On June 6th, we at Pressenza premiered our latest documentary film, “The Beginning of the End of Nuclear Weapons”. For this film, we interviewed 14 people, experts in their fields, who were able to provide insight into the history of the subject, the process which led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and current efforts to stigmatise them and turn the ban into elimination. As part of our commitment to make this information available to the whole world, we are publishing the full versions of those interviews, together with their transcripts, in the hope that this information will be useful for future documentary film makers, activists and historians who would like to hear the powerful testimonies recorded in our interviews.
This interview is with Setsuko Thurlow who was 13 years old on the 6th of August 1945 when the first nuclear bomb was ever dropped in anger on another nation. Unlike the vast majority of her classmates, Setsuko survived through the luck of being chosen by the military to work at a Japanese army base a mile or so away from the hypocentre of the detonation.
For our documentary, we understood that at 87 years old this could be one of the last opportunities to capture Setsuko’s valuable testimony for future generations who hopefully will never know the horror of nuclear weapons. We spent over an hour with this delightful lady in her home in Toronto where she told us about her childhood in Hiroshima before the war, the day the bomb went off, the experience of going to university and going to the US, her anti-nuclear activism, and the experience of campaigning for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the Nobel Peace Prize.
Questions: Tony Robinson, Cameraman: Álvaro Orús.
Tell us about your childhood in Japan
My name is Setsuko Thurlow, originally from Hiroshima, but I have been living here in Toronto for many years, my second home.
Now, I was born in 1932. I was raised there. I lived there until I finished University and then came to the United States on a scholarship. The first 15 years of my life, I grew up in a very militaristic, fascist, totalitarian social milieu. I didn’t know any other way. Life wasn’t that bad. We couldn’t have everything we wanted, good food, good candy, chocolate and pretty clothes. And things were restricted, but in the early part of my childhood it was pretty good. I think of a nice large sunny garden. My father loved gardening, and we employed a gardener who was there most of the time.
I became good friends with the gardener. He taught me everything about trees and plants and flowers and how to pick the fruits and so on. So in earlier memories those are happy, and lots of people coming to our house.
My father was kind of acting as a head of the family command, according to the old system, and that meant a lot of religious, family events and activities that took place at my place; whether a memorial service for the deceased, or a wedding of the cousins, and so on.
Everything was happening in that place. So I have happy recollections from that part of the childhood. Well one memory I cannot forget is that the gardener used to wrap each bud of the peonies in late May, and I asked, “What are you doing?”
“Okay, well just wait till this weekend, then you’ll see,” and sure enough he came back, he started taking all the thin rice paper which he used to [wrap the buds with]. He took all the wrappers off. So all the peonies in the garden just suddenly [burst into bloom], and the guests started arriving.
That’s the kind of happiness I remember. Then Japan declared war, defended the rather stupid thing, attacking Pearl Harbour in such a way, and the lifestyle suddenly had to change. For a while Japan was doing and well. They were sinking so many American ships, and so forth, but soon Japan started losing ships, and the planes and men fighting, and so on.
So our lifestyle changed quickly. Every day on the radio the instructions came: and now we will ration rice, we will ration this, ration that, and life became very constricted and sad, but we were brainwashed, you see. We were descendants of the Emperor, the sons and daughters of the goddess, and we would never lose in war, and as a little girl I believed it like everybody else.
The day the bomb went off
So things started changing, like the elementary school changed the name of the school itself, “The People’s School” or something. Every morning we had to go, we didn’t have heavy, warm coats, we were frozen.
And our house was ordered to be destroyed, at least half of it, because they had to widen the street in order for the vehicles and trains, and all that kind of thing. They had to send the men and the supplies to the war. So widening the road was one of the very popular activities.
So that meant our house, our own house had to be made half size. I had to give that up, and so we moved to another connecting house. My father had many houses, rental houses and we moved.
And the house, which was cut short, became a hotel; a hotel to accommodate Japanese man who were being shipped to the battlefield, you see. They were being recruited from all over Japan. They were brought to Hiroshima and spent their last night in Japan and got on the boat from Hiroshima harbour.
