ryuzen Hayashi and Rev. Daichi Kihara. The service included chanting by the ministers and Koyasan Eiyu-kai, and incense offering by the congregation.

Imamura explained that the purpose of the service was twofold: “To pray for the souls of the victims [so that they]may rest in peace. Second, to continue to appeal to the people for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Because the Japanese people were the first to experience … nuclear bombs, I think it’s their duty to advocate for the abolishment of nuclear weapons.”

On the altar was the Hiroshima Peace Flame, which will burn until the world is free of nuclear weapons. Candlelight offerings were made by Hajime Mukai of Hiroshima Kenjinkai, Yoshiko Kawada of L.A. Nagasaki-kai, Hiroko Nakano of ASA, and Kenneth T. Ito of Koyasan.

The guest speaker was Howard Kakita, an ASA member who has shared his experiences with youth and community organizations to promote peace education.

From Boyle Heights to Hiroshima

Howard Kakita survived the bombing along with his brother and grandparents despite being close to the hypocenter.

Born in Boyle Heights, he went to Hiroshima in 1940 when he was 7½ with his parents and his 9-year-old brother Kenny. His mother gave birth to his younger brother, Albert, during their stay. The purpose was to visit his grandfather, who was ill and was not expected to live much longer.

“My grandfather’s health improved considerably,” Kakita said. “As it turned out, he was suffering from depression because all of his boys, four of them, were in the United States … Anyway, when we got there, we had a wonderful time.”

When it came time for his family to return home, “My father thought … maybe he’ll sell his business in Boyle Heights and then come back to Japan to take care of Grandfather. Now to show good faith that he was going to return to Japan, he left his two older sons, that’s my older brother Kenny and myself, in care of my grandparents, and they returned to United States with this grand plan.”

With outbreak of war between Japan and the U.S., Kakita and his brother were stuck in Japan while his family in the U.S. was incarcerated in Poston, Ariz.

Kakita described what happened on Aug. 6, 1945: “It was a beautiful Monday morning. The sun was shining … School was canceled because of enemy aircraft … So happily we came home, changed into our play clothes and when the air raid siren went off, that was just around eight o’clock that morning, my brother and I … jumped on top of the roof and we were looking for the vapor trail … Every time you had an air raid, at least in the daytime, we were looking for the vapor trails. That used to be kind of fun.

“My grandmother … told us to get the hell off the roof … My grandmother went back into the kitchen to wash dishes. I came down and went underneath the bath house. We had a separate structure for the bath. Then the bomb went off.

“People that were in the outskirts, maybe a mile or two away, they definitely saw this huge flash … Then a huge percussion came afterwards. But we were so close that the percussion and the flash were simultaneous … I was knocked down instantaneously and thrown a number of feet from where I was probably standing. And when I came to, and I’m not sure exactly how long I was out … everything was collapsed on top of me …

“Happily, I was not seriously injured, so I dug myself out and walked into the courtyard where our house used to be. Kenny … had a slight little burn on his forehead from the radiation, but nothing serious … Unfortunately, my grandmother was still in the kitchen, buried underneath the house/

“She was evidently standing very close to the window and the initial blast propelled dozens of small pieces of glass into her body. She was bleeding pretty badly, but nothing fatal … My grandfather and some of the other men were digging her out and I’m happy she was able to survive that blast … She was mobile and in fairly good shape considering the situation she was in.

“All we thought at that time … is that a bomb fell on us, an ordinary bomb, not realizing the extent of the damage. Meanwhile that particular ares was beginning to burn, the flames were coming up. My grandfather told my grandmother to take the kids out towards the river and we headed north towards the mountain area, where it was still not burning so bad. So my grandmother, badly hurt as she was, took us by the hand …

Kaoru Nakahara was a special guest from Hiroshima.

“There were hundreds, probably, of people already trying to escape the fire in the inner city, heading up towards the mountain. The people that we saw were so badly hurt you can’t believe it. Some with broken bones, some with guts hanging from their stomach, trying to hold it back. And many with very serious burns on their bodies where the skin would be dripping from their bodies …

“Many had already died on the road and many were already just about ready to die. The people who were about ready to die, they asked for water, but the soldiers that were patrolling that area said, ‘Don’t give them any water because they will die.’ But there was no water to give.

“I’m not sure exactly how long it took us to escape that area. It could have been an hour, it could have been two hours, it could have been five, six hours. But we traveled down the riverbank and then went north and basically we were searching for area that was not burning. Finally we came to an area where the train was still running … and we were able to escape to my grandmother’s relatives’ house.”

Discussing the larger picture, Kakita said, “Within the one hour of the blast, 50,000 to 70,000 people died. By the end of that particular year … the number of dead would be twice that many, and by the end of that decade … the number would reach anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000.

“I give you a wide range of numbers because no one really knows how many died, but they know that [it was]more than 100,000, maybe something less than 200,000. That’s a pretty phenomenal number to comprehend.”

