Published May 26, 2016
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Hiroshima taught me to look to the future
Like my grandfather and mother before me, I don’t dwell on nuclear terror and the pain of the past.
The Authors Grandfather, Yoshio Tsuchioka
My grandfather was 15 miles away from Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was unleashed on the city in August 1945. As the captain of the volunteer fire department of his village, he was among the first to rush into the devastated city. That morning, he witnessed hundreds of flash-burned victims, heard their cries for water and their mothers, and then felt a strange, acrid rain that left streaks of black on his skin. A week later, he noticed a dull pain behind his left eye and within a month, he lost it. For over 30 years, he reported exactly what his useless eye had seen on that life changing day and the lesson he learned from it.
Friday, President Obama will be the first sitting American president to visit Hiroshima. In advance of this trip, Ben Rhodes, the president’s communication adviser, stated that the president will “offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” This vision will no doubt resonate deeply with me and my family. For over 70 years, three generations of my family have adopted a “lesson of Hiroshima” that has enabled each of us to look towards the future and work to make it better.
The lesson of Hiroshima for my grandfather was to never forget what happened but to also refuse to become trapped in his feelings of loss, grief and anger. Instead, he looked toward the future and joined the “greatest generation” of Japanese who emerged from the ashes of World War II to rebuild Japan. For the remainder of his life, this lesson of Hiroshima provided him with the resiliency to work toward making his vision of a thriving, modern Japan a reality.
My mother was three years old when the bomb fell. Growing up near Hiroshima, the shadow of the bomb permeated her daily life. On the train, she tried not to stare at the keloid scarred survivors traveling to their unknown destinations. At school, she struggled to understand why no man wanted to marry the hibakusha girl, the atomic bomb survivor who served her lunch. At home, she listened to her mother cry when she thought all of her children were asleep.
Yet, rather than succumb to those around her who lived in perpetual sorrow or in a cold, lonely sphere filled with a desire for revenge, she looked to the future and toward forgiveness. Growing up in Hiroshima made it clear to my mother that forgiveness was the only emotion that could adequately process the incomprehensible suffering caused by the bomb. Forgiveness enabled my mother to focus on a better future that pushed her toward a career in science, an unusual choice for a woman of her era. Her future-oriented vision led her out of her village, out of Hiroshima, out of Tokyo and then eventually to the United States where she has had a successful career, a happy family and where she remains to this day.
Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, my family’s stories of Hiroshima combined fretfully with the Reagan era Cold War environment of mutually assured destruction, Olympic boycotts and Matthew Broderick holding off global thermonuclear Armageddon through tic-tac-toe in WarGames. Following my grandfather and mother, I also embraced the lessons of Hiroshima for my own time and place. Over the past 18 years, I have worked in education and conflict resolution in the Middle East region, where the lessons of Hiroshima of forgiveness and resilience remain as topical and relevant today as ever before.
These two hard-earned lessons from my mother and grandfather taught me to always look toward the future, but when I look toward the future in the Middle East, I am concerned. According to numerous experts, the Middle East is a central issue within today’s nuclear landscape. The region, and all the intractable politics swirling within it, have played a pivotal role in the gridlock plaguing recent efforts to secure an agreement for a region free of nuclear weapons. With ever escalating regional tensions and the consideration or development of new nuclear power programs in 14 countries, most experts agree that the risk of new nuclear weapons states is highest in this region. The creation of dirty bombs, the transport of illegal fissile material and other nuclear security issues are also of concern. Yet, basic knowledge about the bombing of Hiroshima, its impact on people and the environment, appears to receive only rare mention in Middle Eastern school curricula.
At this time, it is crucial for groups of educators and community leaders not only from the Middle East region, but from throughout the world to travel to Hiroshima and draw their own lessons from the atomic bombing. Some of these efforts are already underway in this country, which is something I’ve personally advocated for. As I hope President Obama will experience, there is no substitute for hearing the first-hand testimonies of hibakusha nuclear survivors, witnessing the charred skeleton of the genbaku dome and feeling the sincere wishes of peace from the people of Hiroshima.
I hope President Obama’s speech will inspire the next generation of young people across the globe to work together to build a future where nuclear weapons, and the grave risks they pose, no longer threaten mankind. It is only through greater understanding that we can truly fulfill the vision of a world without nuclear weapons that wasn’t possible for my family.
Ray Matsumiya is the executive director of the University of the Middle East Project in Cambridge, Mass.