As A-bomb sur­vivors age, Ja­panese pass on sto­ry­telling to young


On a re­cent week­end, an 84-year-old sur­vivor of the Na­gasaki atomic bomb­ing re­traced his move­ments on a map: the inferno dur­ing his 20-kilo­me­ter (12-mile) walk home, the “black rain” of fall­ing ra­dioac­tive par­ti­cles and how he felt sick days later.

His au­di­ence of eight lis­tened in­tently, some ask­ing ques­tions and tak­ing notes. They hope to tell his story to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions af­ter he is gone, to take their lis­ten­ers to the scene on Aug. 9, 1945, the way Shigeyuki Kat­sura saw and felt it.

In a gov­ern­ment-or­ga­nized pro­gram in the western Tokyo sub­urb of Kunitachi, 20 trainees rang­ing from their 20s to their 70s are study­ing wartime history, tak­ing public speech lessons from a TV an­chor and hear­ing sto­ries from Kat­sura and another Kunitachi res­i­dent who sur­vived Hiroshima.

“It’s been 70 years since the bomb­ings, and we sur­vivors are get­ting old. Time is lim­ited and we must hurry,” said Terumi Tanaka, the 83-year-old head of a na­tional group, the Tokyo-based Ja­pan Con­fed­er­a­tion of A and H Bomb Suf­fer­ers’ Or­ga­ni­za­tions.

In a way, they are go­ing back­ward in this dig­i­tal age, learn­ing face-to-face from their el­ders in or­der to carry on a sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion. It is not un­like Kabuki ac­tors in­her­it­ing their se­niors’ stage names and per­form­ing their sig­na­ture pieces.

The same sto­ries may be in video and text on the In­ter­net, but or­ga­niz­ers feel that in-per­son sto­ry­telling adds an in­valu­able hu­man touch.

The Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bomb­ing in Hiroshima killed about 140,000 peo­ple from in­juries and im­me­di­ate ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion within five months, and another one dropped on Na­gasaki three days later killed 73,000. The death toll linked to the at­tacks and their ra­di­a­tion ef­fects has since risen to 460,000, with the num­ber of sur­vivors de­clin­ing to some 183,000, ac­cord­ing to the latest gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics.

Most sur­vivors live in Hiroshima and Na­gasaki. Kat­sura said about 20 sur­vivors live in Kunitachi, but only a few, in­clud­ing him­self, are healthy enough to make public ap­pear­ances.

Tanaka, a re­tired en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor, sur­vived Na­gasaki but lost five rel­a­tives there when he was 13. He said it would be al­most im­pos­si­ble for sto­ry­tellers to de­scribe the hor­rors as vividly as the sur­vivors, but hopes their imag­i­na­tion, com­pas­sion and com­mit­ment to peace will make up for any short­fall.

Mika Shimizu, a 32-year-old high school teacher, hopes to do just that, by putting a sur­vivor’s ex­pe­ri­ence in lan­guage her peers and oth­ers as young as her stu­dents can re­late to.

“Even if we hear the same story, the way each of us retell it would be dif­fer­ent, be­cause we all have dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ties,” she said.

Another trainee, Sachiko Mat­sushita, missed her chance to find out di­rectly from her fa­ther, who hid his ex­po­sure in Na­gasaki for most of his life, and largely kept the story to him­self. Ini­tially she wanted to re­visit her fa­ther’s path, but now is de­voted to pass­ing on Kat­sura’s.

“I’d much rather hear the sto­ries di­rectly from peo­ple, and pass them on to peo­ple,” the 47-year- old com­pany worker said.

Kat­sura was 14 when he and his school­mates, put to work for the war ef­fort, were de­liv­er­ing a cart­ful of weapons parts from school to a fac­tory when the “Fat Man” plu­to­nium bomb ex­ploded over Na­gasaki.

“Hav­ing wit­nessed what the man-made nu­clear weapon did to hu­mans, I must con­demn it as ab­so­lutely wrong, and the mis­take should never be re­peated,” he said. “That’s what drives me to tell my story, and I’ll con­tinue to do so as long as I live.”

The course in Kunitachi is mod­eled on one started in Hiroshima in 2012. The first group of 50 Hiroshima sto­ry­tellers de­buted this year, with some 150 oth­ers un­der­way.

Kunitachi of­fi­cial Mamiko Ogawa said sto­ry­telling re­quires a deep un­der­stand­ing of both the his­tor­i­cal back­ground and the sur­vivors’ emo­tions, along with a touch of the teller’s per­son­al­ity. That’s what makes it dif­fer­ent from dig­i­tal ar­chives.

“I think the sto­ries are best con­veyed when told by real peo­ple,” she said. “I hope the trainees would fully ab­sorb the sur­vivors’ ex­pe­ri­ence and feel­ings, so they can tell the sto­ries us­ing their own sen­si­bil­i­ties.”


Shigeyuki Kat­sura, an 84-year-old sur­vivor of the Na­gasaki atomic bomb­ing, speaks dur­ing an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press in the western Tokyo sub­urb of Kunitachi, Satur­day, July 25.

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