In Search of the Whole Picture: Being with Nagasaki and Hiroshima- Natalija Vojno, Class XIX

Statue of girl featuring names of countries from around the world in Nagasaki

As a Bosnian-Canadian, a human of this Earth, I felt called to pay respects to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is sorrow and a sense of collective responsibility that drove me to understand what happened and why.

During the ICU Rotary Peace Seminar in April, we heard directly from Hibakusha, Ms. Keiko Ogura and Prof. Robert Jacobs of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, and learned that current nuclear weapons are exponentially more powerful than the ones that destroyed the two cities. We were reminded of the impact of nuclear waste on present and future generations. Given current global tensions and the normalization of nuclear weapons, spaces to consider the human and more-than-human consequences of nuclear stockpiles in the world are vital.

Bearing witness to the past and present of both cities became an imperative, but time was constrained. The four of us in Class XIX were scheduled to graduate in late June and my return flight was booked for early July.  I arrived in Tokyo in April following a year of online studies and dove into the thesis process with breaks exploring life in and around the Nogawa river. Regardless of the time, leaving without understanding a formative aspect of Japan’s modern history was unthinkable.

One of the many reasons I had chosen the ICU Rotary Peace Center was the opportunity to be immersed in the history and culture of Japan. A drive to acquire a holistic understanding of peace guided me to know this half of Earth. And so, I arrived with more questions than answers. What happened here during the warring period of the early 19th century? What parallels if any could I draw to the experiences of my own ancestors in the Balkans? What can be learned?

Weighing the trade-offs and advice given, I ultimately booked a train ride straight to Nagasaki. Few make the long trip to the island of Kyushu to visit the city of hidden Christians nestled among the hills. Some might not even know that this was the place where the second atomic bomb was dropped on a civilian population. Along the way I notice cranes, working alongside the farmers, they flank the side of tractors. Terraced rice fields and lush forests. Japan is greener than I imagined.

My Airbnb host is kind, a second-generation hibakusha who serves delicious breakfasts with peppers and persimmons from his garden. The city is now bustling, children head to school, and life is cradled beautifully by the valley. Nagasaki’s history and future extend beyond the dropping of a uranium-enriched atomic bomb on August 9th. The harbour greeted Portuguese ships in the 16th century and led to the arrival of St. Francis Xavier, Christians worshipped in secret for centuries, and the world recognized Nagasaki University School of Medicine leads cancer research and produces humanitarians. I learn of the generous heart of Dr. Takashi Nagai.

Being present in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki a thought arises, “what does the world remember and what has the world forgotten?”

Excerpt from Paule Saviano’s photography exhibition in Nagasaki “From Above”

The role of memory in peace, justice, and reconciliation was captured by Rotary Peace Fellow Sabina. Here, I will build upon her piece to explore how the way we remember can inform a future in which Nagasaki is the last city to experience the horrors of an atomic bomb. Spending several days in each city, a complex picture emerged of not just what happened but the diverse narratives explaining why.

Walking down towards the atomic bombing hypocentre in Nagasaki the slope leads through a void towards concentric circles to the spot that unleashed the death of 73,884 people and injured 74,909. Many more were left homeless and subject to health impairments as a result of radiation. Lives had unfolded in what was now a vast empty expanse. The hollow space where houses had stood is a container for grief and prayer. The remains of the former Urakami Catholic Cathedral were placed to the right and the stone lanterns of the Tennozan Honnin Shotokuji Temple were to the left of the stark black monument of the hypocentre. Behind, and off to the side, a statue of a mother and child enveloped by the enlivened foliage of trees drew my attention; it is one, among many, that is the subject of controversy. Life had returned but it remains necessary to remember that 70% of the victims of the atomic blast were women, children, and the elderly. Prisoners of war, forced labourers, and residents of other ethnicities such as European, Chinese and Korean also died. In Hiroshima, an estimated 70,000 to 135,000 people died from the blasts and from long-term side effects of radiation. The population there was similarly diverse.

Nagasaki atomic bombing hypocentre monument with the ruins of Urakami Cathedral.
50th Anniversary Commemorative Projects Monument

It is difficult to shake the impact the atomic bombs have had. The stories are horrific. Water morphed into a tool of death as black rain filled with radiation began to fall. Each personal story is horrifying. One story of a mother’s love and agonizing wounds brings me to tears. Black rice from 14-year-old Satoko Tutsumi’s lunch box is an inverse of the sustenance that nature offers – a permanent reminder of the fires that followed. The words of a Tokyo pottery artist echo through my head as my eyes fix on the stacks of ceramic roof tiles fused into a pile and scorched, “burned clay cannot be returned to the Earth.” Beneath our feet, sand was poured to bury those who were not found. Horror lurches in the shadow of our conscience, but brought to the light we see what monsters we make from the ordinary.

