Hibakusha Testimony as Oral History: Thoughts for Teachers
Editor's Note: Refer to A-Bomb Survivor Panel Discussion & Live Webcast to watch the actual hibakusha testimony.
A-bomb survivor, or hibakusha, testimony is often so compelling that it is hard not to be overwhelmed. While this reaction is a natural and indeed appropriate response to highly personalized stories of traumatic encounters with weapons of mass destruction, in the context of a unit on Hiroshima they provide an excellent educational opportunity for using oral history. It is precisely the highly charged emotional nature of the task that challenges our capacities to listen with both compassion and critical intelligence.
Many argue that it is impossible to convey the true horror of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, that the usual signposts to our reality are obliterated under the extreme destruction that atomic bombs unleash, making efforts to relate the hibakusha experience reliant on inadequate metaphors. Yet how else are we to approach comprehending this epochal event of the 20th century? Furthermore, one imagines the futility of human beings at the mercy of such horrific weapons; but survivors, individually and collectively, face down fatalism with their own determination to witness and so resist the power of these weapons to destroy. It behooves us to respect their tenacity and the authenticity of their stories. At this basic human level, theirs are stories of human beings overcoming adversity-- inspiration for us all.
Yet all historical testimonials are defined and to some extent limited by the speaker’s own experience and comprehension, and these cautions should be kept in mind when listening to testimonies such as those delivered at Japan Society on May 21, 2010. Suffering burns over a quarter of her body, Ms. Shigeko Sasamori can share her journey overcoming disfigurement as one of the “Hiroshima Maidens” brought to the U.S. for plastic surgery in the middle 1950s. Ms. Setsuko Thurlow escaped severe immediate harm, but was able to observe the hellish conditions in the immediate aftermath. Some one like Mr. Takahise Yamamoto, who was only 16 months old at the time of the explosion, cannot speak to the actual bombing where Ms. Sasamori and Ms. Thurlow, who were 13 at the time, can. But he can tell us what it was like to grow up in an hibakusha family and, as a career schoolteacher, share special insights into Japan’s peace education. All three hibakusha in this panel had to overcome radiation illnesses and live with the uncertainty, characteristic of radiation exposure, that despite apparent health they might fall ill at any moment even years afterwards. None of our panel’s speakers have special expertise about the high-level operation of the Japanese or American governments in World War Two, for example, so cannot speak authoritatively on the necessity of the bomb to ending the war; but their testimonies are invaluable to our efforts to comprehend the full measure of human suffering wrought by atomic bombs, which then sheds light on the tragedy of that war’s end.
Memory too shifts with life experience, and related to this is the speaker’s motivation for witnessing. Generally hibakusha witness out of a combination of personal compulsion to overcome their suffering by marshaling their experiences to a constructive agenda (usually world peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons), and often a sense of responsibility to speak for those who have already died. While personality differences come through in our panelists’ presentations, consider how life events afterwards compelled them to step forward and speak publicly of such intimately felt matters. Compare the probable impact of, for example, Ms. Thurlow’s receiving hate mail when she first spoke of Hiroshima as a college student in the U.S. in the 1950s, with Ms. Sasamori’s sympathetic reception when she traveled here as a Hiroshima Maiden in the same years.
What they speak about is further determined by the questions they are asked and the venue in which they are speaking. In this panel, for example, students asked panelists who they thought were to blame for the dropping of the bomb, how their feelings might have changed over the years, and what message they might have for future generations. Consequently, panelists addressed questions of responsibility, anger and frustration, how to channel these emotions in positive ways, and the importance of education and thinking critically for oneself. Have your students imagine what they might have asked, and consider what else hibakusha might have spoken of.
How do their accounts differ from others you may have read, perhaps in John Hersey’s small book, Hiroshima, a common summer reading assignment for older generations of Americans? More generally, how might their stories differ depending on their social and economic backgrounds, their sex, their levels of education and political engagement? In this context it might be helpful to view other hibakusha testimony from July 2009, in which Mr. Masahiro Sasaki, brother to Sadako of the paper cranes, and Mr. Tsugio Ito, who lost his son in the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11, share their remarkably humane and sagelike reflections.
As educators, we have a responsibility to contextualize this oral testimony without diminishing its authenticity. There are endless topics one can explore in the context of Hiroshima, ranging from perhaps the most frequently asked question about the bombing’s necessity and its role in the ending of the Pacific War, how it is represented in literature and film, manga and anime, how it has informed Japan’s post-WWII national identity as a peace-loving country, what it says about scientists working for secret government projects, to how over the years America has struggled to come to ambivalent terms with the reality our using a weapon of mass destruction in fighting what is considered a good war. For background on ways Hiroshima is approached in university courses you might reference syllabi compiled by nuclearfiles.org or American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute. Most will agree that witness testimony effectively conveys the insidious nature of the weapons. As oral history, I suggest it can also be used to foster student skills in grappling with emotionally and politically difficult issues with some recognition of the complexities of the world.
Perhaps this is self-evident, but it might help to ask why we want to hear these peoples’ stories, and why we want our students to hear them. They are of course windows onto an event of significance to world history, a chance to hear in person those who have first-hand knowledge of it. Can we also hope to give our students alternate perspectives about their own personal and community tragedies, such as 9/11? Although lessons can be learned, be wary of easy comparisons to other traumatic public events, for each such event should be recognized on its own merits.
Be conscious of your own reactions to this disturbing testimony, and try to be honest with yourself about why you’ve reacted the way you have. This applies to your students as well. The better one examines one’s own comprehension of these difficult questions the more confidently one can mentor students.
Finally, what do we take away from this encounter with fellow human beings who were so unlucky to have become victims of the first atomic bombings? All three panelists stressed the need to resist blindly following political leaders—a lesson from 20th century Japanese history that is perennially important to democratic societies—and also to think critically about what they hear. Does it warn us sufficiently of the horrors of these weapons, and if so, what does it motivate us to do? The answer to the last question is up to each and every one of us.
James J. Orr
is an Associate Professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg Pennsylvania. His teaching interests include Modern and Premodern Japanese History, Rememberance of Hiroshima in Japan and the United States, and constructions of National Identity in East Asia. He has recently published articles in Revue Suisse D'Histoire (RSH: Swiss Historical Review), University of Hawaii Press, Japan Forum, and more.