So they were spending the last day of their life in [my house]. So even as a little kid I knew what that meant. You know, they left their children and wives and so on. And they were having their little sake and having a party [on the] last night.
Well that just stays in my mind because my own house began to accommodate the Japanese men who were enjoying that last night of their life.
Anyway, in the spring of 1945 the air raids started badly. Well even before, they were coming just to investigate what’s down there, but I think they were ready. Now after they captured the Tinian Islands in the Pacific that was a good location, the plane could just fly over to Japan in one hop and start attacking the cities.
So that was the beginning of the indiscriminate attack on civilians, starting in Tokyo and Osaka, Nagoya, all the major cities. I understand more than 100 urban centres had been burned out. So we were wondering, when is it going to be our turn?
Hiroshima was considered to be the tenth largest city at that time, but even the smaller cities had been bombed. How come? Nothing is happening. Well, planes keep coming back every day, but they don’t drop the bombs. Why not? What’s going on? And all kinds of rumours spread.
Little did we know that the US was keeping Hiroshima intact for a special purpose, because by then Mr Truman had the information in his pocket. They were successful with the first testing of the bomb in July, and he or his military men sent the message: don’t attack Hiroshima.
Well you can easily guess. If you want to test the new type of bomb, then you want to attack the city intact, rather than already nothing but rocks and ashes. So we didn’t know that until much later, and we were very anxious.
So we were going to school with special instructions, with special headgear in case of attack. We had to put it on. We are always carrying a bag filled with goods, and all the medical supplies, and even some food like roasted beans or something.
So, oh, such a speedy change in our lifestyle. And guess what? I was meeting my students at the station that very morning. I collected them and we started the march to the army headquarters, and I would say, “March!” and then we would get to the gate of the army headquarters and say [something in Japanese]. Saluting to the right. You know, you have to salute. So even the little girls of 13 were acting like little Japanese soldiers. You have to behave that way.
Anyway I was a grade 8 student, grade 7. Yes we had almost regular lessons at school. So like I learned English: “This is a pen. This is a pen.” That’s how I learned English, and that was fun, but the second year, grade 8 year, we hardly had any regular classroom instruction. We were sent to the farmers to help farm, and the company where we packed the tobacco cigarette box were sent to the front line.
Another time we went to a military factory where we produced clothing, making sure the buttons were in the right place for the military men. And then several weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima, I think it must have been April or May 1945, I was selected to be one of about 30 girls who were sent to army headquarters to learn how to decode secret messages. That was fun, we learned it quickly and on August 6th, that very day, that was supposed to be the very first day for us to act as official assistants to the army.
On that day, I met the girls at the station. We marched to the nearby headquarters, and I took them to the second floor of the huge building, the wooden building which was located just one mile from ground zero, and at eight o’clock we started a morning assembly. Major [someone] was giving us about 30 girls a pep talk. “You have been trained well. This is the very day you start demonstrating your loyalty, and da da da da da, to the Emperor.”
“Yes sir! We will do our best.”
At that moment, I saw in the window the tremendous flash. Somebody said it was a light brighter than the Sun. Somebody said tens of thousands of Suns bursting together, but anyway, I saw it and I couldn’t comprehend, but before you had a chance to comprehend what was happening I knew my body was flying up in the air.
I knew I was floating in the air. That’s the last sensation I remember. After that I lost consciousness. Now when I regained consciousness in the total darkness and silence, I knew finally that the Americans had got us. You see, people in Hiroshima were anxiously wondering why we hadn’t been attacked when everybody else had been attacked, but even I realized that this must have been done by the US.
I couldn’t move my body so I knew I faced death, but I wasn’t panic-stricken at all. I calmly accepted that. Then I started hearing the girls’ faint voices, “Mother I’m here. Help me. God help me!” So I knew I was not alone in that darkness. I was surrounded. Then all of a sudden a strong hand touched me from behind. “Don’t give up, don’t give up! Keep moving! I’m trying to free you. You see the light coming from that opening? Move toward it as quickly as possible. Now I’m trying to free you. Come on keep pushing, keep kicking.”