Both the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum exhibit timelines of war and peace mobilization. One video catches my eye that speaks of the rise of fascism and the simultaneous silencing of voices that sounded out against the war.

Clip of film shown in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

Now, monuments for peace are everywhere in both cities. Walking toward the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum you encounter many monuments adorned with thousands of brightly coloured cranes, these 千羽鶴 (senbazuru) included many wishes and prayers for peace.

Nagasaki monument for Korean victims of the atomic bomb

One memorial, for Korean Atomic Victims, documents 31,000 Koreans living around Nagasaki, 10,000 of whom were killed in the nuclear attack. The sign was erected in the 1970s and its font has begun to fade. Later I learn that it was the Japanese Lutheran Reverand Oka Masaharu, who in 1979 established the monument through the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Koreans Living in Japan. The Nagasaki Peace Museum bears his name and houses stories of the forced conscription of Chinese and Korean people; imperial invasion; the 1910 annexation of Korea; the 1894 Sino-Japanese war; the Chongqing bombing of 1939; the violent Nanjing occupation in 1937 (known as the Nanjing Massacre); comfort women; and calls for apologies and compensation as part of the process for repairing relationships and rebuilding trust.

The reason a museum about peace in Japan presents these stories is to hold space to mourn all of the victims. As Rotary Peace Fellows we are taught about the concept of positive peace – it is more than the absence of violence but the presence of justice. And, much like there are varied understandings of peace, justice can be distributive, retributive, or transformative.

Taking in all of these stories and reflecting on current events, I begin to feel the need for us humans to realize that death is death and that we are the lesser when even a single life is viciously extinguished. Until we come to grieve losses collectively we cannot experience peace.

Hiroshima monument for Korean victims of the atomic bomb

During the 1970s in Hiroshima, a monument paying respects to Korean victims of the plutonium-based atomic bomb dropped on August 6th, 1945 was erected by the Hiroshima Prefectural Branch of the Organization of Korean Residents in Japan. The day I visited, so too did Japanese school children who quietly stood by the space that honours the lives of Korean victims of the a-bomb.

In Nagasaki, the next generation is advocating for a world without war and nuclear weapons.  The Nagasaki Youth Delegation and residents prepare to build upon the incredible success of the Hibakusha that saw the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) enter into force. By chance, I am there the week before the first meeting of the parties to TPNW.

It would turn out that as a nation, Japan would not attend to observe the meeting. Realistic strategies of peace are conceived of in terms of militarized notions of security under the nuclear umbrella. When will positive peace be seen as a strategic priority?

Environmental threats and nuclear threats are linked according to research that found that climate change and water scarcity will increase risk of nuclear catastrophe in South Asia. Elsewhere, coal chokes the skies, mines strip mountainsides, and water is polluted. Many of our industrial systems are so harmful to life. Yet change will need to be at the pace of dialogue and agreement. The question is whether our leaders will see taking action for the sake of the wellbeing of life on the planet as being strategic or a realistic need?

I think of the wealth that funded the Manhattan Project in 1942 to harness nuclear fission technology for the purpose of developing powerful bombs. A new generation investing with their values in renewables and regeneration gives me hope.

The impact of dangerous radioactive particles was extended to millions of people that Dr. Jacobs has termed the global hibakusha. The world over, from the Marshall Islands to the four corners area of the United States, humans have been exposed to radiation and suffer sickness and forced displacement as a result. Damage to the Earth is eventually felt by all life here. We are all connected.

The world is now saddened by the loss of a leader like Abe who understood the value of relationships and building spaces for dialogue. What happened was shocking in a nation that has some of the strongest gun restrictions in the world. Japan taught me about harmony through every moment of every day. Children can safely walk to school alone, the social contract is strong, and consciousness extends beyond the self. The opportunity to witness these stories and think strategically about peace is something that I will forever be grateful for and remember as I continue with the work of environmental peacebuilding.

As heat waves and floods grip the planet over, I think of the water that flows through all life; of our shared challenges as humans on this Earth. I stood by the fountain of prayers and watched the water rise to the sky.

Hiroshima Spring of Prayers