Virtual event to remember atomic bombing victims

Aug. 6 and 9 mark the 76th anniversary of the United States’ atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The San Francisco Bay Area-based Friends of Hibakusha and the Nichi Bei Foundation will commemorate those dates with a virtual remembrance in collaboration with the Japanese American Religious Federation of San Francisco.

The second annual online event will focus on the voices and stories of hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, said Geri Handa, vice president of Friends of Hibakusha. The event, which will air Monday, Aug. 9 at 6 p.m., includes an interfaith ceremony by JARF, a film and poetry featuring atomic bomb survivors, and a Lanterns of Remembrance ceremony to remember those who perished in the bombings, as well as those who died due to radiation afterward.

Handa helped to establish the Friends of Hibakusha 40 years ago this year with a group of supporters working closely with the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors in the U.S.A. Friends of Hibakusha has helped to organize biennial visits by doctors from Hiroshima to administer in-language medical check-ups for the aging survivors. The visits, first started in 1977, predate the organization and were initially organized by CABS members.

Dr. Kay Yatabe, a retired family physician in the East Bay, said the medical issues hibakusha face today are not all that different from the general population, but the medical missions offer the elderly survivors peace of mind.

“It’s really important because, for the survivors themselves, I think they really appreciate being able to talk to a Japanese doctor who has experience in radiation diseases and understands about the effect of the bomb,” Yatabe told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I think it’s really important that they get a chance to talk to the Japanese doctors in their own language.”

In the most recent medical mission in 2019, Handa said only 33 patients came to the screening, one-tenth of its heyday. Yatabe said the organization is urging the medical mission to go directly to the hibakusha instead, as the main complaint hibakusha had was “exhaustion,” making long trips from the Central Valley to San Francisco difficult. The next visit, which was supposed to have occurred this year, was canceled due to the ongoing pandemic.

Telling their Stories
While Friends of Hibakusha spearheads the doctors’ visits and remembrances today, the organization originally worked to support CABS and their president Kanji Kuramoto. Reflecting on the organization’s founding, filmmaker Steven Okazaki recounted how he became involved with the hibakusha in 1980. He was introduced to Kuramoto after he learned that survivors of the atomic bombings lived in the U.S. Kuramoto told the then-young filmmaker that he and the other hibakusha might be wary of him filming them out of the blue and suggested that he screen one of his films during their meeting in San Francisco’s Japantown.

“And so I lugged up a 16 millimeter projector and a screen up to the room there. … He introduced me and I showed a 10-minute film with children being interviewed about their different ethnic backgrounds, and when the film was over, one of the hibakusha women stood up and said, ‘I think that Mr. Okazaki should make a film about us.’ And she said, ‘What do you think?’

“And then the whole room raised their hands. And I suddenly realized that this was not a query on my part, that suddenly I had inadvertently committed myself to making a film about them,” Okazaki said.

Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka presents a lantern in remembrance of his sister Kazuko during “A Remembrance for Peace: Commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” to air Monday, Aug. 9, 6 p.m. at www.facebook.com/nichibei. For more information, visit www.nichibei.org/virtual-remembrance. photo by Mark Shigenaga

Okazaki would go on to make his first “real documentary,” “Survivors,” in 1982. While working on the film and meeting with hibakusha, he met with other people who were interested in supporting the survivors. Founding members included Dorothy Stroup, a former teacher who lived in Hiroshima; the Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka, a hibakusha who was a United Methodist minister; and Handa. While Okazaki left the organization after a couple of years to continue his work in film, he said hibakusha stayed on his mind.

“You start a film and you’re very focused on it, and then it’s done and you want to move on to the next thing,” Okazaki said. “I’ve tried to do that with every film, but something about the hibakusha, working with the hibakusha, has always drawn me back.”

The Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker has worked on several films, both short and feature length, concerning the hibakusha, a topic he said is “life affirming” even if the subject matter is difficult to get through.

Similarly, Darrell Miho, a photographer currently based in Las Vegas, started working on his project to interview and record the words of hibakusha in 2009 as he sought a way to combine his passions for photography and helping others. After meeting with hibakusha in Southern California during their biennial medical visit, Miho found some 100 people willing to be interviewed. Although he is a photographer, Miho said he quickly learned how to work with film after realizing photos alone could not tell the story.

“It started out in my head, as a photo project, but after I met with them, I realized that I had to add a video component to it, because sharing their stories directly from them is so impactful, as opposed to me writing about it and just quoting what they said,” he said.

Thus far he has completed approximately 28 interviews and is seeking funds to do more. He noted some of the 100 who expressed interest in being interviewed initially have passed on. The virtual remembrance will feature Miho’s interviews of hibakusha from Southern California.

Miho said he plans to continue collecting stories of people affected by nuclear weapons until the day he dies. He plans to seek more stories from U.S. service members stationed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well victims in the Marshall Islands and the United States.

“The message and the stories still need to get out, and that’s the main purpose of this project: is to continue to tell their story so that we never forget.”

Hibakusha Descendants
As the number of hibakusha dwindle, some descendants also feel compelled to step up as children of hibakusha.

Atomic bomb survivor Seiko Fujimoto remembers loved ones lost. photo by Mark Shigenaga

Takeno Suzuki, a Japanese American who grew up in San Francisco’s Japantown and now resides in Sendai, Japan, said she knew her mother was a hibakusha impacted by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but she had never realized how big of an impact it had on her mother’s life. The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed Suzuki’s mother, Seiko Fujimoto, for last year’s commemoration.

“My brother and I were watching it, and we were texting each other back and forth as we watched it. We actually saw a side of mom that we actually never saw before growing up as kids,” Suzuki said. “Just watching her … telling her story, we actually got to learn more about her through that one short interview than we did in our living with her for 20-plus years.”

