From Hiroshima's ruins to a life of service in Seattle

A resilient middle-schooler burned in the Hiroshima atomic bombing 65 years ago this week, Akira 'Ken' Nakano became an outspoken, sometimes provocative advocate for peace.
Floating lanterns in Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 2009)

Floating lanterns in Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 2009) Pat Copeland

Akira "Ken" Nakano survived the bombing of Hiroshima as a middle-school student, going on to become a Boeing engineer and community leader in the Seattle area.

Akira "Ken" Nakano survived the bombing of Hiroshima as a middle-school student, going on to become a Boeing engineer and community leader in the Seattle area. Courtesy of Douglas Nakano

When Hiroshima marks the 65th anniversary of the world's first atomic bombing on Friday (Aug. 6), there will be sorrow, hope, and an ever-growing sense of angst about the inevitably dwindling numbers of survivors left to tell of the city's suffering. In Seattle and other places with concentrations of survivors, the effects of age and the ravages of diseases attributed to radiation exposure continue to catch up with those who lived through the U.S. bombings in Japan at the end of World War II.

Hiroshima's morning memorial will be a suitably solemn affair that will include enrolling the names of the hibakusha (the survivors) who have died during the past year, the laying of flowers by representatives of foreign governments, and brief speeches. This year alone, some 8,000 survivors of the two bombings have died. Among the roughly 227,000 still living, the average age is more than 76, according to a report in Hiroshima's daily paper, Chugoku Shimbun. In the evening on Aug. 6, there will be a colorful event, one essentially duplicated at Seattle's Green Lake each year, launching tiny floating paper lanterns with candles and hand-written messages, often wishing for peace or memorializing a particular survivor.

Last year, the newly deceased included one of Seattle's most active survivors, former Boeing engineer Akira "Ken" Nakano. A Japanese-American community leader on a wide range of issues, Nakano had been recognized with a Jefferson Award. Among other things, he had helped bring about the every-other-year visits of physicians from Hiroshima to Seattle to check on the health of survivors.

At the time of last year's memorial, I happened to be in Hiroshima for a research project focusing on the survivors and the wide-ranging efforts to keep their experiences alive. In some part, I was there because of Nakano and the inspiration he had given me over the years — pointing me to stories about Hiroshima survivors, talking about the history of Japanese Americans, and, as noted when he received the Jefferson in 1997, creating links among various people and communities. Those kinds of activities were how I first got to know him in 1986, when I was working on a series of stories about the survivors in Japan and here for The Herald of Everett; he put me in touch with all sorts of people.

Although his health had been declining, no one here had taken more interest in getting me ready to spend three months in Japan last year. We got together for lunch four times over, I believe, seven months. He gave me some books and documents about Hiroshima, oriented me toward some of the people to contact there and here, and discussed his experience and his views.

Talking about himself was not his favorite thing. He was warm, generous, cheerful, proud of the good family he and his wife, Ruth, had raised. But especially while he was still working, he was happier to point reporters toward other survivors than to sit and talk about himself. And I liked him so much that I was never eager to push him. A number of times over the years, I saw other writers come up with much better stories about him than I ever could have.

While outgoing, Nakano also spoke his mind, and he joked about how that trait sometimes got him in trouble. So perhaps it should not be surprising that, on the bombing of Hiroshima, one of the central experiences of his life, he was not afraid to risk political ire.

In June 2008, he told me that he thought the bombing of Hiroshima had saved a lot of lives. That is the prevailing view among Americans, to be sure, but it certainly isn't in Hiroshima. Indeed, it can be so upsetting to survivors that I debated whether to mention the statement here, at least without checking my notes one more time, until I spotted a 1995 Seattle Times interview where he said the bombing was necessary to end the war.


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