Kaz Suyeishi, Advocate for Hibakusha, Dies at 90

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

“No more Hiroshima. No more Nagasaki. No more hibakusha. No more any war.”

Mary Kazuye Suyeishi, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, would have the audience repeat these words with her whenever she gave a presentation about her experiences.

Kaz Suyeishi shines a light for world peace in a photo taken in 2007. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

The Torrance resident, known to her friends as Kaz, passed away suddenly from a heart attack at home before dawn on June 12 at the age of 90.

For decades, she worked to assist her fellow hibakusha (Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors) in the U.S. and to promote peace. She served as president of the American Society of Hiroshima/Nagasaki A-bomb Survivors and was commissioned by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a “special communicator for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Born on Jan. 26, 1927 in Pasadena, Suyeishi was taken by her parents back to their homeland, Hiroshima, when she was 9 months old and went to school there.

During the war, major Japanese cities, including Tokyo, were heavily damaged by conventional U.S. bombs. But Hiroshima and other possible targets for the A-bombs were left untouched because the U.S. military wanted to test nuclear weapons on intact cities.

So Suyeishi, then 18, was not alarmed when she saw the Enola Gay, the B-29 that was carrying the bomb code-named Little Boy. “It was a most beautiful, beautiful airplane,” she recalled during an appearance with other local hibakusha in Torrance last year. “… In Hiroshima, the American airplanes used to come almost every day but they never dropped any bomb … Not only myself, [but]a lot of people, when the airplane come, they look out the window and feel just like ‘Good morning.’”

But the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 was different. Suyeishi stopped to talk to a friend in front of her house and saw a white spot in the sky — the bomb dropping with a parachute attached, to be detonated above the city. She pointed it out to her friend and said, “What is that?” Then there was a “sudden, powerful flash” and she lost consciousness.

When she came to, seriously injured by the collapse of her house, there was an eerie silence. She saw many burned and bleeding people and could hear children in the distance crying out, “Mommy, mommy.”

Later, she encountered a group of about 25 frightened kindergarteners being comforted by their teacher, who told them, “Be patient. Mommy will come after you.” But the next day they were all dead.

Suyeishi lamented the loss of so many people, especially the children. By some estimates, up to 146,000 people died in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki, about half of them in the blasts and the other half in the months that followed due to radiation sickness.

At the same time, she emphasized that she was not blaming the U.S., saying, “Peace has to be with love … World is one family. We are one family.”

After the war, Suyeishi returned to the U.S. and got married. She became vice president of the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors in the U.S. (CABS) and began to speak publicly about her experiences.

Kaz Suyeishi speaks at the annual Hiroshima-Nagasaki commemoration at Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo in August 2016 to mark the 71st anniversary of the bombings. (MARIO R. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“A lot of people say … ‘Why do you have to remember? Why do you have to talk [about it]all the time?’” she recalled. But her belief was that putting a human face on what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an important part of peace education.

Suyeishi and her fellow hibakusha were concerned that their exposure to radiation could result in cancer and other diseases even decades later, and those who had children feared that the effects could be passed on to the next generation.

The U.S. hibakusha — Nisei who lived in Japan during the war or post-war immigrants — lobbied for government aid in the late ’60s and early ’70s but were turned down. Hibakusha could receive free medical care in Japan, but many of those in the U.S. did not have the means to travel to Japan on a regular basis.

Suyeishi met with Japan’s minister of health in 1976 and petitioned for medical relief for all hibakusha in the U.S. She asked that hibakusha certificates issued by the Japanese government be made available at Japanese consulates in the U.S. and that a team of doctors specializing in radiation-related ailments visit the U.S. to examine hibakusha and their children on an ongoing basis.

Since 1977, a medical team has visited Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu every other year.