Kakita, his brother and their grandparents later returned to where their home used to be. “It was really devastating to see that nothing was there … Everything was flat. Everything that could be combustable burned. The only thing that remained was cement, sheet metal, rocks, earth … What was really bad was the bodies of the people were still there. The smell of decomposition, the grotesqueness of the bodies and the smell of cremation …

“During that period, food was scarce … Luckily we had some relatives that lived in the outskirts that would provide us with some food that they could spare,” Kakita recalled. “We also got pretty ill … We had probably radiation poisoning. We had dysentery for a number of days or weeks. We lost our hair … But we did survive.”

His stateside family read about Hiroshima in the newspaper. A map showing rings expanding outward from the hypocenter showed that the family home was in the zone of total destruction. “They initiated a search through two of the various organizations that were available to them. They told me that it wasn’t until three or four months later that they got word from the American Red Cross that we had survived. So you can imagine the terror that my parents must have gone during that period.”

Bishop Junkun Imamura conducted the memorial service.

Having spent so many years with their grandparents, the Kakita brothers were reluctant to return to Los Angeles. “So we raised holy hell before they were able to put us on the ship. But in March of 1948, they somehow got us on the ship from Yokohama and we came back to the United States.”

The reunited family lived in the Bunker Hill area, which Kakita said was considered a slum at the time. “I have to credit my parents for their patience and understanding in making our transition to the stateside world. We had no language skills. We were probably kind of rascalish because we got into a lot of fights, but somehow they raised us.

“In the meantime, I had recurring nightmares for the first 10 years after I returned. I had an eating disorder and then I couldn’t eat anything that had any kind of red in it, like rare meat … However, by 1955, all of these bad memories started to dissipate as I talked more about my experiences to other people … Maybe I’ve grown out of the terror that I witnessed.”

While the Hiroshima bomb was the most powerful weapon in the world at the time, “it’s very small relative to what’s available now … Having gone through the experience that I did, I cannot imagine the government or a group of people that would use nuclear weapons on another civilization. That’s unthinkable. Yet, today’s global climate is that of escalation and it’s not getting any better. So I worry about that. And I think everyone in the world should be worried about that.

“I’m sharing my story with you, as other hibakushas have done before me, to perhaps mitigate the future proliferation of nuclear weapon and perhaps stop nuclear war altogether.”

Special Guests

Attendees paid their respects in front of the Hiroshima Peace Flame.

Sarashina introduced special guests, including Jessica Renshaw, daughter of Dr. Earle Reynolds, who was sent to Hiroshima by the Atomic Energy Commission. “The victims, close to 5,000 kids, were examined by her father. While she was in Hiroshima, they decided to build a yacht, the Phoenix of Hiroshima, which traveled around the world, mostly the Pacific Ocean. When she was 14 years old, she went along with her brother and mother Barbara to Bikini, the South Pacific area where the United States was experimenting with hydrogen bombs.

“When the Phoenix of Hiroshima entered the forbidden zone, her father … was arrested. He was one of the pioneers of the anti-nuclear movement.”

Another special guest was Kaoru Nakahara of Nakahara Creative Productions in Hiroshima, representing the Garden of Us.

“They have a rose garden in Hiroshima, approximately 200 yards away from Peace Park, which means it’s 400 yards from the hypocenter where the A-bomb exploded 74 years ago,” Sarashina said, explaining that the garden marks the location of Honkawa Shogakkou, “a grade school for kids, first to sixth grade, about 7 to 12 years old. Two persons survived; 440 kids and teachers perished.

“She works with the Peace Park … Omotenashi Kai, welcoming committee. The mayor’s wife is also involved … When you go to Hiroshima, look them up. They will help you any way they can.”

The Garden of Us is a sister garden to Hollywood resident Gail Cottman’s Garden of Oz. Cottman created the garden in Japan in honor of a friend who survived the Hiroshima bombing.

Nakahara gave a speech in Japanese describing her work with ASA members in developing peace studies for children.

ASA President Junji Sarashina is a Hiroshima survivor.

ASA member Gloria Saller said, “We would like to acknowledge how, for the first time in many, many years, a good friend of ours is not here — Richard Fukuhara … He would be here taking pictures. He was a very active member of the Los Angeles community in peace education and promoting peace activities. Richard left us suddenly last December. So we miss him today, but he will always be in our hearts.”

Saller also announced that an exhibition titled “Under the Mushroom Cloud: The Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Experience” will open in November at the Japanese American National Museum and will include the experiences of Japanese American hibakusha like Sarashina and Kakita.

Event co-chair Darrell Miho showed a certificate of appreciation that ASA received from the City of Los Angeles last year. “Physicians for Social Responsibility in L.A. were the ones that actually mentioned us to the City Council, and as a result we were presented with this certificate,” he noted.

Miho also thanked Sarashina for braving the Arizona heat by traveling to Phoenix in July to address the Mensa organization.

Other speakers included event co-chair Midori Seino and ASA member Taeko Okabe.

Before and after the program, attendees viewed several panels showing photos and illustrations of the aftermath of the atomic bombings.

A larger crowd is expected at next year’s 75th anniversary service.

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

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