The term for survivors of the atomic bombs is ‘hibakusha’
Akihiro Takahashi, a famous hibakusha, has just died. He was born in Hiroshima in 1931. As a schoolboy he wanted to be a pilot. This is how he explains the fact that he stood still, looking up at the silver body of the plane, while the plane carrying Little Boy flew low over his school. The bomb exploded about two kilometres from where he stood.
He says that he should have died that day. He saw terrible things. If you have heard about this bomb before, you can imagine. He spent eighteen months in hospital being treated for his burns and was left with an arm which would not bend, fingers on one hand which could hardly hold a pen and chronic liver problems. Akihiro Takahashi, along with the other hibakusha, was looked on as something not quite human.
I do not know what he did in the years after he left hospital, but I do know that in these years he hated Americans and called the bomb ‘an experiment’ where ‘ordinary citizens [were] its guinea pigs’1. But then, in 1978 he visited Pearl Harbour where he met relatives of people who died there. After that he said ‘it is important to transcend hatred, to transcend the agony, to transcend the sorrow’.
Akihiro Takahashi spent four years as director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There he guided visiting dignitaries and spoke to groups of school children. Over the years he told his story thousands of times. In 2002 he said this, ‘I tell myself that I’m a survivor of a terrible moment in history, and it is my belief that those of us who were saved should continue to talk of our experiences. We live to hand down the awful memories to future generations and represent the silent voices of those who died in misery and terror.’
Akihiro Takahashi had at least three lives. In the first he was a boy who wanted to be the pilot of a silver plane. In the second he was a man alive in hatred, agony and sorrow. In the last he was a man seeking to transcend the same things. Somehow it came to him that a man seeking to transcend hatred, agony and sorrow must pass on his memories and speak for those who were silenced. Perhaps one day, without meaning to conduct an experiment on himself, he just noticed that telling others something of his experiences left him with less hatred, less agony or less sorrow?
One article I read about Akihiro Takahashi mentions in passing a teardrop which may have rolled down the cheek of a man called Tibbets in 1980. Tibbets, a crew member of Enola Gay, the plane that dropped Little Boy, was sitting talking with Takahashi in Washington. That definitely happened. The two men held each other’s hands. That definitely happened too.
Then Akihiro Takahashi says he saw a teardrop roll down Tibbets’ cheek.
Tibbets says there was no tear. He was sorry that people burned up down there, he said, but it had to be done.
I choose to believe Takahashi.
A woman who survived Auschwitz wrote in her memoir that after she became a guide at a museum and regularly told her story there, her nightmares became less frequent, but it may not be the same for others. The effects of telling some of your own story over and over are individual and mostly kept private.
1 The Press 31 December 2011, section B13