Best of 2015: Atomic bomb survivors on a quest for peace

Imori husband and wife

Kiyoko and Hiroteru Imori in their Yokohama apartment in 2009.

This week Crosscut is running some of our best stories of the year, as selected both by our writers and by popularity with readers. We will resume our original content next week. 

The survivors of the atomic bombings on Japan, known as "hibakusha" in Japanese, have led calls for peace, disarmament and nuclear abolition. After reporting on the survivors several times over my career, I returned to the cities for three months in 2009 under a Fulbright research grant to explore the survivors and their work for peace. This year I published a book on their powerful legacy, Peace Quest: The Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Below is an excerpt.

In the elementary school near where my wife and I lived in Hiroshima a few years ago, Kiyoko Imori was one of the few students to survive the atomic bombing. And she has endured all the decades of uncertainty and, at times, isolation that followed. She’s been by far the longest-lived of all the students and teachers at Honkawa Elementary School.

She has long been in fragile health with conditions likely associated with her radiation exposure, but she was sharp, lively and cheerful when I met her at her longtime Yokohama home in 2009.

Imori has since suffered worsening health challenges, and became bedridden after being hospitalized with pneumonia in October 2013, according to Hiroshima’s daily paper, the Chugoku Shimbun, in 2014. The reporter wrote, “Perhaps on account of her physical condition, Ms. Imori occasionally spoke in a detached manner about the events of August 6, 1945.” I remember parts of our conversation that way but she was also engaging. And there were limits to what she recalled from more than six decades earlier, but also powerful details and wit. The Hiroshima reporter’s interview seemed to catch something else I remember: the devotion and sometimes-playful interplay between Imori (whose maiden name was Tsutsui) and her husband, Hiroteru. There’s a picture with both of them smiling and holding hands with a caption saying that her spouse responded to her praise of his care for her by saying, “You’ll outlive me.”

I got to meet Imori because of living near the elementary school where she had been a student. A parent from the neighborhood told me about her; after some checking, the parent, a friend and the leader of a peace group helped put me in contact with her.

Imori was living in Yokohama, where she had moved many years earlier. Since turning 40, she has had recurring bouts with cancer and suffered from a variety of health ailments, but she was focused, pleasant and energetic as we talked that afternoon. And she quickly began talking about the events of August 6.

Like almost everyone who remembers that August 6, she recalls it as a day that started with beautiful weather, sunny and cloudless. It was, in fact, just what U.S. aircrews and their support team had wanted, a day with perfect visibility.

It was a good walk from her house to Honkawa Elementary School. It wasn’t the neighborhood school she might have normally attended, but her father thought it would be a good one. Indeed, according to the Chugoku article, she could have been evacuated with other elementary school children to the safety of the countryside. But families could choose to keep children at home. Imori said she had not wanted to be sent to the countryside, and her father had decided to keep the family together.

“That morning, my father … had a day off so he was at home,” Imori said. Growing shortages caused by Japan’s war troubles led to electricity rationing, and his workplace had a day off for energy conservation.

A little brother also was home, along with her mother, when an 11-year-old school friend came to the house to go with Imori to school. “And I said goodbye to my parents and left them, for good,” Imori recalled.

As she would later tell young people on annual visits to a Yokohama school, Japan faced shortages and she was always hungry. While doing their best under the circumstances, people were eager for an end to the war. “Such were the wartime circumstances, but as for myself, I had been quite a happy girl, much loved by my parents,” she said.

She said that she and her friend, Kazuko Aohara, walked through the Honkawa school’s main gate and, as required at the time, bowed in front of the school’s hoanden, a small, shrine-shaped structure in which the Emperor’s writings were kept.

The friends then went directly to the shoe shelves along a concrete wall in one of the buildings to take off their shoes and put on the ones worn inside the school. “The moment I entered the school, the bomb was dropped,” she told me. “And it became all black inside, dark in the building. And then after a while, I saw some lights. I went out of the building and saw the entire school compound was in fires.”