Suzuki said she now feels an obligation to learn more about her mother’s story while she is alive and to pass it down to her children, a story she had initially, as a child, refused to hear.

“She was trying to explain to me the scenes that she saw, but I didn’t want to listen at the time, because it was just too realistic, the way she’s describing it. I remember telling her as a kid, ‘You know that’s really gross, I don’t want to hear it,’ because she was talking about human beings and their skin falling off and getting sick … as a kid, you just don’t want to hear those kinds of stories.”

This year’s program purposefully includes the participation of several descendants of the hibakusha.

40 Years of Support
Handa and other members of Friends of Hibakusha meanwhile emphasized their need to help amplify the stories of hibakusha during the annual commemoration. This year’s candle lighters include Suzuki’s mother, Seiko Fujimoto, as well as the Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka, a retired United Methodist priest and a Nagasaki hibakusha, and Jack Dairiki, another hibakusha from Hiroshima.

Hanaoka said he became involved with hibakusha when he met Kuramoto while serving as pastor at the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, Calif. in 1978. At first, Hanaoka was not sure if he could consider himself a hibakusha. He was eight months old during the bombing of Nagasaki, but his family was not directly affected by the blast. He later realized, through hearing similar stories to his own from survivors within CABS, that he was what people considered a “downwinder.”

Hanaoka began supporting Kuramoto in seeking financial assistance for the hibakusha from the U.S. government and convening the National Congress of Radiation Survivors in 1980 in San Francisco.

“I think there are different people in FOH there for different reasons. I think I was more inclined to be an anti-nuclear activist,” said Hanaoka, who used to distribute anti-nuclear weapon literature outside the University of California, Berkeley’s student union building.

Many of the early supporters, including the president of CABS, shied away from overt political messages, such as calls to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Hanaoka mentioned Kuramoto wished to only advocate for the needs of hibakusha and cautioned against working with anti-nuclear organizations in Japan. Okazaki also noted Kuramoto was a somewhat of a controversial figure himself, being a “fairly aggressive Japanese male” running an organization predominantly made up of women. He did, however, note that Kuramoto also played a vital role in talking to officials in Japan, who were to hear those kinds of stories.”

This year’s program purposefully includes the participation of several descendants of the hibakusha.

40 Years of Support
Handa and other members of Friends of Hibakusha meanwhile emphasized their need to help amplify the stories of hibakusha during the annual commemoration. This year’s candle lighters include Suzuki’s mother, Seiko Fujimoto, as well as the Rev. Nobuaki Hanaoka, a retired United Methodist priest and a Nagasaki hibakusha, and Jack Dairiki, another hibakusha from Hiroshima.

Hanaoka said he became involved with hibakusha when he met Kuramoto while serving as pastor at the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, Calif. in 1978. At first, Hanaoka was not sure if he could consider himself a hibakusha. He was eight months old during the bombing of Nagasaki, but his family was not directly affected by the blast. He later realized, through hearing similar stories to his own from survivors within CABS, that he was what people considered a “downwinder.”

Hanaoka began supporting Kuramoto in seeking financial assistance for the hibakusha from the U.S. government and convening the National Congress of Radiation Survivors in 1980 in San Francisco.

“I think there are different people in FOH there for different reasons. I think I was more inclined to be an anti-nuclear activist,” said Hanaoka, who used to distribute anti-nuclear weapon literature outside the University of California, Berkeley’s student union building.

Many of the early supporters, including the president of CABS, shied away from overt political messages, such as calls to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Hanaoka mentioned Kuramoto wished to only advocate for the needs of hibakusha and cautioned against working with anti-nuclear organizations in Japan. Okazaki also noted Kuramoto was a somewhat of a controversial figure himself, being a “fairly aggressive Japanese male” running an organization predominantly made up of women. He did, however, note that Kuramoto also played a vital role in talking to officials in Japan, who were not inclined to listen to women.

“I think he was hugely important to CABS and getting it off the ground and stuff,” Okazaki said. “And he was very good at talking with the officials in Hiroshima and getting them committed and making sure that (the doctor visits) were funded. He was very good at working the Japanese, going out to dinner, drinking sake and keeping things going.”

Hanaoka named a number of early supporters, including future mayor of Oakland, Calif. Jean Quan and her husband Floyd Huen. Huen, a physician, according to Yatabe, introduced her to the biennial visits when she started volunteering in 1983. Dr. John Umekubo of St. Mary’s Medical Center and many others have been involved in putting together the medical team visit every two years.

While Kuramoto spearheaded the medical missions from Hiroshima initially, Handa gradually took the reins, especially after Kuramoto passed away in 2004.

“I think Geri has taken on a lot more in terms of organizing the visits in terms of communications with whatever hospital is hosting us and communication with Japan,” Yatabe said. “I think in the ‘90s, in the 2000s, I think that CABS would be communicating with Japan, but now Geri is doing all of that.”

Handa, meanwhile, said the focal point of the organization continues to be the hibakusha and her work is to ensure they continue to receive the biennial check-ups by doctors.

“I wanted to emphasize that, we did want to always support hibakusha and having their voices heard,” she said. “We’ve been working with the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors to do that. Every … two years when we coordinate the medical business, we work closely with them and then with the rest of the supporting organizations.”

“A Remembrance for Peace: Commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki” a virtual remembrance to commemorate the 76th anniversary of atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will take place Monday, Aug. 9 at 6 p.m. at www.fb.com/nichibei. For more information on the event, visit www.nichibei.org/virtual-remembrance.

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Kyplex Cloud Security Seal - Click for Verification