Junji Sarashina, a fellow Hiroshima survivor and an organizer of the visits, said of Suyeishi, “She tried very hard to assist and protect the atomic bomb survivors in the United States. She endeavored in establishing the method of having a medical examination by the Hiroshima-ken Medical Association and also by the Japanese Ministry of Welfare and Labor. She personally contacted the Japanese government, Hiroshima mayor, and Hiroshima governor. To this date, we still have the medical examinations by the Japanese doctors … We’re thankful for her contribution.”

Suyeishi joined the American Society of Hiroshima-Nagasaki A-bomb Survivors (ASA) when it was organized in 1992 and later became its president, holding that post until her death.

She gave a speech at the United Nations in 2011 and received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, from Emperor Akihito in 2012 for contributing to the promotion of understanding of the anti-nuclear position and advancing the welfare of hibakusha in the U.S.

At a luncheon for Kunsho recipients the following year, Suyeishi said, “I never did all by myself — so many people supported me.”

Suyeishi visited many local high schools and Japanese language schools to share her story, and sometimes had speaking engagements outside of California. Every August, she participated in ASA’s memorial service for A-bomb victims at Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo.

She went to Hiroshima for the 70th anniversary commemoration in 2015 and was gratified that President Obama visited Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and met with hibakusha in May 2016.

Suyeishi’s experiences were the basis for an award-winning short animated film, “Hibakusha” (2012), directed by Steve Nguyen and Choz Belen and produced by Iconic Films, the Documentary Channel (USA), and Studio APA. In the film, Suyeishi is interviewed by a local television station in 1985 on the 40th anniversary of the bombing. When Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, says he wouldn’t hesitate to drop the bomb again given similar circumstances, Suyeishi is stunned and relives the tragic events of Aug. 6, 1945.

“Love, Peace and Kindness”

“Kaz-san personifies peace, love and kindness,” said Richard Fukuhara of the Shadows for Peace project. “I have been fortunate to share some personal time with Kaz-san. Earlier this year, she called me asking if I could help her renew her passport. ‘Of course,’ I responded. ‘I just renewed mine last month.’ We drove to have her photo taken and then to the post office. There was a gentleman in front of us. He and Kaz-san began talking. A few minutes later, she, the gentleman from South America, and the counter lady were talking about their travels. Kaz-san had magnetism to bring people together.

“On March 17 this year, at our LBJCC [Long Beach Japanese Community Center] Peace Forum, the Nori Tani Trio performed ‘What a Wonderful World.’ Kaz-san stood up, began singing, softly clapping, and throwing kisses to the trio. Everyone felt her joy. She will be deeply missed. Let us carry on her legacy of peace, love and kindness.”

Kaz Suyeishi spoke at Long Beach City College in March. (Photo by Richard Fukuhara)

Robert Horsting, co-producer of Shadows for Peace, added, “I will always remember her warm and loving spirit. She was a great ambassador for the hibakusha community through her willingness to share her personal experience and the message that if any entity is foolish enough to use a nuclear weapon, there will be no winners. Communication based on a love for all living things is the only way to maintain peace and work for harmony.

“As one blossom fades, another emerges to remind us of the beauty that preceded it.”

“Suyeishi-san was the soul of ASA,” said Darrell Miho, one of ASA’s directors. “She was one of the co-founders … and she is the one who traveled around the country talking about her experience and spreading our message of peace. She believed we need to love one another. Love is what we needed, not war.

“On a personal note, I spent a couple of days with her in Hiroshima during cherry blossom season at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. She was happy to be there, despite her horrible experience as an atomic bomb survivor. Despite the tragedy she witnessed, it is amazing to me that someone who lost so much was still able to be happy and see the good things in life.”

Services will be held on Friday, June 23, at 2 p.m. at Gardena Buddhist Church, 1517 W. 166th St. in Gardena. The chief mourner will be her daughter, Christiane Takeuchi. Other survivors include son-in-law, Neff Takeuchi; grandsons, Michael and Robert; brother-in-law in Japan, Shozo Tanaka; nieces and nephews.

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