She and Aohara tried to make sense of what they were seeing. “As far as the eye could see, everything and everywhere was on raging fire,” she told students. “It was literally a sea of fire. We saw flames gushing out of the windows of the school building we had just rushed out of. In spite of the scorching heat, we were standing there, completely petrified.

“Then two women teachers burst out of the school building. One of the teachers was bleeding from her ear. Seeing us, they urged us to jump into the river right behind the school.” Today, a road runs between the school and the Honkawa River, and there’s a path where people bike or walk. But at the time, the school property went right up to the river.

At times, the tide made the water in the river, just a few miles away from Japan’s Inland Sea along the Pacific Ocean, very low. “Fortunately, it was probably around high tide, and there was a lot of water in it,” she told the students in her speech (which her husband had printed in English and gave to me). “We began to run toward the river. Suddenly, a figure whose body had been burned black came over, staggering toward us.” As she backed away, a horrified Imori managed to ask whom the person was. The person managed to answer, “I’m Takagi” — a girl in their class.

“We were too shocked for words as our classmate’s appearance had changed utterly. The teachers took her to the riverbank and when they laid her down on a boat that was tied there, she passed away. Feeling unbearably hot, Aohara-san and I got in the river. Splashing water over our heads, we stayed in the water, completely dazed, watching countless corpses floating away right in front of our eyes one after another. We didn’t have the slightest ideas what had happened and what was going on.

“We weren’t sure how many hours we had been in the river, but we felt that the fires had somewhat abated and the heat also seemed to have eased. So we crawled out of the river up onto the bank.”

There are numerous accounts of the injured going into the water and immediately collapsing and drowning, or of simply never finding the strength to get out again. But for Imori and Aohara, the teachers’ urging them to the river proved to be the best advice, and Imori attributes her survival to escaping the fires there.

Imori was, of course, desperately worried about her family. But with the city largely destroyed by the blast and the fires, she and Aohara had no sense of where the houses should be. Numbed, they wandered about in the desolation. “I didn’t feel anything whatsoever, even when I saw countless dead bodies sprawled on the street, a streetcar completely burnt black and a corpse lying with his leg stretched across the steps, and a man, or it might be a woman, whose skin had completely peeled off and was now hanging loosely, staggering along thrusting his arms forward.”

A truck came along and picked up the two girls, taking them to a designated evacuation area for the district outside the city. They were placed at a farmer’s house, where, despite having not eaten all day, Imori couldn’t eat the bread they were offered. “And I couldn’t drink anything, either,” she said. “There was something wrong with me.” Later she would learn that she had an acute case of radiation sickness, something that wasn’t understood at the time. Over the course of a week or so at the evacuation location, she said, “Whenever I would eat something, I would vomit it back.”

“About a week after we were taken to the farmer’s house, Miss Aohara’s father came to take her home,” Imori told students in her talks. “I was now completely left alone. I had no one I knew around me. Neither my father nor my mother came to take me home. I was already an orphan by then, though I didn’t know it at that time.”

Many years later, she would learn that Aohara had died about 10 days after her father came to get her. “At that point, I was the only survivor of all the 400 pupils who were at Honkawa Elementary School during the explosion.”

Although she herself was soon taken from the evacuation center to live with relatives, Imori told me that it was also much later when she learned about the rest of her family. “A neighbor lady told me that my little brother seems to have been killed by a pillar that fell right on top of him, right in front of my mother,” she said. Her parents apparently lived another four or five days. Imori’s husband said a university professor had learned during research that the parents were housed at a temple for the few days they survived, and they seem to have been aware of each other being there. A neighbor was able to visit the mother before she died.