So he was cheering me up, and then we struggled and finally he was able to free me. So desperately, I did what he suggested. By the time I came out, the building was on fire. When I came out, I turned back and tried to determine what the situation was like. If I could go back and help my girlfriends. But no, I couldn’t get in. It was…
Then I looked around I thought, “Strange”. Also it happened at 8:15 in the morning it was dark, dark like twilight, and then I began to see in the dark some moving objects, moving around, but they were so silent, so quiet. Nobody was screaming and yelling and asking for help and running around. No, it was a ghostly stillness. That’s a very spooky picture I still remember. Then those moving objects came closer to me and I’d look at them. To me it was a procession of ghostly figures. They didn’t look like human beings. Their hair standing up and all curled up and skin and flesh were just falling off. Some were carrying their eyeballs in their hands and many just went like this [gestures with hands]. The skin and the flesh hanging. They were slowly shuffling toward the outside of the city from the centre part of the city.
And a soldier said – since I was at the Army Headquarters there must have been lots of soldiers and officers, a lot were killed, but a lot survived – and somebody said, “You girls join that procession and escape to the nearby hill.” So that’s what we did, we carefully stepped over the dead bodies on the ground.
And the silence continued, but we heard voices, faint voices, everybody was asking for water, water please, water. By the time we got to the foot of the hill, the place was packed with dead bodies and dying people.
Well there was a training ground at the foot of the hill which was the size of two football fields put together, and by the time we got there the place was packed with the dead bodies and dying people, and they kept begging for water. We three girls, well we were covered with the blood and so on, but we were not seriously injured. Well we wanted to help, but we had no bucket, no cups to carry the water. So we went nearby and washed our body, and tore our blouses and soaked them in the water, and then we take the soaked clothes to the mouths of the dying people who sucked in the moisture. That was the only thing they were able to get before dying.
Imagine three, four thousand degrees Celsius. That’s the heat of the bomb on the ground level, and that burned them inside out. They must have been suffering so much. Everybody was asking for nothing but water.
So only a few people were able to get some moisture. No doctors, no nurses were around.
I looked around and I thought surely healthcare professionals must be around, but I didn’t see one single health care professional among the tens of thousands of dying. Well about 80 to 90 percent of the health care professionals were also killed and those who survived were working at a different area, not where I was.
Well, I think the majority of people were just crushed, with death caused by the crushed buildings and the burning. But the people who were not burned, like me, were there. So I was exposed to the radiation.
So in the aftermath – well maybe before I talk about the aftermath let me tell you a few things about what happened that day. The majority of my schoolmates were working in the centre part of the city, the grade seven and eight students from all the high schools of the city were brought to that place, because the city had a special plan. They wanted to destroy all the buildings and widen the streets to be ready. So that’s the kind of work that you saw for the young kids, and the boys took their shirts off right under the detonation. They were the first ones who simply vaporized, melted.
From my school over 300 students were there. I’m alive, because I wasn’t there. I was somewhere else, you know, one mile further away. I was inside a building. I was buried by the collapsed building. I must have been protected, but those people had no protection directly under [the bomb]. 4,000 degrees Celsius heat, just carbonized, vaporized, but one of the girls survived and she came back and told us what happened to the girls before they died. They just crawled around. They couldn’t identify each other because they were so blackened, and swollen, but by voice they could call each other, they sat together in the circle. They sang hymns I understand and particularly the beautiful one, my favourite [speaks name in Japanese]. In English it’s something like “Lord I am coming near you.” And as they sang together, one by one they just collapsed and died. This is what happened to my classmates. Because one girl survived and came back and told us this story I know the story, and my own sister-in-law’s teacher, she was directing supervising activities of those people. We tried to find her body, we never found it. So she left two little children as orphans.
