‘Urban Samurai’: One atomic bomb survivor’s journey to forgiveness


HOLDING ON TO PRINCIPLES ­— Atomic bomb survivor Takashi Thomas Tanemori teaches the importance of forgiveness through his art and public speaking.       photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly
HOLDING ON TO PRINCIPLES ­— Atomic bomb survivor Takashi Thomas Tanemori teaches the importance of forgiveness through his art and public speaking. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

At the age of 8, Takashi Thomas Tanemori lost most of his family in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. His mother and his 14-month-old sister were never found. His eldest sister and father succumbed to radiation poisoning less than a month after the blast. Their deaths left Tanemori, his two older sisters and his younger brother orphaned.

After thirsting for revenge for 40 years, Tanemori one day came to an epiphany that violence would only beget more violence, and he then dedicated his life toward forgiveness and peace.

Forgiving From the Heart
Tanemori’s journey is chronicled in an exhibit currently on display at the National Japanese American Historical Society’s Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center at Building 640 in the Presidio of San Francisco.

“Tanemori’s exhibit came at an opportune time for us at NJAHS,” explained Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the historical society. “I was seeking an art exhibit for the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that would address the issues and experiences from the perspective of an atomic bomb survivor. While his book goes into depth about his eyewitness account of the bomb, his art reflects his personal vantage points of his journey of a survivor to America.” The artwork, a collage of photos, watercolors and typography, follows Tanemori’s journey to forgiveness as well as the tensions between the U.S. and Japan dating back to Commodore Matthew Perry’s visit to Japan and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s occupation of Japan.

Tanemori came to the United States seeking revenge, but had a change of heart Aug. 5, 1985. On his way to an anti-war rally in San Francisco, he saw a mushroom cloud in the sky that reminded him of the bombing, but he also heard his father’s voice: “Have I not taught you the code of the samurai? The greatest way to avenge is to forgive,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Tanemori said his father told him to forgive the Americans at his death bed, but at age 8, he couldn’t understand how he could or why he should. That day, 40 years later, he finally understood why when he thought of his own children. “Just like how they missed killing me. If I exact my revenge, someone is going to come after (my children),” Tanemori said. “Would grandpa approve of that?”

Tanemori further realized abolition was not the answer for peace. “I used to be a lot of ‘anti-’s — ‘anti-war,’ ‘anti-nukes,’ — but I’ve shifted away from ‘anti-’ movements.

Negativity does not create positivity,” he said. To Tanemori, abolishing nuclear weapons only treats the symptoms of human conflict. “Let me ask you, when the war started, did we have the atomic bomb? … The atomic bomb itself isn’t the cause. Abolishment doesn’t solve anything and wars would still rage on.”

Elizabeth Weinberg, executive director and emissary of the Silkworm Peace Institute — Tanemori’s nonprofit organization — helped curate the exhibit. The 35-piece mixed media exhibit is a collection adapted from an 80-piece exhibit first presented at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas in 2008, Weinberg said. “Our hope is to have the exhibit go on tour and eventually have it preserved in a collection somewhere,” she said.

A Long Journey to Peace
The bombing left Tanemori an orphan and a troubled youth. His maternal grandmother took him and his siblings in, but Tanemori grew up rebellious and faced stigma as an orphan. “They say orphans don’t have a ‘proper upbringing, I had a tough time,” he said. After junior high school, Tanemori left for Kobe, Japan, but had to leave his job there when his colleagues accused him of stealing money from the cash register. With no way to clear his name, he felt suicide was the only way out, but he survived. “I felt rejected. I couldn’t even die,” he said. Following that, he decided to rededicate his life toward revenge.

Tanemori left for the United States in 1956. Hearing it was the “land of opportunity” he did not expect to wind up in a migrant labor camp in Delano, Calif. Poor and hungry, he accepted a moldy Hostess Snowball from the canteen, which sent him to the hospital.

While Tanemori was hospitalized for food poisoning, the doctors learned he was a survivor of the atomic bomb and concluded that he was suffering from radiation sickness. He then spent the next three months as a test subject for the doctors and received frequent spinal taps and electroshock therapy. Tanemori realized what happened and tried to protest.

“I couldn’t speak English, so I started resisting, physically, using my arms to tell them to stop,” he said. “The nurses, six-feet-tall, 250 pounds each, said they were concerned for their safety. Me. I was five-foot-three and 150 pounds!” Perceived as violent, Tanemori was committed into a psychiatric institution for another six months.

While institutionalized, Tanemori met Mary Furr, a nurse at the hospital who helped melt his “cold frozen heart” and sponsored his release.

“I wanted to give back to Mary, but she was already married, she had a car, she had a house. What could I do for her? I thought the best I could do is become someone like Mary,” he said. Tanemori, wanting to emulate his “savior’s” life in any way, learned she was a Baptist. While not knowing what that would entail, he went to seminary school to become a Baptist minister.

He said returning to Furr after his graduation from college brought tears of joy to her. He became a naturalized citizen in 1974 and worked as a minister for 15 years. However, while he preached God’s love by day, he felt immense loneliness at night. “I cried, ‘Daddy, I came here to avenge you,’” he said. “’And I wasn’t doing what I came here to do.’”

When a congregation member said Tanemori’s Japanese heritage made it difficult for his all-white congregation to follow him, Tanemori said he decided to quit. He went on to open a Japanese restaurant in Turlock, Calif. in 1979, but the venture also failed after he suffered a heart attack in 1984. To compound his health issues, Tanemori was further burdened in 1987 after learning he was losing his sight as a result of the atomic bombing.

Despite adversity, Tanemori continued to work as a public speaker and a representative of the California Department of Agriculture. He now lives in Berkeley, Calif., where the city recently honored him by designating July 14 as “Takashi Tanemori Day.”

Coming full circle
At 78, Tanemori requires a guide dog because of his blindness, but he remains upbeat. Tanemori helped host a kite making workshop at the MIS Historic Learning Center July 18.

Tanemori spoke about his father, who once told him to hold on to the tenets of the samurai like kites in the wind. Participants painted one of 13 kanji Tanemori said were the principles of the samurai, which his father taught him.

“He told me, ‘Takashi, the things I taught you, I want you to hold on to them like a kite. The kite will carry you through even the darkest night and take you as high as ever,’” he said. Tanemori stressed that the most important tenets today are endurance and a spirit of selflessness.

The wind on Crissy Field across the street from the museum carried the kites high into the air as Tanemori held on to the string laughing. He later reflected that it was the first time he flew a kite in decades. “I haven’t flown a kite since I was a child in Japan. Here I am, coming full circle,” he said. “Wow, I see why daddy told me to hold on.”

Tanemori hopes to attend the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and has set up a fundraising Website at http://www.gofundme.com/o6pobk. He will also speak at the Presidio Officers’ Club Thursday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. at 50 Moraga Ave. Presidio Main Post St. in S.F.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The 2024 Films of Remembrance sheds light on the forced removal and incarceration of the Japanese American community into American concentration camps during World War II.