For Imori, being left an orphan meant that she was taken in by relatives in Kure, a naval city up the coast from Hiroshima. She moved in with an aunt on her father’s side. “Because my parents were gone, I had a very cold treatment,” she said in our interview. There were many similar stories, especially given the difficult conditions in Japan during the postwar years. “I was related to them by blood, but was not an immediate family member of theirs,” she said in her school talks. “Besides, food was extremely scarce at that time. It was surely a heavy burden on them to have one more mouth to feed. Though I had been recovering from acute radiation sickness little by little, I was always hungry without enough food.

“I would often cry, feeling so sad and lonely, and missing my lost parents. Even now, I don’t want to remember or talk about my miserable days there.”

It was a drastic change from the hopeful, happy atmosphere her parents had created in the middle of wartime difficulties. She barely managed to finish middle school. “I remembered my father happily talking about sending me to girls’ high school and even to college. At that [after the bombing] time, though, all I could do was just to survive one more day. It was beyond all hope for me to go on to high school.”

And, as many hibakusha would find especially in the early postwar years, she tired easily. And it was only natural, she observes, for other people to consider her lazy. She held various jobs before deciding in the early 1960s to go to Yokohama, where the job situation looked more promising. But her health continued to give her problems. “Due to my poor condition, I could only work for half the month, and I was going through many other hardships one after another,” she told students. “Then, I happened to meet a very loving and understanding person who was to be my future mother-in-law. She listened to my stories with compassion and understood the pain of atomic bomb victims. She was the person who helped me get through the continual troubles. She was warm, compassionate and sometimes strict when need be.”

Imori met the woman’s son — Hiroteru Imori — and they married. She was 30 years old, and they moved into a house of the company for whom he worked. By 1974, she began experiencing what would become decades of health problems including removal a pancreatic tumor by doctors in Hiroshima, and cancer that led to removal of her thyroid gland.

She’s had to take medicine ever since. Over time, she had sought comfort in some religious sects, the Imoris said. She wound up feeling disappointed and even used. In retirement, Hiroteru Imori, who had interpreted for missionaries in the early postwar year, studied theology and took an active role in his Protestant church. Kiyoko Imori then decided to be baptized, joining a church just 15 minutes’ walk from their home. It was a decision, they both said, that had brought her peace. Her husband, somewhat playfully, told me she had been a stronger character before her baptism, seeming to suggest she was mellower.

He talked about one of their trips to Hiroshima, where they were greeted at the airport by a number of journalists. It came as a surprise to her, and there was talk about her as a “miracle survivor.” He teased, “It was only then that I learned that she was such a precious person.”

Kiyoko Imori talked about returning on the 60th anniversary, a time of considerable media attention on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A BBC interviewer, she said, asked if she hated the United States. “I don’t hate any country, I don’t hate any country,” she said. “I told him that I hate wars.”

She said she had made a quick trip to the city for the 50th anniversary of the bombing. But they took their time for the 60th anniversary, an event marked by considerable celebration of her status as both a rare survivor from within a kilometer of the bombing and the only surviving Honkawa student. The Imoris have been told she may have been more like three-tenths of a kilometer (less than a fifth of a mile) from the hypocenter than the four-tenths listed on an official city site. At least one teacher was also alive in the 1970s. There was, at the time of the 60th anniversary, one other surviving student from another school who had been about the same distance from the hypocenter. They got to meet with each other at the 60th anniversary event.

The Imoris pulled out a DVD of news coverage of her visit by the national public broadcaster NHK, which we all watched. The “miraculous survivor” phrase quickly popped up. It was heartwarming in a number of ways. The news report opened up a more personal light on her emotions.

“She has had a brain tumor, colorectal cancer, probably due to radiation exposure. … She feels like this may be her last visit to Hiroshima.” The news crew had followed Imori to a visit to her old school, where the top class, the 6th grade, now performs a play about her each year. After Imori gave a talk, a girl told her, “I have heard some of the stories, but I think you told me more.” Imori urged the students to do well in their studies.