So those are the people who had some tangible evidence of injury, either burned skin or swollen face, but there were a lot of people in the city or in the outskirts. They looked alright, for example my uncle and aunt. When we heard they survived we rejoiced, but a week later they started feeling so sick. They started vomiting, and they started having purple spots all over the body, and that was a sure sign that they were going to die.
Indeed they died. So in those days, we survivors, the first thing we did in the morning was to check every part of the body and make sure we would live another day. That’s the kind of anxiety we lived with.
In the immediate aftermath, oh people just felt so lethargic, even if you didn’t have any tangible evidence of suffering. [People] just didn’t have energy and some people were just complaining about these survivors. They’re useless, they don’t work, they can’t work. So if the farmer wants to employ them, they don’t work because they are not physically capable of doing so.
And a lot of people suffered with scars, a very bad scar. They didn’t look nice. So some thoughtless people started calling them ghosts, and so on. Social alienation and discrimination were real. So those girls with that kind of skin, you know, they lost the opportunity for equal treatment, for anything: employment, marriage, housing, and what not.
So it was not just the physical damage, but social and psychological also. In every way the city just disappeared.
What was the experience of going to university and coming to the US?
Yes, the unthinkable happened. Japan never thought we would lose the war. We did and we had to survive day to day. Survival. We were starving. I have great respect for women who were determined to keep their families fed. Where did they find the food?
But anyway some officials who survived, they immediately started working, contacting the military, [to find out] if there is any clothing left and some food left, and try to distribute them to the starving people, but you know for 12 years central government, national government didn’t lift a finger to help us. Of course, I can say they were totally disoriented, because they were the ones who firmly believed that we are the descendants, and the Emperor, and all that, the myth, and they were totally immobilized and they couldn’t think of the poor, suffering people.
They didn’t know what to do. But still that’s no excuse though. For 12 years! If only government had been able to help the survivors by giving blankets, for example, giving some advice, [like] not to sleep on the contaminated ground in the city, and so on.
No information was given, no helpful blankets or food given. So the survivors who didn’t have friends and relatives outside the city just slept on that contaminated ground. Once again, they were the first ones who went.
In my case, we were so fortunate, and I always feel badly, but when I think of the people who had no choice. Well we went to the outside of the city where my uncle welcomed us, fed us, housed us and clothed us, because he himself lost two daughters. They never came back from the city, and three boys were fighting out there in China or somewhere. He was alone with the wife and his eldest son. So he had lots of space and lots of food, so he took us in. But the survivors had to escape out of the city, and the further away they go in Japan, the less information the people had about this new type of bomb. The communication system was so poor at that time, and the system was broken up.
He said, “Who are they, those ghostly figures?” So the social discrimination was real.
Now, well, later on the United States established something called ABCC, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So people were so happy. Finally we’re going to get some medical attention, medical supplies, but no. Their sole purpose was to study the effects of radiation on the human body, but not to give supplies or medical help.
When people found that out, you can imagine. They felt like, “oh, they are simply using us as guinea pigs.” First by testing on us, and now studying us as subjects of medical research.
So the United States must have been preparing for future events similar to this. That was infuriating, and the people were of course very angry. That happened under the leadership of General MacArthur who became the supreme commander of the Allied forces, after Japan surrendered.
The person we considered as a God and a God descendant just disappeared somewhere else. He was no longer [on the scene], it was MacArthur who made a clear statement to us, to the Japanese, “I came to Japan to achieve two things: one was to demilitarize Japan, and secondly to democratize Japan.”
Great! I think many of us, many of the people were relieved that the war had ended. After all we suffered from war for 15 years. I grew up without knowing [anything else], you know, just knowing war time. So democracy. What is democracy like? What is it supposed to be? And we were anxious to learn. And we learned that, well, women can be treated equally to men. Great news!
