By VERONICA TOYOMI OTA
Featuring haiku poems by YASUHIKO SHIGEMOTO
That day, that time –
This year it seems especially difficult to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pandemic casts a shadow on our everyday lives. It burdens us mentally, physically, and psychologically, while it invisibly saps away at our reservoir of resilience. The advent of the virus also brought with it a unique power to skew our past and shape our future. Our pre-COVID lives now seem quite distant and we doubt that our post-COVID lives will ever be the same.
Seventy-five years ago, an event similarly caused an irrevocable, worldwide change that would forever alter everything to come after. In August of 1945, the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombs were designed to indiscriminately kill human beings and annihilate entire cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were researched, selected, and studied (for years to come) as experimental nuclear bomb test cases.
Although most of us are too young to have been alive in 1945, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a division in the history of mankind and marked the beginning of a new era, the Nuclear Age. In the decades that followed, Cold War tensions worsened and wars backed by the major nuclear powers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., erupted on multiple continents. The threat of nuclear annihilation plagued the entire world.
Baby Boomers like my parents grew up with atomic-bomb drills in schools. They knew that nuclear destruction was just a phone call away. They believed a red button could be pushed that would set off a nuclear holocaust with the power to end all life on the planet. However, in the generations that followed, the U.S.S.R. began to collapse, the Cold War fizzled out, and the fear of nuclear warfare receded and lost significance.
Yet there are still thousands of nuclear weapons stored around the globe and there are still countries fighting to establish themselves as nuclear powers to this very day. The reality is that nuclear destruction still threatens our entire planet but we live our lives without thinking of it much. Perhaps the issue has simply been diluted in a world threatened by climate change, in a country ravaged by gun violence, in communities struggling with homelessness, in homes broken by the all-too-busy, all-too-impersonal, fast-paced technological age.
Not knowing Hiroshima,
float paper lanterns
Many Millennials like myself and Zoomers like my former students are angry at the world we’ve inherited. We resent people who came before us for not solving problems, and in most cases, for making them worse. Much of this anger has been channeled into powerful movements for social change.
Greta Thunberg symbolically speaks for young people in demanding leaders to take climate change seriously. The Black Lives Matter movement has resurfaced stronger than ever, calling for police to be held accountable for violence against black and brown bodies, introducing alternatives to policing, and telling us all to examine our own biases and complicity in systemic racism. The LGBTQIA+ community and allies are fighting for equality and calling out trans and homophobia. The students of Parkland reignited the debate on gun rights in America. We’ve seen multiple years of women’s marches in cities around the country, and witnessed real-life implications of the #MeToo movement for many (but not all) perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault.
These are all unquestionably important causes that resonate with me deeply, yet I cannot and will not forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear warfare isn’t making headlines in 2020, but I feel a responsibility to try to make you remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well.
I first visited Hiroshima in 2013. My life can also be divided into pre and post visiting Hiroshima. I left the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum a changed person. I refused to silently accept living in a world filled with nuclear weapons. I couldn’t think that all those people died and suffered in vain. The collective voice of the hibakusha called for nuclear disarmament. I couldn’t forget their stories or ignore their cries for change.
Sunset’s glow –
As if still burning
For my senior honors thesis at Tufts University, I translated and compiled a collection of haiku poetry written by hibakusha, survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was not an easy topic to grapple with, but I was motivated by a desire to share these powerful haiku with an English-speaking audience.
I also researched the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world, and was shocked to learn of the implications of nuclear testing and by the statistics surrounding the money spent to develop, test, maintain, and dismantle these monstrous bombs. This information also needed to be shared.
While researching and collecting poems to translate, I miraculously got in contact with one of the hibakusha poets whose work I was translating, an 85-year-old survivor named Mr. Yasuhiko Shigemoto. After graduating, I had the life-changing opportunity to visit Hiroshima and meet Mr. Shigemoto in person to present him with a copy of my completed thesis. Mr. Shigemoto told me that I gave him hope and asked me to never stop working to make the world a more peaceful place. This was my calling.
Birds chirping –
Was this the atomic blast center?
Is it really so?
I worry — with everything going on right now, will we even notice that it’s Aug. 6 or Aug. 9? Will something that happened 75 years ago even affect us? Because even in the pre-COVID days of hugs and visible smiles, most people thought I was naïve or at least overly optimistic to believe that a nuclear-free world was possible. Yet, if they thought I was crazy, I think they’re even crazier! It amazes me that people are content to live in a world with nuclear weapons.
Some argue that this is really an issue of the past, since no bombs have been dropped since Nagasaki. I didn’t feel that this issue was in the past when I was awoken in my apartment in Yoshida, Japan on Aug. 29, 2017 by sirens and announcements that North Korea tested a missile that flew over the island of Hokkaido.
Other people rely on the belief that assured mutual destruction will keep us from actually destroying anything, as if it is logical to believe that if two people both have guns, it makes it less likely that anyone will get shot. Two guns make gunshots a lot more possible and probable than no guns (but that’s another issue unto itself).
Others cling to the self-righteous belief that we, “the good guys,” need weapons to protect ourselves from them, “the bad guys.” The Us-Them mentality is the foundation for violence and injustice; it’s time to realize everything is interconnected. At the end of the day, is it so outrageous to believe that we ALL deserve to live in a world without the threat of nuclear destruction?
If we actually make a concerned, concerted, and committed effort to dismantling the global nuclear arsenal, we can do a lot of good for all the social justice causes that are fighting to create a more equitable and just world. If we champion a world free from the threat of nuclear annihilation, we are affirming that Black, Brown, Transgender, Queer, old, young, animal, plant, and life itself matters!
How much money would be saved if we weren’t paying for the upkeep, maintenance, and ongoing research and development of nuclear weapons? (CNN reports the U.S. spent $35.4 billion, and a collective $72.9 billion worldwide). How could this money that was and is being spent on weapons of mass destruction be redirected to promote education, protect our environment, and provide communities with new opportunities for growth, healing, and reconciliation?
If we hold our leaders accountable and force them to work with one another to peacefully disarm nuclear weapons stockpiled around the planet, think of the political implications. Could we establish a unified goal and foster trust on a global political level? Hasn’t the coronavirus pandemic helped us to realize the importance of working together?
Although we may not believe that we have the agency to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons, why are there massive stockpiles of these weapons in the first place? Mankind was capable of creating the tools of its own undoing, and now we must roll up our sleeves and own up to this problem that we’ve swept under the rug for the past 75 years. We have so many problems to tackle, but we are the only ones who can solve them.
Educate yourself. Learn more about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, and worldwide proliferation. Add nuclear disarmament to the list of things you are calling your elected officials about. Get your mayor to join Mayors for Peace. Join ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons). Add your name to the petitions calling for the end of nuclear weapons. Talk to your friends and family about why we all deserve to live in a world free from the threat of nuclear annihilation. Imagine what the post-COVID, post-nuclear world will look like.
is everyone’s home
Veronica Ota is an educator, musician, and peace advocate. She graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a degree in international literary and visual studies. She received the department award and highest thesis honors for her work, “Embracing Sorrow: Japan’s Atomic Haiku.” She works as an outreach program coordinator at First Presbyterian Church of Altadena, and is currently applying to dual degree masters programs at theological seminaries to obtain a Masters in Divinity and Masters in Social Work. She aspires to work in ministry dedicated to social justice, community activism, and peace building.
For more resources on nuclear disarmament: https://bit.ly/NuclearDisarmamentResources