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

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. Credit: 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.

But, somewhat similarly, I have heard survivors say that it helped them get over their bitterness about the bombing to realize that, if Japan had developed an atomic bomb, it would have used it. Whatever their historical views, the survivors tend to take a couple of lessons. First, in terms of the big picture, they see war itself as the enemy (a sign outside Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard on Wednesday said the same thing, in hand-lettered fashion: “War is the problem”) and we have to find ways to resolve our differences peacefully. And, most urgently, they believe that nuclear weapons must be eliminated — not only because of the danger of mass annihilation but, on a smaller scale, the risk of recreating the horrendous suffering they’ve endured, in scars, health fears, and increased incidence of various cancers and other diseases.

Nakano was as passionate as anyone I’ve known about keeping the memories of Hiroshima alive, to teach the world about the necessity of what the peace movement refers to as “no more Hiroshimas, no more Nagasakis.” When we sat down at an Eastside Japanese restaurant he liked, Momoya, for the first of our discussions as I prepared for last year’s trip, he immediately talked about how happy he was that Hiroshima had done so much to build memorials to the dead, so that young people from all over the world would see.

He was also sensitive to the moral implications of bombing civilians. While saying that the bomb had ultimately saved many lives, Nakano, whose English was then somewhat rough (he had suffered a stroke), also said the bombing had been a “mistake. In America, you don’t do that kind of civilian thing.”

But he had experienced the kind of enthusiasm for military action that helped keep Japan in the war so long. He had been born in this country but was adopted into a Japanese family that moved back to Japan, to farm just outside of Hiroshima, when he was around the age of 6. He became, as he told me, a “military boy. A lot of people don’t say that. But I don’t mind. It was true, history.”

He felt that the widespread training of civilians, including women and middle-school students like himself, was dead serious preparation for all-out resistance to an American invasion. There are complex arguments over the history, what kind of resistance might have occurred, and whether there were ways that more creative diplomacy, on all sides, might have avoided the utter human disaster at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it happened, and Nakano was there.

He was about a mile and a quarter from the bomb’s explosion, waiting on a military facility’s grounds with other middle-school students to go to work in a sweet-potato field. Most students had no classes to attend, having been assigned to do “volunteer” work in civilian aspects of the war effort. He was lucky, he recalled, not to be in demolition work to clear fire lanes in the center of the city; thousands of students his age were fatally injured there, close to the explosion.

He was knocked down and burned. He made his way home on foot, perhaps six miles, he said, and his mother “had American medicine (and) put it on” his burns. She also put a bandage on his face, which was swollen. Someone who had just returned from Tokyo had a vitamin shot that he gave the injured boy.

Incredibly, perhaps, although it sounded exactly like the resilient person I knew, the next day Nakano made his way into the still-burning city to his school, thinking that was what would be expected. No one, of course, was around. He remembered spending a lot of time fishing before school finally resumed in September.

It happened that I didn’t learn of Nakano’s death, in March of last year, until two months later, just before I left Seattle for Hiroshima. I remember the sense of loss catching me several times in Japan, sometimes making me pause and pray silently. I don’t remember specifically praying about him as I sat at the Aug. 6 memorial service, but I’m sure he was on my mind.

That night, as I waited for the ceremony floating candles on the river that flows by Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, I debated with myself whether I could write his name respectably enough in Japanese to put it on a floating lantern. My wife thinks I did go ahead and do something, probably in simplified writing, but I can’t pinpoint it specifically in my mind.

Perhaps such uncertainty is appropriate. The survivors can’t know for sure that their witnessing the hell of atomic war will lead people away from another such catastrophe, one likely much worse. But many keep working for peace with incredible stamina.

As I prepared for my trip last year, I asked Nakano if the bombing had provided a lesson for the world that would prevent nuclear war. “I don’t know,” he said. Hiroshima, he said, does a lot to educate people. “But other countries,” he said, “they are talking about themselves only, like North Korea.”

No one knows the answer. But Nakano was one of many who have done so much to tell the world about the bombings, and millions have picked up on their message. In Hiroshima, many younger people have followed with various efforts to advocate for peace, collect survivors’ memories, and even give dramatic readings of their testimonies. Maybe, over time, the effforts of the survivors, their families, and their supporters — in Japan, here, and around the world — will help push the world over the top, to some kind of complete nuclear disarmament, which would be the most fitting memorial of all.

Read more about:

Share On:
Support Crosscut