You see, I was a student at the Christian school, a private school. So that was the beginning of my very happy possible period. I was at a school where they kept telling us, “Times have changed. Women can be equally active in society, and a lot of encouragement was given to that, and the new building was built in the centre of the city, and that was the very first one, and American teachers started coming back to Hiroshima, and I had lots of good ideas, like starting newspapers for the high school girls, and I became the president of the biggest student club, the YWCA we called it.
And the boys school at the University of Hiroshima, they too had their YMCA. Until then we never worked with male students, but for the first time we could have activities together. And that was a very refreshing experience, so I think around that time, activism was being formed.
We did a lot of work. Yes, then the Tokyo YWCA leader was running for Parliament, I think. We got the news, and we were very proud and we wanted to support. Can you imagine young me helping with the election, making speeches for her and riding on the truck, and so on? And I enjoyed it very much. It was a happy time, but on the other side of my life at that time, it was a very serious one, having experienced that total chaos and the sudden disappearance of the environment you’re used to.
You begin to wonder what this is about. How come this happened? When at school they talk about love of God, the Christians are supposed to love each other but it was a Christian country, the United States, which did something like this. My mind was full of questions, and I took this seriously. I wasn’t just happily editing the student newspaper, you know, I spent a lot of time. I guess I went to school early in the morning, before everybody comes, and we had a special prayer room and where we could have the one-to-one dialogue with the teacher, and so I raised questions, and the teachers were very responsive. They knew what struggles we were having emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and I really give the real credit to those dedicated teachers. After all I spent 10 years from junior high, senior, University, 10 years in that environment with supportive, sensitive, empowering teachers, and they listened to our struggle.
We were totally lost and after about 4 years of debate within myself and the mentors and friends, this is what I wanted to do, and I joined the Christian Church the most.
I think the activism of the Christian Church, the emphasis of serving fellow man, that was very important to me, not just to ourselves, but we work together in the community.
For example at that time I was in high school, I read the annual report of the World Council of Churches, and I happened to read one definition. It said, “Peace is not only the absence of war, but it’s the struggle to ensure justice for all people,” something like that that.
As I remember in those days, we never used the words “social justice”. Now we use it, but not in those days, and then also it said to give or to provide to all people: all people that was important, not segregating the rich or poor, the better educated and the uneducated, because even in Japan in those days, there was some kind of a system like I come from a Samurai family above the commoner, that kind of thing. Here [in the church], we talking about all the people, communists or people who them…
Well I wasn’t sure what the World Council of Churches is, but I was interested in learning more about Christianity. I guess every chance I had I went to the library reading their publications, and I just happened to say, “Hey, this is a great idea! Yes, peace is not just the absence of war.” No. That’s easy to understand, but to all people, you mean without discrimination, to all people. Equality. Wow! And social justice! What does that mean? What does that include? Equality and, you know, human rights and so on. We never knew what human rights were. So these kinds of stimuli were always making me question, and I was always going, “What does this mean? What does that mean? And I was full of questions, and I’m glad I was, and I asked, and I got a lot, and this is why I decided, “Okay, this is the way I am going to live.”
You see shortly before the bombing took place, the city decided all elementary school kids, grade five up had to be evacuated from the city because we were anticipating the attack. So those five thousand kids were moved out of the city.
So the war ended, and then they came back to the city. There was no city. There were no houses. There were no parents. Five thousand kids without central government’s help. How do they survive? They started running around on the ashes in the rubble. In the black market, learning how to earn a few yen. Pickpocketing. Those kind of petty criminal activities. Well my church minister was one of those people who was there to try to do some help to those kids, raise money and start the orphanages here and there, and also there were a lot of families where the fathers and sons never came home from the war. The woman had to feed the babies and the children, amazing strength a woman has.
But they have no place to live, so not just orphanages but women’s homes and just about any basic human needs have to be met, and the people who are convinced of their responsibility just kept themselves busy and my church Minister was one of those.
And he was criticized by many people. As a church Minister your job is to stay in your study and prepare a sermon for next Sunday, kind of thing, even among the congregation.
I was so proud. He said, “Well, Christian faith without action is not worth talking about.” He always emphasized love and action. So I was watching how adults work in the aftermath of that society. How they worked, influenced younger growing children to respond to the so-called crisis situation.