The DVD reported the meeting between Imori and the survivor from the other school. The other survivor told a reporter, “We had the same fate.” Imori said they had shared “an experience that nobody else understands.” In a studio interview later, Imori said, “I wanted to meet her because there are just the two of us who came out alive out of the hypocenter.”

And Imori told the interviewer, “I came 10 years ago on the 50th anniversary. It was very hectic. I forced myself to come, and I just came to the memorial ceremony and went home. But this time, I was able to spend an extra few days and was very happy to be back.”

Toward the end of the DVD, she was asked about any specific messages she left with the Honkawa school children. The survivors, she said, “cannot forever talk about our experiences. So I told the children that when they grow up, they must continue to tell the [younger] children about it.”

When the video ended, Hiroteru Imori joined in more, mentioning the major national newspapers and the host of other media outlets that had interviewed her. And he elaborated on some of the serious medical issues she had faced, including colorectal, brain and back tumors. She has to use morphine for the pain. Her husband added that she had to take “a whole collection“ of pills in the morning, with lunch and before sleep.

Hiroteru Imori said university researchers in Hiroshima had found 40 percent abnormalities in chromosomes from her tissues. Although autopsies are rare in Japan, she wanted to donate her body for research.

Her dedication to research seemed to me to speak to her continuing awareness of how she might contribute to the peace effort. Another article last summer, a beautiful piece by a reporter for the national Mainichi Shimbun, talked about scientific research involving Imori and some 70 survivors by Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine. It aimed to look at all the effects — physical, social and psychological — of the bombing. It was their research that led to Imori learning the details of the fate of her parents and her brother, and when I talked with them, they had mentioned the health information she had received from one of the researchers, a Dr. Kamada.

The Mainichi reporter, Sakiko Takahashi, wrote, “Physician and professor emeritus Nanao Kamada, who had stored the tapes and other records of the studies, frequently provided consultations and advice to A-bomb survivors even after his retirement. When Imori was temporarily listed in critical condition last year, he rushed to Yokohama from Hiroshima to be by her side. The approach taken by these researchers is the polar opposite of that taken by the U.S. Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which was despised by Hiroshima residents for studying but not treating them.” The commission was later replaced by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a joint U.S. and Japanese undertaking that — while not without its critics — had many firm supporters among the survivors.

(The reporter also recalled once asking Imori what she had felt when she learned about the deaths of her parents at a temple. “Nothing, really,” Imori had said. When the Mainichi writer pressed a bit more, Imori said, “I’d always operated on the assumption that my parents don’t exist.” As the writer noted, what else could an 11-year-old do after such a disaster and being moved away from the community to her aunt’s. Perhaps it also had something to do with the sometimes rather flat tone when Imori, otherwise quite engaging, went over some of the details of her horrific childhood experience.)

In our 2009 interview, the Imoris talked a little more about her health, and then I asked if there was any one thing that brought Mrs. Imori to Christianity. Mr. Imori talked about his wife’s physical sufferings. “Before coming to the church, she was invited or seduced by some cult organizations,” he said. They claimed that she would easily be cured. Eventually she came to visit at his church.

“Then I started to study, because I wanted to be baptized,” she said. Like her husband, she said that becoming a part of the church had made a huge difference. “I feel like I have completely changed since I started to go to church,” she said.

Mr. Imori said, “She used to have a much stronger character. She was orphaned by the atomic bomb. She had to harden herself. … At times, she could even be mean.”

With a small, proud smile, he said, “Here she has this beautiful, gentle expression.”

It was only after she started going to church and was baptized that she began speaking about her experiences. She said, “I had a baptism myself, and I thought about what there was for me to do.”

Her husband said Imori often reflected on the fact that she was the only surviving student, thinking there must be a purpose for her survival. She said, “I must have a strong destiny.” And, to Imori, at least part of that destiny has been to share her experiences with young people and let them carry the message of peace forward.

Copyright 2015, Joe Copeland


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