You don’t have to talk much, you just have to act, then we watch and we know what’s right and this is the way I want to live. And so by the time I had graduated from college, I knew what field I wanted to go in. I wanted to be a social worker. So I talked to the president who was a graduate of Columbia University and she said, “You know, Setsuko, now the times have changed. Women can do important things, and you go and learn about group work, group leadership. We need to help women in this city. Go and study this and that and come back and provide leadership for women in Hiroshima.”
“What? To be a social worker you have to go to university?” Just with good will, anybody can do that.
“Yes anybody, but there are new ways of thinking. You can study theory and practice and so on. You can be more effective.”
So with that kind of discussion, the opportunity came for me to get the scholarship to come to the United States and study. That’s why, yeah.
But I must tell you that that was in 1954 when I graduated, and that was a very important year for us. The Americans had been testing hydrogen bombs, but on March 1st, I think, in 1954, the Americans tested the largest hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and that created fury, because many fishing boats were around. And the Americans claim they sent a warning, but there were a lot of them, and one of them was Japanese and one fisherman died. All the crew members were covered [with fallout] and so the whole of Japan woke up.
[Just Hiroshima and Nagasaki before] but now Bikini, look how they are destroying the environment, and the people are showing the similar kinds of symptoms as our people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did.
United States, this is unforgivable! And at that time the whole of Japan woke up to the reality. You see, the communication system was not so good at that time, and MacArthur was reigning and everybody was kind of [gestures subservience], and then there was quite a bit of oppression so people were not that free, not even the press were free to write about it.
So they [the USA] couldn’t care less at this time. They just blew up [a bomb]. That was the beginning of the biggest, biggest social action in Japan’s history, and that’s the summer I took a boat from Japan. I spent two weeks on the Pacific. It’s not a Pacific Ocean, it’s a cruel ocean, and I got to the States, and I arrived to Virginia, where I went to study, and media people knew what was happening in the Pacific, how upset the Japanese were, and here’s a Hiroshima survivor coming, and they meet [the boat and] they immediately asked me what I felt about that. So what else could I do? I said testing has to stop, destroying the environment has to stop, and the people injured have to be cared for, and the people in Japan are still suffering and dying from leukaemia and all kinds of cancers. I said negative things to them, the next day I started getting hate letters, unsigned hate letters.
That was the introduction to American life, and they told me, “Who started Pearl Harbour? Go Home!” But I had just arrived, I couldn’t go back. Can I live here in this country? How am I going to survive here? Do I pretend as though I know nothing and have no experience? Put the zipper over my mouth? It was a traumatic experience. I couldn’t go to the school, I mean, I couldn’t go to the classroom. I couldn’t concentrate, so I stayed in the professor’s home all by myself for a whole week. And I prayed and suffered, thought, and it was the loneliest time, but in reflection I feel that it was an important time that gave me the opportunity to really do the soul-searching. What is the value of my life? What is the purpose?
Well my job is to share my experience in Hiroshima, and what it means to live in the nuclear age, what horror that brings to humanity, and we should never, ever let that happen again to another human being. That’s my message, and I can’t stop talking about it. I am going to keep talking. That was the decision. In reflection, how could I do that? You know, alone. I was able to do that. I’m grateful and I desperately started reading people’s articles. And the one person whose writing influenced me very much was Professor Richard Falk.
He was the international law specialist at Princeton University, of course, and I started reading. Oh! I was so happy, because I had felt so alone, and Americans don’t look at things as I do, but here is a man who supports my idea, and so when I met him, when I corresponded with him, how he rescued me! It really empowered me. Yeah, we correspond now. Yes, he’s living on the west coast now.
So I met hundreds of those very thought-provoking leaders, and they helped me.
Did you ever meet Martin Luther King?
No such luck. No. I met him on the screen, yes. I have been to his school, yeah.
So it was really in 1954 when you started getting involved with nuclear activism?
Formally, yeah, I think I started acting, although the need for our dedication, the commitment I think I felt that much earlier when I was in Hiroshima, because it turned into being a city of peace, and everybody was for peace, and the Cenotaph was built, and so on. We all made that commitment, we made a vow. After all, all of our loved ones and the friends, classmates… I can’t just live with that. We’ll make sure your death was not meaningless.
Yeah, that’s what I always feel. When I made the last speech at the United Nations on that day when they voted for the treaty.
So, how did you get involved with ICAN?
For many years I have been doing so-called disarmament education, speaking to young people or civic people like The Rotary Club and The Woman’s Club, and so on.
I’ve been doing it, but then gradually I started getting invitations to International Conferences, UN conferences and so on, and I think, you know, it was 2007, the physicians group in Ottawa invited me. “Please come. We are having the inaugural meeting of the group. We are going to call it ICAN.” I thought that would be another big group, but I wasn’t thinking, you know.
Anyway so lots of politicians and lots of doctors, lots of medical students from nearby universities, and the place was at the Parliament building, inside, and I was to be a speaker. So I told them something of my personal experience, and then the humanitarian [side]…
After all it’s the people who suffer, and this has been forgotten in our debate. They are always talking about strategies and deterrence and all that kind of thing. So I emphasized the humanity risk and that for medical professionals their job is to serve humanity. Anyway I did speak but at that time I never thought that that small group would be the huge global [group]. I never did have that [idea], but anyway that was the beginning.
And then I went to Nayarit in India (sic) and I met members of ICAN and I was astounded. I told them when they just asked me for a spontaneous speech. I said you know I have been working many, many years as a survivor sharing my experience, and my aspirations and my desires and dreams and so on, and at most of the meetings [there are] a lot of people with white hair, middle aged and so on.
But here, wow! A lot of young people and so passionate, energetic, creative and well-informed too, very studied minds, and so committed. I was so excited and I think I must have shared the feeling of joy. That was a surprise to me, a very pleasant surprise, and I have made several trips after that to Germany and England and other parts of Europe, but young people come. I go to the medical school, and that was I think in Berlin, yeah, some didn’t know anything about the issue, but some started studying it, and were so eager to learn. It was a tremendously empowering experience, to realize finally some people of the world are not avoiding it. They want to learn, to find out what kind of world they are living in. What would be their responsibility? That gave me hope, really.
So I enjoyed working with those people.
What were you thinking about when the treaty was approved?
At that moment, my mind was not functioning normally. It was almost numb. Did I hear it the right? Am I seeing it right? I had to convince myself. It took time, and then I took my glasses off, shut my eyes and the tears just started whirling, falling.
Finally realizing what it means and the first thing which came to my mind was to share this great news with all those loved ones who would have loved to hear it.
I did that in my prayer. So I was behind the people, my psyche was not functioning in the normal way, but I caught up. Unforgettable moment.
What happened when the Nobel Peace Prize was announced?
Right here this place was packed with Japanese journalists and photographers. And that telephone is over there. If anything should happen, that telephone would ring. So they wanted me to sit there, so they can take a picture of me receiving [a call].
I told them, “No. That won’t happen.” But oh, we have to be ready just in case. So that’s what happened. About 6 o’clock in the morning, I think, well realised that no one had rung.
No, that telephone didn’t ring, but other people [on their phones could see and said], “Hey. ICAN got it.” Oh! A big, big roar here, yeah. And somebody took a crazy picture of me I’m going, “Wow”. Japanese journalists took that, yeah.
You went to Oslo for the ceremony. How was the experience?
Anyway the International Steering Committee of ICAN held a conference, right, and [it was decided that] Beatrice, the executive director would go, but apparently everybody decided that I should be there, sharing the lecture.
Oh, I didn’t really have the chance to discuss with them why, and so on. I just can guess, but anyway not one person paused, everybody thought that it was appropriate that they should invite me to share that glorious moment together.
So yes I went. Now are you asking my experience in Oslo?
Well of course, I was tense but physically, I was not very well but I didn’t know it. Only after I came back the doctor told me, “Hey, we have to operate on you right away.” So I had two operations, two hospitalizations over here. No wonder I was not feeling peppy when I was over there, but anyway um I don’t know.
They treat you like a queen! The star treatment!
Yes, the Deputy Chair of the Nobel Committee came to the airport to meet me.
It was amazing. I sat with the queen and the king at the dinner, and yes, I wish I had been more wide awake and observed everything. I didn’t get maybe 75% of what was happening.
Now that we have the treaty, what are your hopes and dreams for the next steps? What will come out of this Ban Treaty process?
Well I would like to see this treaty come into force. Is that how you say it?
We have many more countries, we have to convince. So that is the immediate goal. I think all of us are working. I’ll be making a trip to Japan next month, and I’ll be doing a lot of speaking to people and some politicians as well, like the Prime Minister and the foreign minister, and so on.
I am ready to meet with anybody and I want to convince them, if they are willing to listen, and lots of press interviews and so forth are being organized. So that would be a good opportunity to speak my mind.
I really feel that Japan should be providing leadership, which it hasn’t done just because of their relationship with the United States, and I think it’s such a cowardly thing to do, and what they say and what they do are two different things.
Well politically they have to say domestically, “Oh, we are the only nuclear-weapon-bombed nation, therefore we have the moral responsibility to provide leadership towards disarmament.” That’s what they say for political reasons, but when they come to the White House or the Pentagon, all they do is bow, “yes sir, how high sir?”
Total subservience and people just don’t have the faith, trust in that kind of relationship, speaking different things from both ends of the mouth, I think.
If you have a bright idea tell me! I just have to speak as a human being who experienced it, but I think, after all we’re talking about human beings and that’s where our focus and attention have to be put. And they doing nothing in that way. No.
What would you say to young people who maybe think that eliminating nuclear weapons is too difficult?
I would ask, what do they mean? Why do they think it’s too difficult? Who said so? Where did you hear that kind of thing? Yes. That’s a huge assumption you’re making.
Well, men made it, we should be able to get rid of it. We have that kind of scientific power.
Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission
I think there is one particular thing I told you about, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which was only to study the effect of radiation on human bodies, but not to offer the treatment or medication or anything. I made it clear.
Yes that was barbaric.
Yeah, I know, totally and that was about a year after the experience.
Another thing I have to tell you, I think I told you that General MacArthur said we want to achieve two things: demilitarization and democratization. Great. Sounds great, and he did do some great things, such as to give women the vote. That’s great. To help the labour unions to be active, a financial system, educational system. Some reforms took place, that’s great! But as far as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were concerned, he did totally the opposite of democratization.
This is what he did. He did not wish the human suffering caused by those bombs to be understood by the world, for that he introduced censorship. The press were not free to write about human suffering. [They could write] about how triumphant the scientific trials [were] but, you know, they had by developing powerful bombs, that was okay. You can talk many times, but about human suffering, it was not to be written, and some newspaper wrote about it, and they were closed down. Their work was terminated, you don’t write about Hibakusha, the suffering people, because the United States did not wish the backlash from the rest of the world, and from their own taxpayers too.
And not only that, they started confiscating personal things among the survivors, some people kept diaries, or pictures, photographs, slides, all kinds of [things], you know.
The Japanese like poems, long ones and short ones, and so on. When they were suffering, you know, having lost everything. What’s there, the heart is filled, the thoughts had to come out. The only thing they could do was to keep a diary and make poems, that was their way of healing,
But those things were too dangerous. They were all confiscated, 32,000 items in all, and they were shipped back to the US.
So those are two concrete examples I give you. The whole development of the nuclear age, not only the weapons system, but psychological, sociological preparation came together with it.
So if only I don’t have to be travelling around and speaking actually I want to sit, just read and write. Actually that’s what I want to do from now because I have mobility problems. I enjoy writing. [There’s] so much more to be shared with the world.